It is hard these days to be a member of any online forum visited by photographers and not be aware of the growing number of companies setting themselves up as ‘middle-men’ between photographers and clients. The incredulity of photographers at the expectation of such companies and the insultingly low fees being offered is clear and so it should be. I am not sure how successful these companies are in securing photographers and clients and then bringing the two together with any level of consistent success. My guess is that they are finding it far more difficult to achieve than their ambitious business plans may have suggested.
This ‘Uberization’ of photography is a business model that is being applied to many professions on the back of the success of Airbnb and of course Uber. But the current attempts to apply the model to photography demonstrates an absolute lack of understanding of what it takes to create successful client led photography. Owning a car and a smartphone with Google maps qualifies you as a Uber driver, owning a property that you want to rent out qualifies you as an Airbnb participant. However, owning a camera, tripod and some lights does not qualify you as a photographer and it is this fact that those attempting to bring the ‘gig’ economy* to photography fail to recognise.
During the Dot.com boom of the early 2000’s I was involved in the creation of a daily news platform called PeopleNews.com. Like many online initiatives attempted at that time it was ahead of the curve, the idea was good but the technology was not ready for the concept. Despite this it was well funded by a group of venture capitalists who had no publishing or online experience. At one meeting I asked them how much they had budgeted for image usage. They looked at me quizzically, “Nothing” they said “We’ll take pictures off the BBC website!” They had no concept as to why this was not a good idea, no understanding of copyright law and perhaps most importantly no interest or respect for the visual image. They had spent heavily on expensive office chairs, a West End office and multiple teams of website builders but they had never considered that they would have to pay for photographs. That was not in their business plan.
The current crop of ‘gig’ middle men remind me of those dot.com V.C’s. Full of belief in a business model with no respect for the very people they need to rely upon for their investors to get returns on their investment, let alone any profit. The guys behind PepleNews.com lost all their money within a few months and the office chairs were taken by the staff in lieu of salaries not paid.
The fees being offered by these new companies are so low that it is has been easy for the offers being made to be rejected. Then add the expectation that photographers will supply their own equipment and pay for travel expenses, whilst also handing over all usage rights and it is easy to see that these companies are not being run by people who understand how photographic commissioning works. Hopefully this will result in these companies disappearing as quickly as they appeared.
However, I believe the impact of such initiatives is widespread and not limited to the ‘gig’ business model. The devaluation of the commissioning process will inevitably be fuelled by the idea of such cheap solutions to a photographic need. The photographers I see posting on forums are well aware of this situation and are regularly sharing personal examples of how it is affecting them on a daily basis. They want to do something about it, they want to form a union, to speak with the people who commission and explain their position, to form groups, set standards of pay and fight for the rightful recognition of their profession. But there is a problem with all of this and it goes back to my experience with PeopleNews.com and its money men.
I asked a friend who commissions photography for a national magazine why she doesn’t commission the majority of the photography in the magazine. “I don’t have the budget” she said and “we are forced to buy images from cheap syndication agencies. We no longer have a page budget for photography and are encouraged to get as many images for free as we can”. I asked her who has made those decisions “The managing director of the company” she replied “Has he ever worked on a magazine” I enquired “No” she replied. And there it is in a nutshell. The problem is not with those who commission but with the management at the level that is concerned only with balancing the books in favour of the investors, the banks and the lenders. They have no interest in the photography and no respect or interest in the photographers who create it.
These are the people that the angry photographers need to speak with but the people who need to hear do not want to listen.
As I was writing this article a former student of mine contacted me for advice in dealing with a client, a restaurant owner, who had used some of her images without her permission, with no payment but with her name credited but incorrectly spelt. I advised her to take professional advice but also to speak with the client and advise them on the correct protocol when using copyrighted material. I wait to see what the outcome will be but I suggested that she question them as to whether they would consider it to be ethical to steal another chef’s recipe, use it in a book and not either pay him or make him aware of their ‘borrowing’?
What does this mean for commissioned photography and the photographers who want to be commissioned? I’m not sure, who can be? But what I do know is that people will always need visual imagery to promote their messages and brands and that photography will need to be created by someone. There is no reason why that work should not be paid for at the rate it should be, however for this to happen there needs to be a process of education not only of those controlling the commissioning rates but also of the photographers they want to be working with. In a sense commissioned photography has always been a freelance based ‘gig economy’ but it has been one based on respect. Yet, the new interpretation shows no sign of respect for tradition or established roles.
This situation requires fighting for what could be, not for what was. The old ways of working and the traditional clients have either gone or are suffering terminal decline.
It may be the case that we will return to an environment where we have fewer photographers working on a commissioned basis for reasonable fees for fewer clients, whilst other photographers look to new areas to work within taking their visual imaging and narrative skills including gaming, AI and AR. This does not mean the death of photography or of the commissionable photographer but it does mean the evolution of professional practice with the photographer taking responsibility for their own destiny.
When clients do not understand what we do and why they should pay for it we have to explain to those that want to learn or move on and find others who will appreciate the skills and experience of the visual storyteller. Even if they exist within areas we have not previously considered to be of relevance.
* A labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. “working in the gig economy means constantly being subjected to last-minute scheduling”
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.
© Grant Scott 2019