Demonstrating against police shooting and failure to indict police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

“When you have a conflict, that means that there are truths that have to be addressed on each side of the conflict. And when you have a conflict, then it’s an educational process to try to resolve the conflict. And to resolve that, you have to get people on both sides of the conflict involved so that they can dialogue.”–Dolores Huerta, labor organizer and civil rights activist who helped lead the United Farm Workers.


The insightful words of the amazing Dolores Huerta above underscore the importance of understanding that leverage is the key to creating meaningful dialogue. It comes in many shapes and sizes and can be disguised as talent, timing, experience, location, uniqueness, economics and group size to name just a few. Think of leverage as your personal 6’10”, 285lb bodyguard standing steely-eyed behind you when someone is intent on grabbing your wallet. Will they force themselves on you or pause to consider what might happen if they do?

So why is it seemingly so hard for photographers in general to leverage their collective talent and experience to fight for better contracts? Photographers trying to negotiate with publishers is no different than any other negotiation between company and worker. Consider……….

Where Solidarity Worked

The California Faculty Association (CFA) represents all levels of professors, including adjuncts like myself, in contract negotiations with the California State University (CSU), the nation’s largest public university system. All told, the CFA represents about 26,000 faculty spread across 23 campuses in the Golden State. The faculty have been underpaid and subject to pay freezes for many years due largely in part to the Great Recession. The CFA was in complete solidarity and ready to cripple the CSU with a strike if a more fair contract was not negotiated. After more than a year of back-and-forth between the union and the state, the CFA won a 10.5% wage increase when the CSU’s last offer was 2%. Solidarity was the leverage. Solidarity worked to force negotiations. (

Occupy LA takes part in N17, the National Day of Protest on November 17, 2011 which marked the 2 month anniversary of the Occupy movement.

Where Solidarity is Working

My wife works for AT&T. It’s a solid, blue collar job and she is part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The CWA contract expired last week and the union is negotiating with AT&T for a fair and just new contract. CWA has informed its’ members to be prepared yet again to strike the company. We’ve been down this road many times and each time it’s 100% necessary to show the company that there is solidarity in the ranks. If they want to push an unjust contract at the CWA, then AT&T will have to find less qualified, sub standard replacement workers to do the job. Solidarity is the leverage. Solidarity is working to force negotiations. 

Where Solidarity Failed

I’ve worked as a freelance photojournalist nearly my entire career and discovered very early on that it was a dog-eat-dog profession. Sure, there once were industry standards in the editorial world, but those standards have not weathered the onslaught from media companies and publishers who have pulled benefits (eg: secondary licensing, copyright, multiple use) from freelancers with little sustained resistance. For those photographers, including myself on several occasions, who did attempt to leverage our experience, talent and loyalty to negotiate changes to new contracts, we were met with “well, plenty of others are signing it, so there’s no negotiating.” I’ve lost several clients over the years as a result. When Time Inc issued a new contract in 2016, it was little surprise that many photographers objected to the drastic changes allowing broad reuse rights (among other things) at no additional compensation to the photographer. After all, a very valuable revenue stream for freelance photographers was under assault. A group of nearly 50 photographers, mostly Sports Illustrated contributors, pledged to not take any assignments in 2016 in an attempt to force the company (Time Inc owns Sports Illustrated) to the negotiating table. A conversation needed to be had and our only leverage was our collective talent, experience and loyalty to the magazine to produce the photos that Sports Illustrated is renowned for. But our leverage was short lived.

Occupy LA protest in Los Angeles.The first blow came in the form of “legacy” assignments. Such assignments were designed by the magazine to assure the biggest and most noteworthy sports events of 2016 (think Super Bowl, Masters, Olympics, etc) would be covered by the supremely talented and experienced photographers with whom the magazine has always worked. These legacy assignments would be governed by the old contract, not the 2016 version. But when photographers agreed to do these jobs, they gave up a big chunk of leverage in negotiating the new contract. What leverage? The leverage of time. In essence, these “legacy” assignments assured Sports Illustrated that they would have all of the most important events of 2016 covered by the best photographers while assuring the company had plenty of time to find new photographers willing to sign the contract. Big mistake on the photographers’ part. If one thinks of this situation in terms of a typical labor negotiation whereby workers decide to strike, a strike is typically called for the time which would most impact the company. Timing is a integral element in a strike. In this case, the biggest impact from resisting the terms of the 2016 contract would be to say “no” to all the legacy assignments like the Super Bowl, NCAA Championship and the Olympics. Again, consider the case of the CWA above; the faculty were set to strike right before final exams, the most inconvenient time for the university system. This would have impacted over 450,000 university students in the state. Low and behold, CSU buckled and the deal got done and the strike averted.

With the legacy assignments providing a cushion for Sports Illustrated to find young, hungry photographers to accept the new contract site unseen, the group of 50 or so photographers immediately lost a key leverage to negotiate. Then, slowly, photographers started to accept the contract on the grounds that a better offer would not be forthcoming and they needed the work. As the numbers resisting in hopes of negotiating dwindled, the company gained more and more leverage. Solidarity failed and negotiations ceased.


I have a tremendous amount of respect for my colleagues, many of whom I call my friends. I’m not surprised by anyone accepting a contract that is more detrimental to their business than is reasonable to accept because I’ve seen this scenario play out for twenty five years of freelancing. I’ve also been on the picket line with my wife and vowed to support the CFA. But as I speak to classrooms and conference rooms full of photographers at my workshop about these issues I hear the same comments repeatedly; an increasing inability to earn a livable income from photojournalism. The sad truth is, photographers have themselves mostly to blame as we’ve let our profession evolve into a “exposure compensation” model. Somehow photographers began to get excited to accept exposure as a method of payment, a model that is unsustainable for those who wish to derive a career and a living from a great profession.

(All Photos © Todd Bigelow. For licensing, please visit my website by clicking on Portfolio link above and selecting Image Archive)

Todd Bigelow Photography

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