Photographic Exploits and Exploitations: The Mysteriously Delayed Payment………
Freelancing as a photographer can be a competitive business, even more so in a small city like Wellington where the photography market is small, and where several local education institutions churn out photography graduates by the bus-load every year. In Wellington, everyone knows somebody who is a photographer. The recent changes in digital photography and multimedia platforms, combined with the massive quantity of digital imagery available, have cheapened the craft of photography in the view of image consumers. It is this latter point I would like to discuss.
In September I was commissioned by a local magazine called Capital, to produce a portrait of stage actor, Matt Landreth, at the St James theatre. The story was to be a profile piece about an “interesting local doing interesting things”. An excerpt from the original commissioning email is below (click on the image to enlarge):
I was given 15 minutes for the shoot, which included using locations on and around the stage, and using props and/or costumes which are part of the actors character. Only having 15 minutes to get the images, you generally have to work pretty fast to get a variety of different shots so the magazine has enough work to choose from when designing the layout for the magazine. This means shooting landscape and portrait formats, in full-body, half-body, head and shoulders, and environmental portraits in different locations around the theatre. Plus using both flash lit and ambient lighting to suit the magazines style. As you can imagine, 15 minutes is a challenging time-frame in which to get all these different shots.
Upon meeting Matt at the theatre, he suggests wearing the only costume piece he had available which was a set of bright red Devil’s horns. The issue at hand here becomes a creative one. Personally I like the horns. Below are some examples of the images I shot for the assignment:
The initial assignment brief (see above email excerpt) explicitly suggests the use of the stage, auditorium and costumes being available for the portrait. Upon reviewing the images, the feedback I received from the art director was: “I’ve got your shots of Matt too, thanks v much. Just wondering if there’s any shots of Matt without those horns? The photos are perfect, it’s just the horns really shattering the shot”.
There was no further communication between myself or the magazine regarding this issue.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however the mention of an unspecific costume is alluded to in the email. Whether the horns “shatter” the image is an aesthetic opinion and has no relation to the technical quality of the images I produced. If I had submitted technically flawed images (i.e. out of focus, blurred due to camera shake, poor colour balance, poor exposure), I could perhaps understand the response.
Having not liked the images I produced for this assignment due to a cosmetic element, the magazine decided not to publish the images for the article. Below is a screen shot of how the article was eventually published in the October issue:
As you can see, the location and style of the image used differs widely from the original brief. Just to make it clear, this isn’t my photo.
When taking on a freelance assignment for a magazine, payment for the work is made either one or two weeks after the assignment deadline, or one month after publication of the images, depending on the size of the magazine or publisher. It took several emails to the art director and editor (from whom I never received a response) and several phone calls over a three-month period to get my payment of NZ$50 (yes it is a substandard rate by magazine standards but sometimes it is the principle that matters) for this assignment. When I finally received a phone call from the editor regarding my payment, it was mentioned that there was a “problem” with the images taken at the theatre. I was eventually paid in early December for this assignment. In my opinion, this behaviour suggests that the magazine decided to withhold my payment because they chose not to use the images for the publication.
This is very poor behaviour for a magazine which relies on freelance contributors for its content and features many creative individuals in its pages. This kind of treatment shows how the photographic craft has been devalued by a saturated market, and it is exploitative of emerging creative professionals. Every other magazine would simply not employ a freelancer again if the aesthetic style didn’t quite match their taste. Every magazine assignment is an organic and evolving working relationship, and sometimes a photographer’s personal style won’t always suit the clients requirements – and this is fine and completely acceptable.
I have been hesitant regarding publishing this post. I finally decided to publish it because I believe it is important for other photographers (and other creative freelancers) to understand their rights when producing work, to know the value of your work and experience, and the lesson to be learned is to be persistent when dealing with conflicts such as this. It’s our right to be paid for the work we have produced on assignment – promptly and without having to repeatedly ask for it.
I’m glad that all other magazines I have worked for so far have shown a much more professional attitude in terms of how they deal with freelance contributors. And I’m also happy to say they are all returning clients 🙂
I’d be interested to hear about other photographers experiences and how they deal with these unfortunate issues when they arise.
I think you did the right thing by publishing the post. Luckily I haven’t had any such experiences – but I haven’t done much freelance work (just starting to establish myself here in Saigon, but jobs are beginning to flow in…). I can see why you were keen to clarify that you didn’t take the image they went with in the end – that is one messy shot! If I were the mag, I’d definitely consider the third shot – I like that one (of course that is said without me actually knowing how the article read).
January 21, 2014 at 11:27 pm
Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated. Saigon must be an interesting place to be a photographer?
January 22, 2014 at 7:46 am
Yes, it certainly is – although you have to keep a much closer eye on your gear, especially when out on the street. Ride-by snatchings are not unheard of in Ho Chi Minh City, so you’ve gotta be on your guard.
January 23, 2014 at 12:58 am
I guess it’s not the best place to be lugging around heaps of gear then! Do you find it easier to freelance in Viet Nam with the cost of living being cheaper? I’m keen to find a place where doing documentary or photojournalism work is more financially viable!
January 23, 2014 at 10:03 pm
If your market is outside Vietnam, it would certainly make for a comfortable life. Unfortunately I’m currently mostly working with locals, and that means lower remuneration. Sadly this industry seems to be becoming less and less financially viable, not that it was ever something people did for the money, but at least they used to be able to have a somewhat steady income from it! I guess I shouldn’t start down that road, it’s such a huge topic…
January 24, 2014 at 7:55 pm
Yep. I think you definitely need a strong plan of where you want to go with photography. Either that or have another job that can fund the work (and the time) that you would actually like to do.
January 28, 2014 at 9:08 pm