Don’t Be Scared of the F-Word When Exploring New Business Models

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.

12 Responses to “Don’t Be Scared of the F-Word When Exploring New Business Models”

  1. There are some very good arguments made in this post Jonathan, and it made me laugh when you pointed out Black Star actually does not pay the guest bloggers for their posts!

    I cannot help, like you, to throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what works. I still mix in the occasional for credit only job (if I have no paying photog jobs at the time) and hand out a free print here and there (for example action dog shots to acquaintances in the dog park). I go to my local post office once a month and pin a new 8.5x11 flyer of my photography services. Sometimes I randomly leave a business postcard on a windshield or two.

    It kind of seems like photographers who can say no to credit only work can afford to, and photographers just starting out or surviving part-time on photo work, who need the money, might be the ones saying yes to credit only work more. So this creates the head chasing the tail circle of want to make money from photography, am only offered credit only work, so need the exposure, but will not ever start to get paid for photo work until I say no to credit only jobs.

  2. Sorry, I forgot to say in my comment that this blog post has at least earned you a new Twitter follower Jonathan.

  3. After thinking for the past few years that "free is evil," I can identify with the photographers in that camp. Actually, I can identify with both sides... since I've often fallen into the desire for ego-strokes vs. payment.

    But the essence of this posting is true: Be willing to EXPLORE the option; it may or may not work for you. If you want to delve into this deeper, may I suggest the recent book "Free" by Chris Anderson. See Chris's free blog:

  4. Thanks Jason,thanks Duane- support and input appreciated.

    Few more books for you (and Tweeters) : Clay Shirky "Here comes everybody", Jeff Jarvis "What Would Google Do" and Fred Ritchin "After Photography".


  5. I said "bollocks" on twitter and I still maintain "bollocks" here, although your argument is VERY well made.

    I fear that in an economic order that still hasn't got to grips with micropayments, the choices remain 'charge' or 'free'; and with that choice too many photographers will fall upon the sword of martyrdom for a craft that isn't supported by its new infrastructure.

    Jonathan, you and I would probably agree that if the weaker fall by the way side because they either aren't good enough, inventive enough or diligent enough than they deserve what they get, but in the tussle between creators and distributors (if that distinction remains applicable) then the big guns will win and the individual, the creator will lose.

    As another commenter mentioned Clay Shirky, I will too. I think his projection of current media production not being predictable (if ever settling down) in the next 20 years is spot on.

    In such an environment of uncertainty, I think we need to offer caveats to folk before we start yelling that they should give it out for free.

    If I may make a generalisation, younger and more tech-savvy creators will have lesser expectations for monetary reward, more diverse skills and (possibly) fewer risks to put on the line by trying the exciting approach you suggest. I wish them luck.

    I myself put a lot of content out there for free, but it is because I have a passion for prisons, reform and media representations through photography. I wouldn't know how to forecast possibly future benefits, or what they may be. I just know I can create currently because of my circumstance.

    Maybe, new media, new alliances and new opportunity is the great equaliser and maybe we are experiencing a democratisation of knowledge, but I would hesitate in making such a rallying call for all to jump on-board.

    That said, the economics of one household based upon these tactics is small fries compared to the larger macroeconomic forces battering whole industries.

    I guess, I am saying, we should think ourselves lucky if we have the circumstance and control to take a risk, but we shouldn't presume it'll work out for all that take it.

    If I wasn't one of your Twitter followers already, I would be now.


    PS. You're article was one of the best I've read at Black Star in recent memory ... and you should be recognised for that!

  6. Very good thoughts and attitudes towards a difficult and often aggravating issue. I am facing one such dilemma even now. This post has inspired me to at least want to be more creative in terms of compensation...hopefully, during these types of discussions I will find that balance where I feel that I am adequately rewarded and subjects/clients receive the product they desire and need.

    Thanks for clear minds and expressing it so well.

  7. Um, there's a glaring hole in your argument for "free" photos.

    Harrison didn't give away the photo for free. You yourself make that clear in the last part of the text.

    You mention the new business model which consists of "find someone else who will pay for your work". That's fine. That's terrific. But not "free", what would have otherwise happened if Harrison gave the photo to the publication without any payment.

    So we are talking about different things here...

    Still, it gave you another twitter follower. 🙂

    I don't know why I have the need to justify myself, but I will: like Pete Brook, I also gave away my work, both photo and writing, to various things I want to support. The difference is that I was the one who decided it, it was not imposed by somebody else. I guess the difference really is what people usually talk about in the "free" versus "paying" debate.

  8. Thought provoking.. I like. However, the idea that photographer are like rock stars and should give away their expertise for free in the hopes of selling T-shirt on the side is flawed.
    You are giving away what is your core business in the hopes of compensating in another market for which you have no special aptitudes. It's plain stupid.
    Same goes with the "freemium" concept being shoved around as a revolutionary idea. Does everyone forget that those companies that have become succesful by offering free (Google, Twitter, Facebook) are or have been backed by millions of dollars of investment ? How do you replicate that as a lonely photographer ?
    Let's not kid ourselves and everyone else. The model that you propose are unrealistic : hyperlinks are not edible : you will be the most well known dead photographer.
    Again, kudos for the approach. That is exactly the type of thinking this industry needs.

  9. In these discussions I always come to think of this great rant by writer Harlan Ellison:

  10. I think it's a matter of finding a balance between Fee and Free. But, of course, Free in most instances is the price you are paying for marketing (ie you provide value for nothing, but save the money you would otherwise have spent on your own marketing). I am not saying it is easy, but it is possible.

  11. Or just take a pick and make sure you can bring it back if she hates it.

  12. I have to say that new photography business models are very interesting topics for me. I actually wish I could get people together to seriously explore this. And I mean really explore it digging deep into it.

    New models can still involve charging but look at a totally different aspect of whats happening in the market. It can become about a totally different value system than what models were based on in the past.

    This is so important to me right now.

    I'm actually in the middle of branding my wedding photography in a totally different way from anyone. I'm actually excited because I cannot force myself into the same things that many wedding photographers are still doing.

    Ya it's a total risk but I'm already risking things following my passions. I find that so many photographers are passionate and then they change to fit a photographer mould instead of being real.

    Perhaps the first model to change is the model of the photographer entirely?


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