Journalism, like life in general, is so revealing when viewed in the rear view mirror. The recent evolution of story telling turned out to be so rapid and encompassing that many photographers today have never experienced asking for a brick of Tri-X , waiting two hours for chromes to be processed or tried in vain to get the fixer stains out of your new shirt. In fact, many are reading this and likely saying, “What the hell is a brick?” or “Where would you get chromes processed, like a lab or something?” Seriously.
But that’s not a bad thing and this blog entry is not by any means a rant against journalism’s evolution. Evolution has been excellent for photojournalism in many ways and devastating to photojournalism in many ways. But if you look back on evolutionary processes in many arts, that is always the case. Martial arts? Clearly evolved from the days of standing in a stance and punching from the hip, but in many ways the respect factor in the martial arts was affected as chest thumping, snarling, tattooed fighters fill the airwaves . Music? Big changes as Hip Hop swept the nation only a few decades ago and took hold as a dominating force, but it created a “thug” perception similar to how rock n’ rollers were perceived in the 50’s. Photography? The rapid advancement in digital technology and quickly falling camera prices, combined with the explosion of social media where images were instantly “published,” opened the field to a whole new breed of quasi professionals, resulting partially in a typical market reaction whereby an increase in the supply of cheap labor lowered the price of the labor.
But amid the omnipresent technical chatter revolving around megabits, 1080p and wireless file transfers, there is an important point that often goes overlooked. The digital revolution’s greatest impact on photojournalism is not the actual technological evolution of the camera, but the resulting evolution of a industry that once relied on staff photographers migrating to freelance and contract positions. For those of us who have worked through the digital revolution, it’s clear looking back how much has changed. For those who never experienced the days of large staffs at newspapers and magazines, the life of freelancing is all they have known. Which begs the question, especially from the latter group, what’s the big deal? It’s just a natural evolution, right?
Wrong. With change comes the need for new training and education. Learning how to use a new camera is relatively easy. Many photo retailers, colleges and workshops cater to the “How To Use Your DSLR” crowd. And that’s great. But what about the training and education that is far more important and exceedingly more challenging than how to use the Live Mode function of your camera? Specifically, what training is available to the battalions of newly minted freelancers navigating a complex minefield of copyright issues, licensing models, rate structure, negotiation tactics, distribution platforms, client development and tax issues?
The answer is very little. Colleges and universities, with some exceptions, are strapped for cash and are either cutting courses or just ignoring the fact that photojournalism’s evolution has resulted in legions of photographers having slim access to the rare staff positions. In today’s marketplace, it’s like receiving half of an education. Prior to the digital revolution that dramatically altered the employment structure at publications worldwide, colleges and universities devoted teaching hours to technical skills, history, theory, ethics and some law, though law (at least in my case) usually dealt with landmark journalism cases, not in depth copyright or contract evaluation. And that was clearly sufficient because we graduated and took on a staff position to begin our career. Today that scenario is by far the exception to the rule. Most photographers will instantly become “independent contractors,” to put it in IRS lingo, and be thrust into a world that requires a plethora of skills beyond those currently being taught. And that’s just the emerging photographers, the ones who think a Dark Room is, well, just a dark room, and an easel has nothing to do with photography. But they’re not the only ones affected by this digital revolution.
Twenty five years ago I was working at a small, afternoon daily newspaper only about 10 miles from the journalism school where I graduated. After securing a internship and then a full time position, I worked tirelessly at my first job where I shot everything from breaking news to high school sports to Pet of the Week! Those entry level positions have become less and less available as small newspapers were shuttered or gobbled-up by larger papers in the past couple of decades. The mid size and larger metro dailies have not fared any better. Newspapers from the east coast to the west coast and in between slashed their staff jobs to the bare bones and then closed the doors completely, forcing many veteran staffers to transition into freelance careers. Easier said than done, though many had no idea exactly how hard a transition it would prove to be.
The first big challenge veteran staff photojournalists face when entering the freelance arena is the cost of just doing business. Where many had gear supplied to them by their former company, they now had to lay out a five figure (minimum) investment just to have the ability to accept a freelance job. No iPhone photo assignments were coming down the pike, it’s safe to say. That initial investment should be a immediate and profound wake-up call to all “transitioners.” The Cost of Doing Business, a phrase rarely uttered by staffers or emerging photographers, is more important than choosing between Nikon and Canon. To put it in the simplest terms, if you lay out $10,000 to get going, which is a small amount, and you hope to receive freelance work from national newspapers like the NY Times, Washington Post or USA Today, then you better get out your calculator and figure your break-even point. No calculator? Okay, I’ll do it for you quickly. 🙂
Let’s say the average national newspaper job pays $350, it’s going to take you more than 28 assignments before you’re out of the red on your gear. That’s right, 28 shoots until you break even on your gear, and don’t count on getting assignments every day as if you were on staff. Nope, there just aren’t enough assignments to go around (and don’t forget you have a ton of competition now, too). Sadly, that’s just for your gear and the newbie freelancers (veteran and emerging) quickly realize how much needs to be invested to be a freelancer. Do you have insurance? No, well you better get it to at least insure your new five figure investment, not to mention the $2 million liability umbrella that you would be foolish to not have. How about that 3-4 yr old Mac you’ve been using at home? Nope, time to go get a faster, bigger computer if you’re going to process all those files with any sort of efficiency. Process files? Damn, guess that means you have to purchase some processing software like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or Photo Mechanic in order to ready your files for transmission. Transmission? Damn, guess you have to purchase some FTP software like Transmit (free versions don’t cut it) so you can send to your client and also to your website. Website? Damn, guess you have to have a site built or subscribe to Photoshelter to display your work for clients to see. Trust me, this is only the tip of the Cost of Business iceberg.
Like many of my respected colleagues, I’ve managed to learn a few things over the two decades of navigating the freelance world. I photographed for national newspapers for several years before transitioning to working primarily for national and international magazines, corporations and non profits. Along the way, I’ve gained valuable insight into what I think are the most important matters facing freelance photojournalists in this evolving digital era and brought those into the classroom to share with students. But more needs to be done, and the time to do it was yesterday, because the publishing world is shifting dramatically toward cheap, underpaid labor and licenses partially because uneducated freelancers don’t understand how to do business. They don’t learn it in school and they don’t learn it when they are staffers, so it’s hardly even their fault. The growth in freelancers has not been met with significant growth in the education of freelancers, so after hearing from many friends, colleagues and students, and drawing on my own experiences, I’ve started a photography workshop geared specifically toward the business of photography. I address those topics mentioned above (in yellow) while providing real examples of when I had to use each and every skill and what the end result was. We discuss important topics to maintain a business, the least of which is dealing with contracts (which will come at you like ants at a summer picnic). This workshop can be geared to work as a break-out panel at larger, comprehensive journalism conferences or as a stand alone workshop for universities and other independent professional groups. I’m blessed also to have experienced colleagues available to join the workshop to provide an assortment of views and experiences.