I’m a freelance photographer and pretty new to this game, having only started in 2007, just as the financial crisis was beginning to hit. I’m often asked “what kind of photography do you do?” and the answer is never easy. Depending on who asks the question, the answer is often something like: “I mainly shoot people, editorial and commercial portraits, features, design agency work…” before tailing off while the possibility of retaining any sense of credibility still remains!
The fact is, it’s hard to survive on just one kind of photography. In a market where images are a short-term commodity bought cheaply amid stiff competition, photographers need to diversify and consequently be able to work in more than one genre.
The problem photographers face is that ways in which images are created, bought and sold has changed significantly over recent years, especially in photojournalism. The days when picture desks would send photographers to cover a story are all but gone. In general, photojournalists aren’t seen as story-tellers so much as story illustrators nowadays.
In 2010, the EPUK published an article on their website by the former head of Network Photographers and Magnum London, Neil Burgess in which he even called the ‘death of photojournalism’.
So who or what killed it? There are a number of suspects. The decline of print media and its replacement by online editions of newspapers and magazines? The rapid growth of huge stock image libraries like Getty and Corbis, together with microstock and other image providers? While these have certainly played a contributing role, there is also an apparent assumption that images in the public domain are fair game as seen by AFP and Getty’s use of Daniel Morel’s images from Haiti, although thankfully Morel eventually won his case and was awarded damages of $1.2m in November 2013. The rise of ‘citizen journalism’ where amateur photographers supply images, often free of charge for use by mainstream media is another factor. The thousands of talented amateurs who use photo-sharing sites like Flickr without understanding the complexities of licensing and usage further undermine the profession as creatives scan these sites looking for cheap or free images.
This means there are now more images from a wider range of photographers being made available than ever before, and consequently there is less demand for full-time professionals. So unless you’re a seasoned pro at the absolute top of your field or able to fund all of your own work, the scope for new photographers to develop is restricted to self-financing, grants or that elusive ‘lucky break’.
I also think there has been a major shift in peoples’ attitudes towards the value of photographic images. We are so used to seeing both high and low quality photographs around us that many people can't differentiate between them and images themselves hardly register any more. The photographic image is being steadily devalued through such immense yet largely un-recognised consumption of pictures.
The global financial crisis has also played its part. Budget constraints mean that people won’t pay more than they have to and everyone is trying to economise. That’s understandable, but it translates into there being less commissioned work available and photographers having to compete with stock images selling at rates which make it hard to earn a living by.
So where does that leave the freelance photographer trying to earn a living? Aside from specialist fields like high-end fashion for example I believe that if professional photographers are to survive we need to redefine the landscape, try to influence the way the market behaves and work together with image makers, image distributors and image buyers to protect our shared and interdependent future. We need to establish a new way of looking at photography and the role of photographers. The question is, how?