Monday, May 18, 2009

Smithsonian Folklife Festival Mis-Steps

The Smithsonian is responsible for a lot of amazing things. This year, they're responsible for one thing that is, frankly, an abomination - the devaluation of intellectual property - at the annual 2009 Folklife Festival.

A call when out recently, which read, in part:

We are specifically looking for volunteers with experience in audio, video, and photo documentation. As a documentation volunteer you will be asked to assist with recording performances, interviews, and presentations in different program areas. In addition, photography volunteers will be asked to take photos of specific subjects
along with general happenings at the festival.

(Continued after the Jump)

So, the Smithsonian is looking for a few good men...err....chumps? Rubes? It's one thing to ask a fan of golf who would have paid to attend a golf tournament as one of those guys that holds up the "Quiet" signs, since there are no professional sign holders like that. The Smithsonian has an amazing team of photographers that work diligently in their museums, and who not only look forward to getting outside during the festival, but no doubt also enjoy the overtime or comp-time they get from doing all that extra work. Further, they are professionals, who know what they're doing, and how to do it.

They've solicited for photographers on Craigslist, and overall are looking for people for a total of ten days worth of work. Who's going to screen these people for the right gear? The right skill-set? Who's going to manage the intake of all the images, with proper and accurate captions? What all-rights-in-perpetuity-without-pay contract will they be asked to sign?

Photographers....err...Documentation Aides, will be asked to attend a pre-production meeting volunteer orientation on Saturday during the late morning. Then, they will be assigned things and places to photograph. Yes, this is work.

James Smithson, who founded the Smithsonian, for the purposes of an "increase and diffusion of knowledge", is probably rolling over in his sarcophagus right now in the castle in DC. He died in 1829, and ten years later Daguerre made the first ever photo of a person, making his "daguerreotype" showing a city street with a man getting a shoe shine in Paris, and heck, France agreed to pay Daguerre a pension for his formula, provided he declare his discovery as being a gift to the World from France, which he happily did, in 1839. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is clearly not honoring the French this year - they are honoring "The Power of Words in African American Culture"; "The Americas: A Musical World"; and "Wales Smithsonian Cymru highlights the creative culture of this dynamic country". Nothing like celebrating amazing creativity on one hand, while stamping on the value and intellectual property of the visual creative community with both feet, like so many fragile grapes, destined for a wine bottle. Yet, after the fact, the photographs, lack of solid captions, great-pictures-if-it-weren't-for-the-fact-that-it-was-shot-on-small-jpeg, and so many other professional-level services will be the swill that the organizers will be tasting. Sure, there will be a few gems - even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile, but how many things that should have been documented, will be lost to the mis-steps of amateur hobbyists who will try to fill the shoes of professional photographers?

It's one thing to ask people to send in their favorite photos, or even for the Smithsonian folks to browse Flickr looking for great folklife festivals, and then having the museum encapsulate them in some way, but to be looking for day-in and day-out volunteers to work (yes, Documentation Aide appears under "Work Descriptions" on the Volunteer Questionaire, so it will be work), is just plain wrong. It may be well-intentioned, but as my mom tells me - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival should utilize it's talented in-house team of photographers, and leave the one-chance-only documentation of this event to the professionals.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Mary said...

Glad to see this is on the radar! Music festival SXSW in Austin TX has also moved to using volunteer photographers in the place of professionals. After working for SXSW loyally for 10 years I was very disappointed.

virginia corporate photographer said...

Digital has without doubt been the great equalizer between the professionals and the GWC's. The only difference might be composition at it's most basic.
The camera delivers regardless of which chimp holds it.
We can only hope for a monumental screw up to turn this trend.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure if the people who though of replacing the professional photographers with anyone volunteering with a camera, had their job at risk for the same reason, they would think twice about doing things like this.

Anonymous said...

Don't they realize they have staff photographers at the Smithsonian who welcome keeping their jobs, but simply being able to do the work at the Smithsonian and not have some tourist doing it for them.

Anonymous said...

