Dumb Photos for Dumb People
Suppose you’re the director of photography (DoP) at a big magazine or newspaper and suppose your budget has been slashed (but I repeat myself).
How do you keep publishing great images?
You can no longer afford to hire great photographers. If you could afford them, you’d still have to get them to sign a work-for-hire agreement, which the great ones won’t do. Well, a few of them will, but you need to properly compensate them, put them on staff, and float them a low interest loan on their upstate, weekend home. So that’s not happening, because remember, you’ve got no money. To make matters worse, the day-rate you offer freelance photographers hasn’t risen in 25 years. You can only keep them in the field for a minuscule amount of time, and you’ve still got to somehow grab their copyright.
What do you do?
Faced with this dilemma a few DoP’s and photo editors have hung up their loupes and walked away from the editorial market. An honorable decision to be sure, but what if you’re not ready to quit or you have a upstate, weekend home of your own to pay for?
You can struggle to find great photographers who are willing to work under these conditions and fail, or you can be clever and simply redefine the word “great”.
What other choice is there? Your job is to supply your publication with stellar work. In an industry that’s already decided that good enough is good enough, how do you justify your existence, your job? Except for your staff photographers, everybody’s pulling from the same tired sources, the same wires, picture agencies, and the same starving freelancers. How do you prove that your work is more stellar than everyone else’s?
One way is to win contests. Evidently winning these things are still important to publishers. Another way is to judge contests. Judging contests makes you an industry leader, a respected voice, a power player.
You’ll also need to find young photographers who’ve not yet learned their value. Promise them fame and riches, gallery shows, print sales, ad campaigns, whatever it takes. Don’t worry. When none of these things come to pass and the poor sucker realizes he needs to actually earn money from his editorial work, cast him off. Pretend you don’t know him. Don’t return his emails or phone calls and move on to the next ripe newbie. Have no fear, if one of these guys manages to survive and become a name just take credit for discovering him. Being a photographer he’ll believe you and be happy to work for you again.
Of course, this scheme doesn’t work if you’re bound by conventional standards. Very few photographers can produce meaningful work on a regular basis. It’s a rare gift, and technical advances haven’t increased the number of people who have this gift. Standards of excellence are a problem when you can’t afford to work with excellent people. Words like journalism, photojournalism, and reportage, are troublesome. Words like truth, well don’t even go there. That’s why a new word needed to be added to the mix. That word is art. Art like beauty is seen in the eye of the beholder. All beholders may be equal, but the professional Beholders who judge contests, and look at thousands of images a day are more equal than others. This is the magic that careers are built on, and this is the power that mystifies gullible photographers.
The DoP / photographer relationship was once symbiotic. I’ll give you money and access, you give me amazing photographs, we’ll publish them and everyone will see how brilliant we both are.
Now the relationship is one sided and abusive. Today the DoP’s (or their picture editors) pitch goes something like this, I’ll give you a little bit of money (or none), you’ll deliver exactly what I want and the pictures you make will belong to me. Take it or leave it, but know there are plenty of people queued up to take your place.
When you’re desperate for work and recognition that’s a mighty big stick to get whacked with. The corresponding carrot is the small voice whispering to the photographer saying, he chaired the World Press Photo awards. He’s an industry leader. He’s one of the Beholders.
This is why Powerball exists.
You ever hear the story about Levi’s and Walmart? Long story short… in order to reach Walmart’s price point Levi’s had to lower the quality of the jeans they sold there. So Levi’s revamped most of their production lines to meet Walmart’s standards and in doing so lessened the quality of all the jeans they produced regardless of where they were sold.
Mediocre forces good out of the market place and great all but disappears. In the case of Levi’s you give these jeans a special name, like “signature”. When it comes to photography you simply call it “art”.
This charade has worked fairly well over the past fifteen years or so. The DoP’s didn’t even have to sell it. The photographers who agreed to their terms did all the heavy lifting. They became industry leaders themselves. Part of the enlightened priesthood who preached that proper compensation, insurance, professional gear, and owning one’s work were outdated, hateful ideas that had no place in the 21st century.
Of course, smart people vote with their feet. They shop at the expensive boutique. They buy a different brand of jeans. The smart people who had a passion and proven track record of capturing our world in amazing pictures walked away too. The youngsters, most of the smart ones at least, walked away as well. It doesn’t take much to see the game is rigged and the editorial world is bleak.
How many future Jim Nachtweys have walked away before they’ve even dipped a toe in the pool?
The mystical Beholders, in practicing their craft, have effectively drained the pool. The quality of work they produce is largely what you’d expect to be pulled from the shallow, stagnant body of water which still remains.
You want to see some art? Look at Telex Iran by Gilles Peress. If you want to see some photojournalism look at the same book.
You want to see photojournalism? Look at 44 Days by David Burnett. If you want to see some art look at the same book.
Two photographers working at about the same time in the same place who both produced work that will last long after them. They told the truth. They were honest with the viewer. They didn’t stage any pictures or knowingly create any fictions. Both of these works are sought out today by museums and private collectors.
The work that Burnett and Peress produced was funded by publications that paid good money to use it. Their respective agencies licensed this work to hundreds of other publications in dozens of countries and they got a healthy percentage from each transaction (and still do today). None of these publications had the audacity to demand world-wide exclusivity or the right to resell this work. If they had there’s a good chance this work never would have been made in the first place.
Start with great photographs made by intelligent, passionate people and wait. That’s how photojournalism becomes art. Not through the self-serving incarnation made by a Beholder in a hushed tone usually reserved for a NPR host.
The World Press Photo Foundation can start to restore its tarnished reputation by severing it’s ties with the Beholders and their acolytes.
If an editor forces a WFH agreement on photographers they’re not our friends. They are helping to force the most talented among us out of the industry, thus dumbing it down. The World Press Photo Foundation should not justify their actions by allowing them to be a part of their competition.
Photographers who are dumb or desperate enough to sign WFH agreements should be scorned as well. If a photographer is foolish enough to willingly give away the ownership of their work (without proper compensation), the images they make aren’t going to give us much insight into what’s happening around the world. Dumb people normally don’t create lasting work, but they can push other more deserving and talented photographers out of the industry. They should not be rewarded with the recognition that comes with a World Press Photo award.
A Beholder who works for a multi-billion dollar company who’s existence depends on the willingness of photographers (both professional and amateur) to sign away their rights is also a bad choice. It’s just a matter of time before they snag you with their money.
Photography professors who fail to teach their students proper business practices should be excluded as well. Especially those who set a terrible example for their students by hiring themselves out to agencies that prey on the egos of desperate photographers.
World Press Photo, please stop letting people like this, people who are destroying our industry, and the craft of photojournalism use your (still) good name to legitimize their bad behavior.
Just Another War by Exene Cervenka and Kenneth Jarecke.
Husker Game Day by Kenneth Jarecke.