Can photographers restore their devastated business?

By Danielle Jackson

,

In January, the photographer Zoe Strauss made a bracing plea on her Facebook page. The artist, whose work had been recognized by the Whitney Biennial and Magnum Photos, and was the subject of a traveling survey exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was out of money, needing $750 for a root canal, owing $1,500 to various friends and several thousand more for storage of her exhibition prints, without which she could not maintain the condition of her work.

“I’ve got no prospects on how to continue a lifetime of paying for that storage,” she wrote. Although she had taught as a Distinguished professor at Cal Arts, she did not possess a college degree that could land her a stable teaching position. Privately, Strauss shared that she had been waiting several months for a paltry payment of $850 from a prestigious magazine. The photography market, long in decline, offered little in the way of steady income or respect for timely payments. In the meantime, strapped to meet basic healthcare and living expenses, her immediate goal was to get any job she could find. Her earning potential was limited: like 68% of American adults, her formal education had ended in high school. UPS wasn’t hiring, but an interview at a supermarket was in the works.

Strauss’ plea was shocking in its transparency; rarely does the patina of worldly success wear thin enough to lay bare the extreme severity of even a “successful” photographer’s economic condition. Her situation is not uncommon for many photographers. According to National Endowment for the Arts data, 46.6% of photographers are self-employed, including documentary, editorial, and commercial photographers, photojournalists, and independent artists. Their median earnings are $26,875. This figure is roughly double the poverty line for a single person, and half the national median income.

And although the field is nearly equally divided by gender, women earn 74% of what men do, which is the lowest ratio in the arts according to national government data. Photographers were nearly 50% less likely to have full-year or full-time work compared to other laborers in the work force, which partly accounts for such low income. These statistics square with some international research; in 2015, a World Press Photo survey revealed that most photojournalists were self-employed and earned less than $30,000 per a year. A collective of artists known as BFAMFAPHD has analyzed census data to further illuminate poverty rates and rent burdens facing artists, which are significant.

Despite these grim statistics, and the increased number of online spaces and professional development seminars dedicated to photography, frank and open conversations concerning sustainability, livelihood and compensation have remained mostly absent from the field.

As more of the general population works in the “gig economy” and various legal movements to secure basic protections for these workers emerge, photographers should consider joining coalitions of other artists and independent workers to organize and advocate for their rights as freelancers. Lack of healthcare, erosion of fees, no guaranteed hours, late pay – these are the types of struggles between management and workers that the modern contingent workforce share.

What could it look like to take a cue from adjunct professors and fast food workers who are organizing at the level of industry, rather than institution?

Over the last decade, photography, which straddles the worlds of art and media, has been challenged by the decline of ad-supported media and the advent of mobile technology, and like the larger economy, the industry is rife with job precarity and stagnant wages. As a means to cut costs, and amid the notion that “anyone can be a photographer,” magazines publish user-generated photographs, newspapers have replaced entire photo departments with writers with cell phones, and freelance photographers are sought to enter war zones
without kidnapping insurance
.

Even insurance costs for non-conflict jobs can be out of the question – Sim Chi Yin required surgery after an injury while on assignment in Northern China and learned only afterward that her contract with Le Monde, an international newspaper, did not include healthcare, disability or accident insurance.

A few especially entrepreneurial photographers have hatched schemes to stay afloat in this context: selling prints to collectors, pitching partnerships to NGO’s, developing a rigorous private workshop schedule, shooting video, and adopting social media marketing, but the result is a grinding, unyielding cycle of work.

Culturally and economically, the value of the photograph has decreased significantly, leading to a “new normal” for professional photographers in the form of lower day rates, fewer assignment days and abysmal resale fees. In the name of “brand-building,” photographers are asked by media organizations to create or license images for free for online articles and Instagram takeovers. Competition for paid assignments can be fierce, and it is not uncommon for photographers to carry expenses from corporate assignments for months at a time on personal credit cards while they await reimbursement. Many young photographers who are coming of age in this era of economic challenge and wide-spread distribution of images have particular trouble delineating when and where to work for free, pushing terms of engagement still lower. These terms are impossible to live on, but no one wants to burn bridges in a gig economy. Established photographers have expressed fears that a photography career is becoming viable only for those who have personal fortunes or other sources of income.