According to Laura Jenkins, Folklife Festival volunteer coordinator, at or 202-633-6484 the use of volunteer photographers is still in place at this time, until someone changes it.

Anonymous said...

From what I remember, they only have 1 or 2 people qualified to do stuff like this at a time. Normally they pass this on to the interns (who are unpaid) but I suppose they're being bold and getting everyone to play intern now.

SI never had a lot of money to begin with - all of it goes to the directors who sit around in their fancy offices while the minions get shafted.

Anonymous said...

You call this a story John. This is happening all over the world a dozen times a week.

Who needs a professional photographer? Who in the world wants to deal with the ego of a professional photographer.

I bet they get tons of photographers to sign up. GWC's, Hobbiests, doctors with cameras, soccor moms with cameras, hockey moms with cameras, paparatzi (spelling..who cares) general managers with cameras, marketing associates with cameras, front office staff with cameras, friends of each group with cameras. Fish with cameras, monkeys with cameras, zebra with cameras (as long as they don't shoot themselves), Myspace members with cameras, facebook friends with cameras, old fat guys with cameras, young skinny kids with cameras, friends of the curators with cameras, people who were supposed to be somewhere else but got lost with cameras, cameras with cameras, street lights with cameras, video stores nearby with cameras, cop cars with cameras, everyone with a cell phone with cameras, everyone with stolen cameras and cell phones with cameras, people with secret hat cameras with cameras, everyone who attends with cameras.

It use to be you use to have to use a professional photographer to get quality images. Now you only need to be there.

Staff photographers at the smithsonian better start learning which end of the mop makes your hair look like clowns hair.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous spewed...
You call this a story John.............

Let me're the world's only professional asshole.

Plenty of job security for you that's for sure.

Have a good life; please wipe hard and often.

Anonymous said...

It's the people at the Smithsonian you should be contacting. The prestige of shooting an event like this under "their name" will give 25 more hobbiests a platform to say the same thing all over the internet.

You get what you pay for imho.

Anonymous said...

You think pretty highly of yourself, John.
Where can I view these horrible photographs? Oh, they haven't even been taken yet! You have no idea how these pictures will turn out. You just wanted to be begged (and paid) to bring your camera skills to the party. If you're so important to the success of this event and are worried about the photographic integrity of it, why don't you give something back to the community that has allowed you to make a very good living and - wait for it - volunteer to help! Very sad commentary on you, personally....
What's wrong with the people's museum bringing in regular photographers to shoot at a folk festival?
Maybe you should read some of the books you are touting in the right-side column. Start with Dale Carnegie.
Anyone else smell an elitist snob?

Mark said...

Have you considered the possibility that there might be no professional sign-holders at golf tournaments because there are enough "chumps" who do it for free?

Sandy Schaeffer-Hopkins said...

my agency started working on this months ago contacting people in Wales trying to get work out of Folk Life Festival. We were making great progress until the call for volunteers came out. Now we are hearing we can get it for free, why should we hire someone. Folks this was a client willing to pay in the beginning. John Harrington is right to write about this, Anonymous, you must be employed by someone or you would feel very different if your livley hood depended on people coming to Washington who are considering hiring photographers for their events! I've been freelancing as long as John, and we have a right to be upset by this. This is not about being "Elitist", it is putting food on the table for our families, paying the bills, just like you.

Anonymous said...

More organizations will do this because there are tons of people who love the idea of working as a pro "pro bono".
A great way to impress your friends at work by casually letting it drop that you are unavailable this weekend because you are "shooting for the Smithsonian".

OTOH complaining doesn't get us anywhere as we cannot legislate that anyone use competent photographers.

In the future, this type of work, along with wedding photography, will be trivialized and typically priced at zero. Thus aspiring photographers will be pushed to learn the more difficult aspects of the craft or to languish at the wedding/journalist photographer level.

Andrew Pinkham said...

True volunteerism, meaning everyone is doing this free, is fair and good. You don't want something like this to happen though..

Smithsonian: rrring rrring.... Hello Smithsonian.

Sponsor: Hi Smithsonian, Sponsor X here. What a great event that was and the image with our signage in it looks great! Do you own the copyright?

