By Mark Loundy
We have met the enemy and he is us.
— Walt Kelly's Pogo
As I gaze across the ruined futurescape of editorial photography I see the twitching carcasses of failed businesses, smoking heaps of rotting dreams and lines of dazed refugees trudging toward a far horizon and other professions. They shuffle along, some of them muttering to themselves, "Who could have done such a thing?"
Who indeed? The obvious villains are photo buyers, publishers and financial managers. But it wasn't them. They only took advantage of a situation created by someone else.
A foreign company that sells products in the U.S. for less than cost can be found guilty of predatory pricing or "dumping" and fined for violating federal law. Dumping is illegal because it creates unfair competition and can drive U.S. firms out of business.
Yet many photographers unwittingly "dump" their work, creating unfair competition not just with their colleagues but, ironically, with themselves.
Young photographers who do not figure out their own reasonable Cost of Doing Business often end up working for unprofitable fees. Others, who might be aware of the numbers, accept unprofitable contracts in the hope that they will build their reputations and get the big paydays down the road.
Sadly, photographers who try to build their professional reps by accepting low fees and Work For Hire contracts are destroying their own futures. Photo buyers are no longer allowed to have personal loyalties. Fewer and fewer publications are considering anything beyond price. Not only will the "big paydays" never come for the young photographers, but they will also disappear for everybody else. Only the superstars will make a living wage.
Saying that accepting a bad contract is better than making no money at all is ridiculous and shortsighted. Such practices ensure that there will eventually be no good contracts for anybody. Like the intelligent young lady in last month's column, you can always work at another job to support your ability to say no to bad deals. Eventually, you will develop a list of good-paying clients.
Young photographers need to know that there is no such thing as a non-negotiable contract. As independent businesspeople we write our own contracts. Anything that a client might present should be considered only as an initial offer. All final contracts must support your business plan. If the client cannot meet your minimum needs, then you must politely move on. Accepting anything less than your minimum is tantamount to defecating in your dinner plate.
The profession of photography must consist of skills beyond the ones it takes to create compelling images. Photographers must learn long-term survival skills starting with charging profitable rates. If they don't, not only will they be reduced to hobbyists plying photography while supporting themselves with a "day job," but they will also have helped destroy a profession.
The starting place is education — not only in colleges and universities, but also among young photographers. Business discipline must be considered on a par with lighting skills and color management. That is unless your mechanic accepts JPEGs for valve jobs.