If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over from freshman freelancers (referring to either those who have recently graduated from college or those who have been forced to freelance after being laid off from a staff position) is that there aren’t any jobs at the newspapers. Period. And as we all know by now, they’re right. If I had to venture a guess I’d say there are probably 60% fewer staff photographers at newspapers in America than there were just 5 years ago.
Journalism schools are churning out talented young photographers like sausages by the hundreds. Newspapers have laid off hundreds of seasoned, talented professionals many of whom have been forced into the freelance world. Sadly, the schools aren’t teaching these young photographers how to get started in their careers outside of a position, that doesn’t exist anymore, at a newspaper. And the newspaper photographers who’ve been laid off through no fault of their own are also often not prepared for the realities of freelancing and working with a photo agency.
Here’s the thing, freelancing (which is a kinder, gentler, way of saying you’re about submit yourself to an endless search for jobs that typically only last a day or two) isn’t nearly as easy or as glamorous as you might think.
One component of your life as a freshman freelancer will be looking to work with a photo agency. Here is a list of some common misconceptions about freelancing and getting work from an agency.
1- “You have to be a big shot to even get in the door.” Not true. Photo agencies are always looking for new talent. They need not only established names on their rosters but also new talent to keep growing their operations. What you need is a unique vision, a sharp intellect, and an ability to find stories of national or international interest in your own backyard. Keep pitching ideas you can shoot locally that relate to large national or international stories. You need to be creative about finding ways to make yourself useful to the agency.
2- “You need to live in NY or another big city.” Not true. Agencies are always looking for new talent in odd, out-of-the-way places. They get last minute assignments for portraits or news or features in places like Platteville or Minot or Kansas City. Do not go to NYC at 22, or 42 for that matter, with cameras, clothes, computer, and credit card in hand thinking you need to be there if you want to “make it big”. There are thousands of photographers in NYC and, of course, a large number of the absolute best in the world. You’re better off looking for cities with low cost of living that are near areas where there is a lot of news, sports, or odd features. St. Louis, San Diego, Nashville, and Minneapolis are a few that come to mind.
3- “You have to travel to far off lands or war zones to make a name for yourself.” Not true. So many of today’s biggest names started out as staff photographers at smaller market newspapers. Brian Lanker in Wichita, Randy Olson in Pittsburgh, and James Nachtwey in Albuquerque. I could go on for days. Today look at Michael Holahan in Augusta and Josh Meltzer formerly of the Roanoke Times, as two small town “newspaper” photographers who create amazing images right in their own backyards. You see where I’m going with this? No need to go to Burma or Iraq. Everything you need to create a killer portfolio is right out your back door. Show agencies amazing images you shoot in your own community, day in and day out, and they will be far more likely to take a leap of faith on you and send you someplace exotic.
4- “It’s all about the access, man.” One of the most misguided things photographers, both young and old, often say to me is “Man, I could make images like Christopher Morris if I just had the same access as he had.” Horseshit. The reason a photographer like Christopher gets the killer access now is that he proved over and over when he was a younger photographer that he could make amazing photos regardless of the access. When you a give an extremely talented photographer great access then epic things can happen. Great pictures aren’t made by average photographers just because they suddenly got the access, man. Sorry.
5- “Spec.” It’s a dirty word. This is where an agency might call you up and ask you to shoot something without having a day rate or other financial guarantee in hand. They’ll talk about how big this story is and that they have a lot of interest in seeing coverage, yada yada yada. You’ll be thinking “Awesome! They LIKE me!” And then be inclined to do the spec job to “prove yourself”. Don’t buy into this nonsense. If it’s such a big story and they have so much interest from clients ask them why none of them, including the agency, is willing to put up a few hundred bucks to compensate you for your time. Then they’ll tell you “but if we sell these to a bunch of different magazines we can make more than if we just took one day rate.” Also a load of crap. It used to be that if you were a really good shooter and the story had a lot of national and international interest, that you could actually do quite well for yourself by shopping your stock around rather than being tied down to a simple day rate. Those days are gone. Reason is the magazines are 1/2 or less the number of pages they used to be. And their budgets are 1/2 again of what they used to be just 5 years ago. So what you have, net, is about 1/4 the money in editorial photography than you had 5 years ago. The magazines are under intense pressure to use wire photos that they pay for as part of a subscription. Take a look at Time or Newsweek. See how few credits there are to the independent agencies anymore? And, like doing work-for-hire, which I’ll get into next, shooting on spec is almost always like inviting cancer into your career.