Smithsonian: Why yes we do.

Sponsor: Great! how much would it cost us to buy the image out right?

Smithsonian: Let me get back you an we'll work out a deal.

Me: not wanting to jump to conclusions,I would want to see what the contract says before I would "volunteer" my images to anyone.

Anonymous said...

simple market forces at work... up to photographers to create a value proposition if they hope to make a living, perhaps once inferior images become the norm - due to the trend of utilising amateurs - it will become easier to market a quality portfolio

John Harrington said...

>>You think pretty highly of yourself, John.

Actually, my clients do think highly enough of the services I provide at a consistent quality that they continue to pay me for the work I do for them.

>>>Where can I view these horrible photographs? Oh, they haven't even been taken yet! You have no idea how these pictures will turn out.

You're right, and when you hire a professional, you are minimizing the risk of getting a bad image. Getting a hobbyist without a track record means your risk will be greater. It's one thing to license a stock image from a hobbyist, because you know what you're getting. It's another thing to trust in someone for a non-repeating event that they will get all the images.

>>> You just wanted to be begged (and paid) to bring your camera skills to the party.

No, fortunately for me, and others, no need to be begged. The phone rings frequently enough that we can pay our bills.

>>> If you're so important to the success of this event and are worried about the photographic integrity of it, why don't you give something back to the community that has allowed you to make a very good living and - wait for it - volunteer to help! Very sad commentary on you, personally....

It is, to say the least, laughable, to suggest I don't volunteer and give back. I just don't do it at the expense of someone else making a living. And to suggest that my criticism is a commentary on me personally, well, then you just don't know me.

>>>What's wrong with the people's museum bringing in regular photographers to shoot at a folk festival?

A GWC is not a "regular photographer", they are, maybe, a regular accountant, or a regular engineer, or whatever they do. There is nothing wrong with the Smithsonian bringing in regular photographers.

>>>Maybe you should read some of the books you are touting in the right-side column. Start with Dale Carnegie.
Anyone else smell an elitist snob?

Wow, seems someone has taken offense? I have read Carnegie several times over the years, starting when I was about 22.

-- John

Anonymous said...

Here we have a great vignette that is really representative of photography today imho both in the diversity in photographers and clients and their differing opinions save the vulgarity in one post that shows professionals are not always true professionals.

One the one hand you have the client looking for volunteers and happy to get anyone with anything to attend their event and shoot whatever they can for free.

I'm will to bet that the client misleads some of these free shooters as to the actual benefits of shooting the event. Remember, their are many, many people out there that are going to drink in anything this client says as fact.

They will because they want so badly to be published anywhere and espicially a "Smithsonian" event.

Wow, says the dedicated housewife who has been raising children for the last 15 years and dieing to get out there and prove she is worth more than just being a howsewife.

Her spirits high and her motives honest. She is the lamb being lead to slaughter. They will say everything she wants to hear and she will misconstru it to mean exactly what -she- wants to hear.

All just to get free images. Bravo smithsonian, your learning the new national pastime called screwing honest people for your own personal gain.

Tell me about security for the event. Are they free too. You bet they are not. Tell me about the parking and traffic control people are they working for free. You bet they are not. Tell me about the coordinators are they free. You bet they are because you gave them a story they wanted to hear too. Photography, well these people shouldn't be paid they should be happy to simply be allowed to come and shoot our event.

Why even have a photographer if they are such nonessential people. I'll tell you why. Because without good imagery from this years event your not going to be very convincing talking with potential sponsors for next year.

Damn right the photography is important. That's while you'll say anything and do anything to convince these honest hardworking people to come and shoot for you.

Well guess what. Next year they will be using different management at this event. You want to know why. Because you no doubt offered your service for free or pitance, you put your reputation on people who don't know the first thing of shooting events.

Have you ever worked with a group of volunteer photographers. I have. Lots won't show up. even more won't shoot your assignments as you request because the mind set is "I'm shooting for free, you'll take what my vision is and like it or pay someone".