There are a number of promising efforts to help artists in general organize and seek better labor relationships, but photographers have largely not yet joined these campaigns or replicated their methods. The group Working Artists for the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) seeks to ensure artists are paid fair fees and wages by galleries, museum, and cultural spaces. They have circulated a sliding scale of exhibition, speaking, and publishing fees artists should charge based on an organization’s revenue. They have also developed a certification process for cultural institutions that commit to providing fair wages. Wordrates is a platform where journalists can review publications on issues like contracts and fair pay. Arts & Labor is a working group that has negotiated for fair labor practices within the art world, including the unionization of workers at Frieze New York. And adjunct professors across the country, who sometimes require food stamps to survive, have been organizing at universities across the country.

What if the field could foster industry-level conversations on creating sustainability? Should photo agencies offer healthcare? Can a certification process in the vein of W.A.G.E. be of use for media outlets? Could platforms like Blink, or Visura, or other industry groups that connect freelance photographers to photo editors, advocate a code of protections? Could foundations who support nonprofit media organizations insist their grantees pay advances? How can busy photographers who don’t have agents or studios advocate for their interests? Can photography education programs create comprehensive training on contracts, billing practices and negotiation? And can photographers join larger political fights for universal healthcare, inexpensive education, and affordable housing, all of which will support the lives of artists, and others, in numbers much higher than any industry effort alone?

The highly competitive and atomized nature of photography work makes organizing a challenge, but hopefully photographers can be empowered by movements to expose exploitive relationships within other creative professions.

First, photographers could begin to speak honestly with one another about their financial instability. Next, photographers could see themselves as part of, and actively contributing to, a larger struggle for fair labor practices and basic needs. And with their long history of working as freelancers, photographers could be knowledgeable additions to the broader movement of newly independent workers. Moving forward, sharing strategies across sector will be a critical step towards sustainability for workers in a growing gig economy.

Danielle Jackson co-founded the Bronx Documentary Center. She tweets @makerthinker.

Photo by Kaleb Nimz via Unspalsh / Creative Commons Zero

Published May 6, 2016

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  • michaelkamber

    Excellent piece that does a great job at analyzing the situation we photographers find ourselves in today. 25 years ago, the big news magazines paid $500 day rates. Today, they have laid off all their staff photographers and are using pictures from Instagram for free. Times are dire for photographers but announcing the death of photojournalism once again is not enough. We do need to organize and this article is a good starting point. Mike Kamber

  • Linda Essig

    It’s interesting (perhaps ironic?) that this article, about the economic difficulties faced by professional photographers, is illustrated by an image placed in public domain by an amateur photographer. Does its use actually support the idea that “anyone can be a photographer?”

    • Alexis

      Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. We posted a thought about this above.

  • Marc Medios

    This is sad, infuriating but, at the same time, one can’t really not consider that many photographers are just not that good, yet, insist on being photographers with a minimum of training.

    • chanakya_peace

      “many photographers are just not that good”
      Dont know what you are talking about man. You mean average Joe cellphone warrior shooting a zillion suckass baby and cute-rabbit images and uploading on Instagram? I think the reference is to professional photogs. Where is this statement coming from?

      • Marc Medios

        Many so called professional photographers are not that good. They try to subsist by charging $75 for headshots and bring down the whole market. The cell-phoners etc., are not “photographers”. But, seriously, a ton of people who do call themselves photographers are really mediocre.

        • KiAAA

          Sorry to disagree, but the “cell phoners” are photographers. They are taking photographs that they are happy with and meet their needs, and they can instantly share their photos with friends and family. You have to understand that that is how the vast majority of photos are valued: they are adequate for purpose. There is no point complaining that the photos are mediocre. They are good enough for their audience.

          • Marc Medios

            Sorry to disagree too, but, if we are talking “professional” as in “making money out of it”, cell phoners are not professional photographers. I was under the impression that we were discussing business.

  • Lalit Dalal

    Dear Danielle,
    You wrote really well, about the condition of photographers around the world these days but you should have used a “paid image” instead of a CC licensed photo to actually support your words.
    In fact all the articles at http://creativz.us/ has Creative Commons Images ONLY, why is that? This is bizarre.

  • Stephen Mayes

    The challenge needs to be restated. Value and values are changing dynamically, a situation to be welcomed rather than feared, and it behoves us to redefine our personal value accordingly. I don’t want to be stuck in yesterday’s model that was elitist and corrupt in so many ways (in terms of communication opportunities and payment structures) and the opportunities are greater now than they ever were. Zoe Strauss’ value is as high now as it was before and probably higher as her experience and exposure evolves, but it needs to be redefined in terms that are relevant to today’s structures. We have an extraordinary opportunity to apply the same imagination to our commercial opportunities as our artistic practices. Change is never easy but there’s a brighter future for most of us than was ever previously imaginable as we move from a world of restricted opportunity an hierarchical preference to one of multiple revenue structures that are more diverse, less competitive and more democratic.

