Exposed photographers resist gloom
THE CULL OF PHOTOJOURNALISTS' jobs in the past two years has been relentless - even by the British media's savage standards. Newsquest, Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Archant have made scores of photographers redundant. The Independent, which had arguably the strongest photographic reputation in Fleet Street, has closed its print titles.
NUJ photographers - there are nearly 2000 in membership - have not taken this onslaught sitting down, however. And on 11 February 2017 they will come together at a conference in London to consider industrial strategies to combat the assault on pictorial journalism and share effective new routes to making a living with a camera.
Chris Morley, the NUJ's Northern Organiser explains the backdrop to the event: "Media companies in the grip of an obsession that quality news images spring from nowhere or can be plucked from the internet without cost or worry. This is a false and damaging belief, and these are proving to be cuts too far. The danger is the photographers will vote with their feet and leave the industry."
The result has been a rash of shoddy, user-generated pictures, atrocious or non-existent captioning and copyright images being lifted from the internet unlawfully. In the case of the latter, this has, unsurprisingly, led to a rash of expensive claims against local newspapers.
There is some evidence of publishers realising that this situation is unsustainable. Several have recently tweaked their editorial systems to retain more information about the source of photographs. And a senior representative of one major regional media group has committed to appearing at the NUJ photography event to explain its enduring commitment to visual story telling.
The day-long event will bring together staff and freelance photographers with other chapel representatives and will include sessions on finding new outlets for photographic work, social media strategies and successful examples of self publishing.
"We want to help members to find success and to adapt the way that they work to the new media landscape", says Nick McGowan-Lowe, who represents photographers on the NUJ's national executive council. "Unions have always been about helping members to maximise their income and that is no less true today".
McGowan-Lowe says that falling picture quality is one of the reasons that local papers are losing readers quite so quickly. "Good pictures are one of the primary appeals of local papers whether they show gatherings at events all of whom enjoy their likeness being published, or visually imaginative shots that tell stories themselves".
Neil Turner is one of many former staffers who have made a successful transition to freelancing. After eight years at the Times Education Supplement, during some of which he was NUJ father of chapel, he returned to his home town of Bournemouth and started to develop a new business model.
"Editorial work is still part of the mix, but I have assembled more of a portfolio of income streams", he explains. "I have worked as a photo editor with the teams that supply images at Wimbledon and at the Paralympics in Rio, I teach and I supply PR clients."
His photo editing is an example of one of the new areas of work that are emerging for those with photographic skills. At Wimbledon, Turner co-ordinates a team of world-class photographers, whose images transfer to his computer as they are taken. Within three minutes of each exposure, Turner chooses, post produces and sends them on.
His fashion work for a high-street retailer is no less pressured. "My catwalk pictures transfer directly to my colleague's iPad, sitting in the row behind me. She decides which will be shared and posts them onto social media within seconds. The purpose is to beat the fashion bloggers, who post up terrible shots taken on their iPhones."
Katie Lee, based near Whitley Bay in Northumberland, has taken a different approach to navigating uncertain waters. As work for newspapers became scarcer, she formed a partnership with writer and stylist Karen Wilson. Working as Beautiful Homes In The North, they source and produce words and pictures interiors features for magazines such as Build It, 25 Beautiful Homes and Ideal Home.
"Finding suitable subjects is what drives how much work we are able to do", says Lee. "Because magazines are now confident of the quality that we produce its easier for us to deal with potential subjects and be very clear with them about what to expect. That trust means that one person whose home we feature will refer us to friends".
Like many, possibly most, freelances, Lee also spreads her talents to other forms of work, including portraiture, estate agents' brochures and teaching. "I did weddings for a while as well, but decided that I didn't really want to project the kind of persona that is necessary to make a real success in that market."
The conference will also include sessions on using self-published photo books to enhance a freelance's business. Marc Vallée, for example, has now published eight photo 'zines featuring collections of his documentary photography. He publishes in runs of 200 photo books and some of his titles have gone to more than one edition. Today there are collectors of his work all over the world.
"The books themselves are a lot of work, but make a modest return. Far more important, though, is what they do for my profile. My most recent, Vandals, was bought by Tate Britain, the pictures ran in the Guardian and as a result I was invited to teach at a university and sell my prints through a new channel".
Vall"e's decision to move into self-assigned documentary work came after an epiphany while covering the student disturbances on Milbank in 2010. "My pictures featured on all the front pages the day after the disturbances - except they weren't mine, they were taken by the agency guy who was right next to me who was taking pretty much the same shots as me. I decided that if I wanted to stay in photography, I needed to find subjects that were mine alone".
None of these options could necessarily be exactly replicated by others. The melting pot of ideas and opinions that will assemble at the conference will stimulate abundant fresh ideas, whatever is your style of photography. There are no easy options, of course, whether we are taking on newspaper owners or finding new ways to profit from our talents. But as all NUJ members surely know, adversity inspires our greatest acts of creativity?
Making and exhibition of ourselves
Alongside the conference will be an exhibition showcasing the best of NUJ photographers' work. Photographer members will be invited to submit for consideration examples of their outstanding work - published and unpublished - taken in the past two years. An expert panel will then select the best, which will then be displayed online and at the Photographers' Conference. After the conference the exhibition will move to the NUJ's refurbished headquarters at King's Cross, London. There they will form the inaugural photography exhibition in the remodelled Headland House, which includes a caf"-bar and event venue that will be open to the public.
Right in focus
When then BNP leader Nick Griffin spoke to a meeting in Keighley, West Yorkshire, only a handful of journalists witnessed his performance. Among them was Bob Smith, then a photographer on the Keighley News. "It was one of the worst and most chilling experiences of my career", he remembers.
Smith photographed a baying, drunken mob whipped into a frenzy by the far-right firebrand. "It is just the kind of pictures that go a little way to showing that kind of politician for what they are. They would have been very unlikely to have been taken by anyone other than a professional journalist".
After 31 years on the paper's staff, Smith was made redundant in a recent rounds of cuts. Now he freelances. "The odd thing is that I take much the same pictures as ever I did - events organised by the hospital, sports teams enjoying success and company awards to long-serving employees. Most are published in my old paper too - all that has changed is who is paying for them."
His concern is that while subjects from organisations with budgets have their achievements showcased in the press. Individuals who can't afford to pay a freelance are much less likely to see themselves in print.
Veteran photo journalist David Hoffman is a past master as chasing down those who use his work without permission. Whenever he finds one, he sends a polite note asking if they have a record of the licence between the publisher and himself. At this point he mentions only one image, even if he knows that several have been published. The initial response gives him an idea of how honest and open a client is going to be. Those who are get an easy time. Those who aren't, he gives them every opportunity to stitch themselves up.
When a satisfactory response is unforthcoming he bills at least double what he would have charged had they come to him in the conventional way. His guiding principal is that copyright infringement cannot be cheaper than licensed use.
He meticulously keeps screenshots of those websites whose publishers he is pursuing, in case images suddenly disappear and where appropriate sends invoices by registered post.