Many won't even provide you with a copy of the images they take. There are just as many BS shooters as there are BS event organizers. Untrained eyes, not knowing what to look for. Taking pictures of interesting shoes because they thought abstract looks better for your event.

What are you going to do when something really unique and positive happens? Are they all going to be wearing radios so that you can get coverage as spontanious things happen or are you going to be whirling in circles blaming these volunteers saying where is everyone, why isn't there a photographer covering this. Don't blame the volunteers noone else will. They will blame you for your poor choice in photographic coverage.

But, be at ease, your making one of those career effecting decisions all management makes when they choose budget over quality.

Next year they will hire a professional to organize the event, next year they will hire a few professionals to cover the event and next year they will be talking about how you went volunteer with photography and botched the coverage completely. You better do the mop thing too.

What about the complaints your going to receive about the innapropriate behavior of some of these volunteers photographers. Not all photographers adhear to high standards professionals do and with volunteers, your sure to get at least one or two perverts with cameras (not listed above) How do you explain that to the public that trusted you to put on a safe event?

Try telling them you saved a ton of money letting them shoot their children while providing you with free images. Lets see the Smithsonian damage control folks handle that using volunteers.

You get what you pay for in this world and if it seems to good to be true it is. If your thinking of shooting free don't and if your thinking of using volunteers don't.

Call in professionals, let them make coverage proposals and listen carefully to their ideas. Then make your decision.

I love these situations because you will have a new group managing this next year and you can be part of the professional group next year.

Sometimes it's better to sit back and watch. Find the decision maker and talk with them. They will remember you next year.

Anonymous said...

I am confused by Mr. Harrington’s posting? While it is a shame the Smithsonian Folklife festival can not hire more paid photographers outside of the Smithsonian's regular work force, they have been organizing this annual festival for 44 years and have always relied on volunteer photographers to help out. As a prerequisite for volunteering as a documentation photographer, they ask all those who are interested to provide a portfolio or high quality examples of their work. The notion that they use just anybody with a pocket camera and no skill in photography is false and misleading. I encourage Mr. Harrington to check with the festival staff before he makes overarching claims about an organization he has obviously never even contacted.
I agree, it is too bad that the Smithsonian does not have enough extra tax dollars to hire professionals for all volunteer positions. However, they have been organizing the festival for 44 years, so I would think they have figured out what works best. And apparently volunteers have produced the results they are looking for at past festivals.

Judith said...

This is unfortunately not a one time occurrence but is indeed indicative of the new paradigm that is rising up around us in the photography industry. Whether it's the Smithsonian or the large news organizations or for that matter the new web based journalism model. Where is visual journalism going? It's a very disconcerting reality that we as photographers need to address. Visuals and composition do matter. Our readers are sophisticated visual people and we cannot let the industry slough us off.

Anonymous said...

John is very generous of his time and knowledge, To attack him for his lack of giving back is foolish. While not the most creative photographer he is extremely successful due to his business mind and practices.

He does tend to look down on shooters who don't use equipment he feels is up to his standards. This is a flaw I wish he would get over. It makes him appear to be a snob. He is not.

For the longest time, the elite of DC's photojournalism world ignored John. He was just another bottom-feeder. That was until they found themselves without a job and in need of business education. John gave of himself and never asked for anything in return but their respect.

He can be preachy, judgmental and single-minded. He's eager for celebrity and fame, but aren't we all. BUT, he's the first person you want to call in an emergency. The first person to speak up for photographer's rights, the first to extend a hand to help a peer.

Forgive his shortcomings and debate the topic, his position and opinion. But don't attack his ethics. They are solid and unimpeachable.

John Harrington said...

Anonymous above - thanks. (I think).


-- John

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to your elequence of speech, John needs noone to critique his talents or ideals nor does he need anyone to defend his manner of being or ethical standards.

We are all capable of making our own determination of his essence, generousity or shortcomings what ever they may be to each of us individully.