    • Steve Cohen

      This very article negates your statement that Ms Strauss’s value is higher now more than ever. I’m not sure what bright future you refer to when the opportunities you refer to are non-existent. Perhaps you’d like to share what you’re smoking?

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  • Alexis

    Hi all, and thanks for your comments. There have been a couple of comments related to the use of Creative Commons photography for this article, and on the blog in general. To clarify, photos are selected by the site publishers / editors, and the author had nothing to do with that choice.

    We did want to address this issue from the perspective of the research team, however (and please note, this does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the author). As the author points out, the economic situation faced by professional photographers and other artists is complicated and influenced by many factors (technological, sociological, legal, etc). These issues deserve broad systemic consideration and structural interventions, which is part of what the “Expanding Investments in Creatives” research project is about. However, while a sustainable livelihood for professional artists is critical, this does not mean that so-called “amateur” photography, or Creative Commons licensing, is not legitimate. The democratization of the means of creation and new tools that enable broader access to creative work in ways that appropriately credit creators are important elements of our creative future, even as we think about new ways to sustain artistic careers. A vibrant creative society will mean a wide range of ways that people can access, create, remix, and get paid for creative work.

    We appreciate the comments, and multiple perspectives, and look forward to continued conversation about how to create a more sustainable future for artists.

    • Brett Flashnick

      This entire article is hypocritical at best. The democratization argument is used all the time as a subtext for “we really don’t value photography enough to have written a line item into our grant so we could pay for it.” Everyone, the author included should be ashamed to be associated with this practice.

  • Bruce Wayne

    The obvious issue is one most people learn in their introductory economics class, one illustrated by supply and demand. Most of the long time video pros that I personally know say it’s not like it used to be. It never will be. For photojournalists, consider that most of your market had gone the way of the dodo bird. Still cameras can made higher quailty video files than the most expensive video cameras 15 years ago, and cost a tiny fraction of them. You can’t earn a living by just buying gear anymore. There is nothing you can do about it, unless you happen to have some photo that is in high demand and you know how to exploit that without being exploited yourself.

  • Bruce Wayne

    The obvious issue is one most people learn in their introductory
    economics class, one illustrated by supply and demand. Most of the long
    time video pros that I personally know say it’s not like it used to be.
    It never will be. For photojournalists, consider that most of your
    market had gone the way of the dodo bird. Still cameras can make higher
    quailty video files than the most expensive video cameras 15 years ago,
    and cost a tiny fraction of them. You can’t earn a living by just buying
    gear anymore. There is nothing you can do about it, unless you happen
    to have some photo that is in high demand and you know how to exploit
    that without being exploited yourself.

    15 years ago portrait photographers were renaming their business “Joe Blow Photo Design” as if that would somehow make them more marketable. All the camera stores in the town I lived in then are gone. Many camera manufacturers are gone. Many of the photographers are gone. Hand held computers that are also cell phones and cameras rule.

    Want to earn a living? Learn how to write programs for them. Intern coders make a very good living, better than more photographers ever did.

    Or you could always paint zebra stripes on a donkey and sell photos of tourists sitting on it.

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  • rosenblum

    Photography as a business is finished.
    Sorry, but this is the rather unpleasant truth.
    It was a victim of technology.
    Today, everyone in the world has a camera in their phone and they take pictures and share them all day long. More photos are uploaded to Instagram every two minutes than were taken in the entire 19th Century. Now there is a sobering statistic.
    Who is going to pay for a photograph?

    That having been said, the technology that destroyed photography as a profession has also created an entirely new profession for photographers who can make the transition.

    Where there were once three television networks with a total demand of 64,000 hours of content a year, there are now hundreds of cable channels (with a demand of 4.5 million hours of content a year), plus an Internet that consumes video endlessly.

    No one is buying photographs any longer, but there is an exploding market for video content (not videographers!), but rather finished and delivered professional content.

    The same skills that made for a great photographer can be translated to video and the creation of video content – FINISHED video content.

    I have trained hundreds (perhaps thousands) of photographers to do this. A great eye is still a great eye and you can’t teach that to someone, but you can apply it to a new medium that pays.

    • Photographers can still make full time money – the MONEY is out there. The issue is that too many “photographers” are willing to let the market dwindle. That doesn’t mean the money itself has dried up. So I have to disagree with this statement.

