The f-word, as in “free.”
In reading Black Star Rising recently, I came upon Harrison McClary’s post asserting that “A Photo Credit Doesn’t Pay the Rent.” In the piece, Harrison states pointedly, “I don’t give away my work for free.”
Upon finishing Harrison’s article — which has inspired hundreds of tweets and comments nodding in agreement — I wrote to Black Star and asked why they didn’t publish more posts about photographers recognizing and developing alternative business models.
I was offered this guest post to share my perspective.
Blogging for Free
I throw spaghetti against the walls openly. I do my R&D that way, so that other people can learn from me and my mistakes. Likewise, I can learn from them when they share their experiences and knowledge.
You can see my open trials here.
So before agreeing to write for Black Star Rising, I e-mailed them to ask why I should write a blog post without being paid to do so.
Here was the response I received:
Black Star Rising is a group blog where we give bloggers the freedom to write about issues of interest to them. Contributors are not paid for posts; we do offer them links back to their own Web sites and blogs and promote them in other ways, such as through our Twitter account.
Hmm. Now let’s peek again at Harrison’s post:
Many media outlets now offer a photo credit, rather than monetary compensation, for the use of your photo. “It will be great advertising for your work,” they tell you, “and getting published by us will help you professionally.”
Isn’t it the same argument for submitting a post to this blog?
Let’s not forget that Black Star is a photographic agency, not a charity. It runs its blog because it raises its profile, embeds its reputation among professionals and makes it an authority. In its business model, those benefits must eventually lead to hard cash.
Since Harrison is a Black Star photographer, you could make the argument that some of the benefits Black Star receives from his content may accrue (indirectly) to him. But for the majority of contributors to this blog, that’s not the case.
So why do they — and now I — do it?
Perhaps they contribute for the byline and link back to their Web site. Perhaps it’s the kudos of being associated with a photographic authority, or maybe just having their voice heard among their peers.
Whatever the case, the contributor is empowered to consider this toil an investment on some level, and to make it informedly.
Pixels vs. Atoms
In the case of the photo credit for a usage, shouldn’t we be more open to this transaction in a similar way?
Think about it. We must all acknowledge that pixels, not atoms, are the future for the bulk of our media. So surely it’s in negotiating creatively with a magazine’s digital version where the potential for indirect compensation lies.
Far from reveling in the dubious joy of the gutter credit, shouldn’t we be negotiating hyperlinks back to our site, via both our image and our credit? By doing so, we’ve targeted the people most interested in both the subject and/or our product — and we’ve brought them home to buy some more.
How much do you pay in marketing and promotion? Do you really hit the people most interested in your work and/or your subject?
When I agreed to write this blog post and asked Black Star to please link to me here, I drew people to my work that were specifically interested in what I do. That discerning traffic cost me two hours of writing.
Net effect? Who knows? Had you heard of me yesterday?
Why not use your photography (in this case, a usage sale) in the same informed manner?
Pros vs. Amateurs
What I think we’re dealing with here are some artificial walls that need to come down. To many “pro” photographers, not charging for your work is unprofessional, devalues photography and makes you a “hobbyist.”
Ironically, such criticism usually comes in “written for free” blog form. I wonder how many “pro” writers are wringing their hands at hobbyist writers blogging for free and devaluing their product?
Underlying the criticism by “pros” is the assumption that the talents and work of “hobbyists” is inferior. I find this strange, because even though I’ve earned my living from photography for the past 12 years — which makes me a “pro” photographer — I have to say that there are definitely photographers on Flickr that I’d go to for advice.
In fact, I know a bunch of “pros” that publish on Flickr, because it’s a great platform. The same forward-thinking individuals also publish their movies on YouTube (for traffic) and Vimeo (for “quality” of audience).
Embracing a New Model
Now, let’s look at Harrison’s post again. What happened when he refused the publication’s terms? The publication didn’t change its mind; instead, the party most likely to realize material benefit from the transaction (the subject of the picture — a musician in this case) chose to pay for the image, which is why it ultimately appeared in the magazine.
The net effect: the magazine got usage of the image for free (bite it), the photographer had his work shown to a bunch of people interested in the subject (both fans and publishers), and the musician invested in a quality product to help her career.
It’s a win-win-win. And to Harrison’s credit, he makes a case for a new business model — where the subject, not the publication, pays for the photo.
Here was the model he used:
- He turned away from the magazine as his source of income and instead leveraged its value as a source of distribution and targeted publicity.
- He turned away from the stock agency (a redundant middleman business model that we should all turn away from) and instead managed his image rights directly with the subject (turning the subject into a client in the process).
I salute Harrison’s actions. In his actions, he found a new way to be compensated for his work.
But his words suggest to photographers that they should simply “stick to their guns” and not develop new ways of doing business.
That approach is no longer sustainable.