What is most outstanding and appauling about this community is the underlying pompous nature of the upper tier (elite as you like to call yourselves). The overblown self absorbtion and unrealistic view of self based on accomplishments in an industry so full of awards that your giving them out almost weekly. To quote a phrase "Your believing your own press"

You even have a pecking order for when someone dies as to who should be commenting and who shouldn't.

You have a blacklist and use terms like bottom feeder and a host of self-aggrandizing speech not meaning to complement but to marginalize anothers sence of self worth.

Look at the vulgar post above. No doubt he or she was setoff by the meer suggestion of a mop in the hands of a fellow elitist photographer or that someone should even consider not paying the godliest of homage to he or his friends.

Your quick to shoot down and demean someone in mass that follows the rules of behavior set forth by the self proclaimed elites and faulters, yet you cry like little babies when you are confronted by those who reject your disrespectful and disgusting hierarchy, that stifles freedom of speech and individuality of being, and calls you out for your own bad behavior.

Right now a person can go on Facebook and be talking with some of this countries most prominent citizens. In the photographic community their high profile representatives must hide behind the "anonymous" nome de plume for fear of retribution or rebukement from their peers.

Thank god for the evolution of media and how we readers "customers we are called in the business community." can get our news.

Anonymous said...

To the above poster who says John does not need anyone to defend or critique his ethics and actions.

You voided your entire post by opening with one position and then doing a 180 in the remainder.

You have nothing to contribute, but most certainly an axe to grind with the news media -- and from what I take away from your rant -- you know little of the photojournalistic world and have us confused with the television media.

Please go back to Facebook. I believe your status update needs another one of your deep and meaningful quips.

Sandy Schaeffer-Hopkins said...

Wow! How ugly is it when we attack someones integrity behind Anonymous postings. John does not need to be defended, his actions in our community speaks volumes. You must learn something or why go to his blog and read it every time he post something!

Rebecca Bretzinger said...

Isn't it simple supply and demand?

Doesn't the client get to decide the quality they want, both in the people they ask to represent them, and in the actual images?

Don't those people get to decide what their time, effort, and images are worth? Is is worth the experience, the interaction, the pat on the back, the possible accolades, or as someone said, being able to say "I shot for the Smithsonian."

Taking photos is way-fun. Perhaps if being a parking lot attendant was even a fraction as fun then they could get volunteers for that instead of paying for that assignment (assuming they even do pay for it).

Likewise, holding a sign at a golf tourney and getting a free front-row "seat" in return may be equitable.

I'm attempting to enter this business and get paid for my time and effort (maybe not for each and every job). Don't I need to play the game as it really is, and not try to force it to be something it is not, or complain about it? What would that get me? Perhaps, though, this is easy for me to say since I have a professional day job.

I do think doing these free volunteer assignments is new and exciting for the new DSLR owner. But it's still a lot of work. I suspect that the dust will settle over the next few years and there may not be as much supply. Or not. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

Volunteering sure didn't hurt this guy...

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous:

Your critique of my post is wrong. Your assesment of what I have to offer is wrong. I don't have you confused with television. Wrong again. I didn't express any deep thoughts only observations and opinions. No quips either. Wrong, wrong, wrong again. You can't dismiss me as I'm sure you probably do your students or "customers" as we call them in the business world. Wrong again.

Be well!

N-MD said...

The problem is that the pictures are likely to be just fine, especially for government work. The Smithsonian will probably do just fine spending minimal money on photography. The bar's just not all that high. I'm not sure what middle range photographers can do against this problem- the high end and the low end will be ok, but the middle class working pro will likely be destroyed.

Fred said...

Thanks John. I didn't know that the Smithsonian did this each year. I am always looking for ways to contribute to worthwhile organizations like the Smithsonian.

Xmas said...

very thank you john . .

Anonymous said...

John seems to think the Smithsonian owes him a living, or at least a two-week assignment. Does NASA owe him an assignment every time they launch a rocket? Do the Boy Scouts owe him an assignment every time they conduct a hike? Does General Motors owe him an assignment every time they close a dealership? If he wants to work for the Smithsonian, he can submit an application, but if he doesn't get hired, that's nobody's -fault- really.

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