    • @Rosenblum, No photography as a business is not dead if photographers accept the new rules of the game: work by platforms that contribute to on-demand briefs and answers and the administrative tools related. Ooshot (www.ooshot.com) is implementing such a business model on an international scale, 44 countries. Regards , Thierry

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  • KiAAA

    Professions and jobs change over time. The dynamic for photography changed with digital cameras, with cameras in cell phones, and with the economics of the internet where content is largely free to the user and the producer has to operate on very thin margins. it’s just unrealistic to hope that there will be a great revival of professional photography, meaning a lot of people earning a living from taking photographs. Dialogue and bargaining (as in this article) are part of a stage of grief, but the end result is acceptance of the new reality and moving on in life.

  • Maillet

    Dear all, No Commissioned photography is not over. However that does not mean that the photographers do not have to adapt to their new environment.

    At Ooshot, (www.ooshot.com)*, we believe that commission photography is still a promising business if photographers accept to adapt to the new environment.
    Since our launch a year ago we had gained clients from the US, UK, France and the Middle-East. We cover 27 fields of business and we are most active in events, fashion, retail and real estate.

    We are working hard to convince our clients that a fair price is required to deliver good and quality images. But as we move forward clients do understand the point and we are more and more confident with the full service we are delivering, including,
    1. secured payment confirmed before the shoot,
    2. insurance during the shoots (Sorry guys, not yet for the US and Canada, ask why 🙂 and
    3. tracking of the images on the web to protect both the photographer and the client against potentiel counterfeit.

    All photographers can register free and present several portfolios and newcomers are welcome. However only the ones selected will appear on the platform and could be booked.

    Moreover our clients ask Ooshot to provide photographers to build strong franchises on Instagram and Pinterest. Furthermore some photographers do even consider Ooshot as their sole and unique worldwide location for bookings. Hence, commissioned photography is not dead in any term and for instance while Instagram users have grown from 100 millions to 400 in one year, brands are eager to pay photographers high price for great images post on the social network. If “radio has killed the video stars” Instagram is far from “killing the photographers ready to adopt the new terms and conditions”.

    Photography is not dead but the way the industry organizes herself has to changed. For instance image banks with their large overheads and heavy flat stock will suffer from a more collaborative age that is coming fast. Ooshot is part of this new world and we are dedicated to the growth of the photography industry, not it’s burial.

    *: the most international booking platform with photographers from 44 countries

    • Richard Terryson

      Another parasite emerges to try and make a buck off the efforts of others by adding no value and offering the illusion of opportunity where none exists. See ImageBrief, 500px, All Microstock, Flashstock, etc etc etc

      • Richard I understand your question mark. However the growing number of posted images on-line (Instagram grew from 100 to 400 mio in one year) and brands are looking for more professional photographers to shoot their images. Not less. The issue is how to match two growing flows of demands from businesses and supply from photographers. And Ooshot is the only site to bring opportunities to local photographers as we are available in 44 countries as non other from your suggested list. Ooshot has nothing to do with image banks and everything with contributing to photographers business. Regards, T

        • Richard Terryson

          Thierry, how exactly does Instagram equate to “professional photography”? What facts can you offer to substantiate the claim that “brands are looking for more professional photographers to shoot their images”?

          I can tell you for certain that brands have no trouble finding photographers on their own. They are, in fact, inundated daily with promos from many many photographers of all levels of qualification and well aware of the choices available to them. If anything, they are overwhelmed with choice, not starving for it.

          In fact, brands are not looking for more professional photographers at all, they’re looking for as much free content as they can find or, at the least, content as cheap as they can get it, all thanks to crowdsourcing portals such as yours and the list I provided.

          How much do photographers pay to be on your portal? How many real jobs have photographers booked via your portal? Can we contact them to verify? How do you differ from Wonderful Machine, ImageBrief et al? Are you accepting briefs from brands and getting people to bid on them or shoot spec images in the hopes of winning the sale?

          Lets have the answers to these questions and see where things stand. Frankly, it’s beyond me why we need yet another “portal” for photographers to list their name on in the hopes of finding clients that pay rates that photographers need and or request based on their skill level and abilities as opposed to competitive pressures from “instagram stars” with an iPhone 6 and a bag full of filters. It’s gotten to the point that clients don’t care at all about the quality of the imagery, just the quantity and how cheaply they can get it. Advertising is now ruled by “good enough”.
          I do get that there are lots of people out there who would love to earn extra money or all their money from photography but, the number of companies now taking advantage of this supply and demand imbalance has grown far out of proportion with the actual demand for the service and availability of sustainable work and I feel like it’s time every company proposing a “new solution for a small monthly fee” get scrutinized closely to weed out the snake oil.

          Looking forward to your detailed response

          • Dear Richard,

            You ask several interesting questions and I will do my best to answer all.