6- “Work-for-hire.” Also a dirty word. Work-for-hire gives me a rash, frankly. They are three of the most powerful words in contract law. You can be presented with a contract that says in the first clause “Photographer shall keep all rights to the photographs…” but then 6 pages later buried at the end of some obscure clause will be the words… “this contract is considered a work-for-hire and all rights to images produced hereunder shall vest to Big Ugly Corporation”. The phrase “work-for-hire” overrides anything else that may have been written elsewhere in the contract to the contrary. If you’re going to be a freelancer you have to look at your archive, your body of work, to a certain extent as your 401k plan. You still need a regular 401k, do not underestimate it’s importance, but think of your archive as your “401k Mark II” Your archive, if properly managed, can produce a reasonable stream of income throughout your entire life. Allan Tannenbaum comes to mind. This lanky, lovable, galoot was shooting for a small paper in NYC in the 60’s and 70’s called SoHo Blues. As a result he got access to shoot features and portraits on some of the most important musicians of our time. He has, among others, some of the last photos of John and Yoko together. Back then they were all just a bunch of random assignments for a client. But he was very wise and insisted on keeping his copyright. Now, 30, 40 years later he’s still earning, what I would assume, is a very handsome royalty for use of his images in books, documentaries, album covers, posters, fine art prints, etc… Point is, don’t be short sighted and take the $150 buyout assignments or else, mark my words, you’ll be left with nothing 40 years from now.
7- “I love freelancing, I’m my own boss.” A lot of freelancers have this hysterical notion that being a freelancer and being your own boss is some sort of wonderful thing. It ain’t always wonderful and you’re not really your own boss. It’s a ridiculous amount of work and stress. See how your ego and bank account hold up after three months of no phone calls. The flip side of no work is having steady work. That means you have 10 – 50 clients. That means you have 10 – 50 bosses. All with urgent demands, big egos, and shrinking budgets. Those 10 – 50 bosses set your schedule. They will call all hours of the day and night. And they will have no problem telling you exactly what they think of your work and won’t think twice about ditching you if you have even one off assignment for them. So not only do you have a multitude of crazy bosses and little control over your schedule but you also, in their eyes, are no better than your last assignment. So while a staffer might be able to have an off day, freelancers can’t.
8- “If I get an agent I’m set!” Hardly. You’ll most likely be the low photog on the totem pole for quite a while. If you’re in a city where they have an existing relationship with another photographer you will be second fiddle, no doubt about it. Don’t expect an agency to constitute more than about 10% of your annual income. Only the absolute best photographers make a large percentage of their income from their agency. And don’t rely on the agency for any steady income. You could have 4 assignments one month and not a phone call for the next three months. You must cultivate a local client base, regional client base, and some national relationships such as with an agency. And this is where finding a city or town that doesn’t have a ton of talented photographers comes in very handy. I know a photographer in Small Town, Wisconsin, (population under 10,000) that has cultivated a roster of regional corporations and colleges that need regular photography work. This coupled to some editorial work and the occasional job from an agency earns him probably $55,000 per year. Pretty good if you don’t live in NYC.
I’m not saying any of this to discourage anyone. Not at all. If you have a passion for photojournalism and a strong belief in the stories you need to tell, then don’t let me or any other putz discourage you. Go forth and be bold, damn it! Being a freelance photographer working for a photo agency can be one of the greatest jobs you’ll ever know. I’ve had a very rewarding career both personally and professionally over the past 25 years. I have an incredible love for all the characters I’ve known in the photo industry. I couldn’t imagine working in any other industry. And, because of that, I do not want to see freshman freelancers to come into this end of the industry ill prepared and misinformed.