Photographers, This Is No Time to Self-Immolate


Earlier this month, the threatened burning of a Koran by Florida preacher Terry Jones garnered an obscene amount of world attention and media coverage.

Now, a French photographer, Jean-Baptiste Avril, wants other photographers to join him in burning their negatives as part of a rally protesting the harsh financial conditions facing the profession.

Avril wants to hold the burning at the steps of a statue of Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography, in the French town of Chalon-sur-Saône. The event is scheduled for January 11, 2011.

Surely, this won’t get the coverage that Jones received. But it will get some.

The real question is, is this a useful way for photographers to express their professional frustrations?

Burning Man

This isn’t the first such gesture by Avril. Earlier this year, he decided to burn his own images. As he described his reasoning:

I believe that public and private institutions don’t play their role into supporting the artistic life through the artists essential needs: money, grants, whatever you want to call it.

So my work has to be for free! All right! As it has no value I don’t see the need for it to physically exist much longer.

The back story is that Avril had worked for about a year on an architecture project on the centennial of Tel Aviv at the request of an Israeli art gallery. The resulting pictures were displayed in the gallery, released as a book, and received significant coverage in the press.

Avril was contacted by Israeli airlines, insurance companies, museums, and government institutions, as well as European magazines and municipalities, all wanting to use his photos. But none were willing to pay him for the privilege; the airline wasn’t even willing to part with a courtesy plane ticket.

Here’s the video of how Avril released his frustration:

And the Point Is?

So, what was the result of all this?

Avril was awarded some sympathetic press coverage on a slow news day and not much more. After all, if his images aren’t selling, why would anyone care what he does with them? And he conceded he scanned them all in advance, making the gesture rather hollow.

The mass burning at the Nicéphore Niépce statue, if it occurs, will be more of the same.

I sympathize with the financial challenges facing photographers today. In fact, I know of two photographers who are about to be evicted from their houses because they can no longer pay their mortgages.

Do you think these photographers are burning their hard drives in their backyards, hoping President Obama will save them?

Do you think they will march on Washington and torch their negatives in an attempt to summon public fervor — like the monks who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War?

A Privilege, Not a Right

No. You know why?

Because they are too busy trying to reinvent themselves in an extremely difficult time.

Because they feel extremely fortunate that they have been able to make a living doing something they love.

Because they know not everyone has had this privilege, or will ever have it.

Because they know it’s not something they’re entitled to have, but something they must work for, every day.

Because they know that embracing the photographer’s life has always included its bumps and bruises, and obstacles to overcome.

And because they love photography too much to burn it.


7 Responses to “Photographers, This Is No Time to Self-Immolate”

  1. This is a great story. I am just getting started in the field after 20 years in the computer field. I know I have a long hard road a head of myself but I will be willing to do what ever it takes to be a photographer. To take what ever bumps and bruises that come my way.

    These days it seems a lot of people think they are entitled to the best jobs, that they can start out on top and that they don't have to move up the ranks. My first camera was a Canon AE-1 and I still have it. But like that camera, to be here 30 plus years and still working it takes a lot of hard work and skill.

    Again, this is a great article.

    -john

  2. There are a lot of reflexions and considerations to take on this topic.
    But I have to agree with you for one good reason: I am french and I never heard about this self-immolate action.
    When at time we are deprived of something we realise how much we miss it and how much we need it. So instead of burning some pics let just deprive the world of professionally made photos.
    It is a hard time, and with all the pics travelling around on the net, magazines and all the cell-phone-camera, we consider images being as usual, common, easy-to-do, as normal as dust accumulating on a unused desk: like all the millions of images store on hard drives. Some education might be needed for us to realise how much images are strong media, art and life enriching.

  3. Would have been glad to be contacted before your post... Would have perhaps had a different approach than "doing in the same time questions and answers":)
    I would have said, among other things, that almost two thirds of what we call author-photographers live under the minimum legal wage in France, but in many other countries.
    I would have also said that we do love what is our life as photographers, but that it is almost impossible nowadays to make a decent living out of it, for too many of us.
    I would have said that even Worlpress 2009 Anthony Suau hasn't had any assignement for months and think about doing something else in order to make a living.
    But you didn't asked, apparently thinking that it is better to give lessons...
    Never too late anyway :)
    JB

  4. Methinks the whole burning of negatives would be more counter-productive than what the act will bring to light.

    Why not burn CF cards instead?

    Not getting paid hasn't stopped me from doing something I love. I don't stop and analyze the monetary value of a moment as it unfolds before me. I just shoot it and the present the results to a news organization or other entity that may want to buy it.

    This will just be a tiny gesture which will have no meaning nor impact.

  5. Interesting. . . I'm inclined to say get over it, but on the other hand i understand his position. Looks to me like he's not doing too bad - if you consider the home he lives in.

    Than sad thing for me is that i just stopped supporting non-profits. I use to allow several large environmental non profits to use my work for their promos. That's over, no more free-bees. It was okay when things were booming, but now, since our work is being shoveled out and non profits are springing up all over, they need to start putting in their budgets photo purchases. Or, they can go with the free stuff, and we all know how far that will get them . . . It wont be long, if we stick together, before they run out of the material they are use to using. Stand strong, keep shooting and dont give away your work . . .

  6. What an arrogant attitude!!! Very French "Ont a le droit!! Interdit d'interdire!! Les artistes ont le droit de gagner leur vie!! (translation: We have the right!! Forbitten to forbid!! Artists have a right to make a living!! "
    This is the result of the Sixties in France!! People think have a right to do pretty much what they want despite of all, whether they are good enough, whether b/w reportage is still a viable option to make a living and most importantly in the same numbers as they did in the 60's and 70's!!
    The NY Times in financial troubles, http://www.americanthinker.com/2007/09/financial_woes_for_the_new_yor.html
    Times mag is not what it was and doesn't send anymore his photographers paying them to follow stories abroad. It just doesn't exist anymore!! Sygma doesn't exist anymore!!! Where do this people live and more importantly who is guilty for making them believe that after a photography course and some passion for your work you'll get by??
    Press photography has shrunk hugely, sites like flickr or iStock provide generical images for 200 a penny (metaphorically speaking) and in all this he lives in a greatlooking place and thinks he has a right!! to make a living.
    What a professional photographer would start a project in Israel or anywhere else not being sure with a purchase order or similar written engagement that he will eventually be paid and how much??? It's this very attitude that devaluates photography. 200 a penny attitude.
    And not realizing times have changed!! Try and travel to London/NY or similar, (even Paris is slowly getting there) and see that on the underground LCD panels with MOVING IMAGES have replaced traditional advertising posters.
    I say it with sympathy for the man but he has to WAKE UP, nothing IS A RIGHT, YOU HAVE TO EARN IT!!!
    What planet do these people come from??? Niepce has long gone...

  7. At the risk of generalizing....ahhhh, only the French can make suffering so lyrical!

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