Photographers Find Strength in Numbers  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 2000

Photographers Find Strength in Numbers   

By Suzan Revah
Suzan Revah is a former AJR associate editor.     


Long stuck on the low end of the editorial food chain, freelance photographers struggle to survive on pay rates that have stagnated for some 25 years. But thanks to the Internet, they're not going to take it anymore.

A listserv (or online discussion group) that officially launched last April has created a forum in which photographers can feel comfortable comparing notes and passing on hard lessons learned.

The Editorial Photographers listserv (www.editorialphoto.com), characterized by collective griping about contracts gone wrong and pining for higher wages, has gotten the attention of publishers at magazines like Time and Business Week and has resulted in positive change. Even the attitude with which management approaches the photographic ranks is taking on a different tone, say listserv members. But more important for the photographers--most of whom are independent contractors paying their own production costs and working with no benefits--slight but significant pay increases are taking hold.

No one has been more surprised by the revolution than the members of EP, who are quick to describe themselves as their own worst enemies for passively swallowing nominal pay and for not being vigilant enough about asserting their legal rights. Before EP came along, says Jason Grow, one of the founding members, photographers tended to look upon one another with suspicion, viewing each other as competitors rather than allies.

Grow says the listserv has changed the way he conducts himself professionally. Now he can instantly share information with and get feedback from the group's more than 1,700 members worldwide.

Grow is one of nine San Francisco photographers who started EP when they joined forces to organize a boycott of Business Week assignments they felt were unfairly compensated. The SF9, as the group later came to be dubbed, succeeded in getting the McGraw-Hill magazine to increase day rates from $350 to $425, and to pony up for cover reprints based on a newly established sliding scale.

Since then, the listserv has evolved into an invaluable resource, Grow says.

"Without the Internet, you'd have to learn from years of being an assistant, or you'd have to get burned and screw up a few times," he says. "What once would take years now takes seconds."

Paula Lerner, an EP vice president, says that sentiment has been echoed hundreds of times by photographers who, through wisdom gleaned from EP, have taken strides toward improving working conditions.

Photographers say EP "has forced them to keep tighter paperwork and has taught them not to get walked all over anymore," she says. They also can use the listserv to critique contracts clause by clause, to warn other photographers not to accept unfavorable terms, and to out clients who don't pay.

Business Week picture editor Larry Lippmann jokes that he became the poster child for all the perceived injustices in the photo industry when he got caught in the middle of the SF9's contract negotiations with the magazine. He agrees that the listserv has shaken up the industry for the better.

"Nobody's going to be able to go back anymore. EP's push was a good thing," Lippmann says. "But they need to put it in perspective. They're not going to cure all the ills within the industry with one fell swoop."

But EP is making progress. One of the most powerful weapons members can add to their negotiating arsenal is a standardized contract bearing the EP logo, alerting assigning editors that the independent contractor isn't exactly working independently.

Says Seth Resnick, EP's president: "Photographers have always heard, 'If you don't want this job for this pay, there's 100 other people in line to do it.' But now even magazines that were unwilling to budge have been forced to change, because word gets out."

Resnick says EP has been effective where photography trade organizations haven't because the Internet allows for direct and immediate action.

EP is free and only open to working photographers, but the group is diverse. Students and rookies and veterans alike weigh in, and editors are strictly banned.

Lippmann says he worries that the listserv might be creating a counterproductive "us vs. them" mentality. "Nobody is better served to communicate the needs of photographers at any given publication than picture editors," he says. "We're advocates, and if you develop an adversarial relationship with us, you're doing the entire industry a disservice."

Resnick acknowledges that editors are the key to change, but says EP discussions wouldn't be as frank if they were allowed to participate. But he adds he's "adamant about telling people not to post anything they wouldn't say to an editor's face."

EP has given photographers newfound hope that their value will be better appreciated and better compensated. "EP is a small step in a really big challenge," says Grow. "But the industry as a whole is benefiting from realizing that we can talk to each other without undermining each other."

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