            I. Instagram
            Brands are understanding the new motto of big CEOs :”Mobile is picture” and Instagram comes first when one brings together the two sides of the equation. A full of dedicated small boutiques have been launched to bring money into the Instagram ecosystem two-ways:

            1. Some agencies have recruited former amateur photographers who became very popular on the Instagram and want to monetize their new audience.

            2. Traditional photographers are been taught on the intelligence and the dynamic of Instagram and engage in a learning curve to popularize their talents and therefore respond to the new requirements of their traditional clients.

            In both cases qualified and quality images mean money nad big money, trust me.

            3. Photographers on the Instagram can even sell their image new channels such as https://www.candidlyimages.com/.

            So I hope you start to be convinced that yes Instagram is a new growing channel for photographers to increase their revenue.

            II. The role of web platforms
            A short historian background (disclaimer: I hold a ph.D in business history) shows that until the 80s photography was a one-to-one business where personal ties were essential. The emerging globalization has put pressure on photographers who were not able to deliver at a quicker pace the increasing requirements from businesses. Therefore the launch of several image banks was more a response to fill a vacuum than anything else: companies were eager to develop and could not find into the traditional market an efficient response to their new needs: quick images to illustrate their products in an international expansion mood. US Companies knew American photographers and able to deal with in English-speaking countries but not anymore in the emerging markets such as Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe to mention the most important. However the success for Image banks was not planned to last for one reason: the re-usage of image banks is counter-intuitive: if you want to build-up your own brand image you can not do so with images already made for others. It is self-evidence. Actually image banks are even less the qualified answer to brands as Google favors unicity vs. re-used images as well as text. So companies start to understand that the successful setup of their image requires exclusive images and not anymore Image banks. This brings us to our third point: how can photographers still make decent money?

            III. The low-rate of employment for photographers
            The French Ministry of culture has published a study that shows that photographers only sell 30% of their time in average*. This figure is twice lower than the average liberals (lawyers, doctors, architects, others). At Ooshot we believe that the actual hard times for photographers have nothing to do with the market but everything with their inability to distribute adequately their work as the liberals I have mentioned. Two reasons can explain this inadequate timing.

            1. Open pricing is a key issue that photographers have refused to confront yet. Any query to a photographer ends by “I will make you a proposal”. Not anymore Sir, as you know the hour rate of any liberals photographers shall advertise their hour rate and the earlier the better. We at Ooshot work hardly on this issue and we are convinced that any market can grow without public prices. It has been the case in any market from pop and mom to large retailers to any service industry.

            2. Adequate distribution is the second requirement for the photography industry. At Ooshot we work hard to facilitate the sell of photographers to companies. Both parties are more than happy that we handle the dirty work of :

            a. proposal-invoice-payment (we are the only one to offer online payment with this full service),

            b. insurance for the shoot (except in the US and Canada),

            c. tracking of the images on-line

            d. management of the usage rights

            e. management of the calendar of the photographer.

            3. As you can see Richard the question is not anymore to regret the “great old days” but to figure out how can we contribute to the diffusion of great images by great photographers for a decent revenue on a yearly basis. Because finally the important is not to fight for higher fees on a shoot-per-shoot basis but to secure a higher rate of employment for the average photographer. It is starting to be the case for photographers listed on Ooshot and we are happy to contribute to the increase of photographers revenus as well as to respond adequately at clients requirements.

            Thanks again for having pinpoint these interesting questions and I hope that my answers could become an engaging starting point for further discussions, Best

            * : the study is to heavy to upload but I can follow it to you via wetransfer. Best

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  • tom rose

    Our modern technology and the extent to which we have automated things should guarantee a decent standard living to all, in return for a modest amount of the remaining necessary work.

    The real problem is that technology is removing the need for a lot of jobs, but instead of the benefits being shared equally they are appropriated by the few, leaving a significant minority impoverished and stressed.

    So much for Capitalism being the least worst way to run an economy. I am not suggesting some thoroughgoing form of Socialism or any other “ism” as an alternative. Let us just have some common-sense and a proper sense of priorities.

    Apart from moral considerations the rich and powerful elites would not want a large and unhappy underclass that is very unhappy with the way society is organised.

    From the chatter on the Internet anyone would think that only professional photographers were affected by technology. But there are many other capable people in a wide range of professions that are affected and are unable to get gainful employment for skills that, not os long ago, guaranteed them a comfortable living.

    So some (many?) photographers are no longer enjoying the cushy number that they enjoyed before the digital revolution. They would do better to lose their misplaced sense of entitlement, stop whinging, and either figure out how to make a living in the changed world, or learn to do something else.

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons