An Organiser for photographers

WHY IS London Freelance Branch proposing the union appoint a photographers' organiser? To organise photographers! Let me spell it out.

The first and by far the most important job is to reach out to those photographers outside the Union who are attracted, right now, by the idea the NUJ is really going to take them seriously. There are 2100 photographers in the NUJ. Between 9000 and 10,000 are eligible to belong, based on such sources as photography magazines' reader surveys.

This is a truly disgraceful situation. It is both the main reason why we need an organiser, and the explanation of where the necessary funds will come from. Only a few hundred joining would bring in £100,000, and if we can't organise a few hundred out of around 8000 unorganised photographers, we all ought to pack up and go home.

Where do we start? With the hundreds who have already voted with their feet. Anyone running an organisation will tell you that ex-members are always the easiest to bring (back) into the fold.

Most will be freelances: 75 per cent of all photographers are self-employed. And this is where we do particularly badly. About 700 of the photographers in the NUJ are staff and about 1400 freelance.

This implies that we only attract about one in five of all eligible freelance photographers. A single point of contact who always puts their trade union needs first would dramatically improve that percentage.

Doing that is as important to photographers who are already in the union as it is to those who are not, yet. Photographic day rates have hardly risen since 1990. We are struggling to survive in a buyers' market. The only way to turn it into a sellers' market is to get most photographers into the union. Until then we can't do much for existing members, never mind new ones.

This gargantuan task is far, far more than a full-time job. Leaving it undone is not an option. Nor can it be left to such time as the Freelance Organiser has available when not servicing over 6000 other NUJ freelances. Nor can it be left to photographers in their time off. There is only one answer to this problem: a Photographic Organiser.

But what about photographers who aren't freelance? They already have a number of staff organisers who deal with their pay and conditions - one reason why we do a better job of organising them. They do not have one single organiser to whom they can turn for all the other problems photographers, both staff and freelance, face together.

The most important of these are restrictions on the right to work. Press cards are dealt with, but the Union's approach to a rapidly increasing range of obstacles placed in our way, such as celebrities claiming privacy rights, restricted access to events or bans on photographs in schools is either sporadic or non- existent. I am not suggesting the Union has made no attempt to sort out such problems as they arise. But what I am saying is that is that it would be far more effective to have one individual taking responsibility and developing a strategic approach, to whom all photographers can turn for help and support.

Photographers think of themselves as photographers first. Most work across the Union's industrial sectors and geographical boundaries. Even those who specialise tend to feel more affinity for other photographers than for other NUJ members working alongside them.

The NUJ's structure divides photographers, rather than uniting us. It was not designed with photographers in mind, and there is no one place for us to organise together. Of course I'm not suggesting that the entire Union structure should be re-arranged for the benefit of photographers. The appointment of a Photographers' Organiser would give photographers the feeling that the Union is a place where they can all belong. Do not underestimate the importance of this. Just look at the runaway success of the minuscule, but extraordinarily influential, newly re-formed British Press Photographers' Association - www.britishpressphoto.org (I am myself a member.) There are many reasons why the BPPA taps into the collective energy and enthusiasm of working photographers, but the most important is that members feel that this is the organisation for them. We need to generate this spirit in the NUJ. The best way to start is by giving all our photographers their own organiser: one individual providing a focus for all of us.

I first proposed the idea over 18 months ago in May 2003, to a well-attended meeting of NUJ photographers. The idea was well received, and the General Secretary is minuted as saying he was prepared to consider the idea, given the figures he had just heard. This time last year London Freelance Branch tried to propose as an ADM amendment, but it fell foul of procedure .

Last autumn I presented the case, to general approval, to the Freelance Conference in Manchester. The idea has had the widest possible hearing among photographers by broadcasting it on EPUK, the UK and Ireland Editorial Photographers' email network, several hundred strong. Again, overwhelming support. I have never before known an ADM proposal affecting photographers so widely and extensively discussed by the photographers themselves beforehand. And it will of course be properly debated, yet once more, at ADM.

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