Photographers belonging to the National Union of Journalists are getting excited about the opportunity to set up the Unions first ‘photographer’s branch'. Ok, that sounds interesting, but what does it actually mean, and what is the fuss all about?
There are (according to Pro-Shooter the online Photo Magazine) some 5,000 editorial shooters in the UK, and almost certainly at least this number, probably many more, who obtain some or part of their income from professional editorial or public relations photography. Almost half this 5,000 (2,400+) are members of the National Union of Journalists, and of these more than two thirds are Freelances. Half are probably based in or around London and the South East of England.
Photographers have traditionally been a minority amongst journalists, and in the past, until very recently, largely because of the magic of the darkroom and the mysteries of processing, not to mention the skill required to manually focus a camera and lens combination, on (frequently) moving subjects, they have been regarded as a unique and valued set of skilled workers.
What has gone wrong with our profession?
As photography as a profession has been perceived as becoming easier, first of all because of automated equipment (auto –focus), and more recently by the advances in digitisation, we have found that professional editorial photography has come under severe and sustained attack. Some will say that the real start of this was the Wapping dispute of 1986, when News International dismissed thousands of members of staff to facilitate moving to cheaper premises a few miles away. Others will suggest that the real hammer blow was the introduction of digital scanning, such as the Apple Macintosh Powerbook computers and Nikon Coolscans, which started to be used across the board by newspaper photographers allowing photographers to send (wire) images they had processed on site to their newspaper picture desks from around 1992. Others, will point out that the real damage was done when the Nikon Digital SLR, the D1, was made available in the Autumn of 1999, considered by many to be the first digital SLR that was affordable and practicable for the average working freelance professional.
Of course the truth is that the profession has been under attack for more then twenty years. Pre-Wapping each national newspaper would likely have at least 50 photographers on staff, as many again on retainer, and scores more supplying them on a regular basis around the country. The 5,000 figure mentioned earlier would back then barely have covered those working for National newspapers. Now those reliant on National newspapers for their income number less than 10% of the 1987 figure, as most papers will now have staff photographers numbered in single figures, and much the same for those on retainers. As for speculative and commissioned work around the country, this is now little and infrequent, as most papers will take material by preference from the wire services offered by agencies such as PA and Getty. Even these leviathans are using far fewer photographers than in the past.
It isn’t only the numbers of photographers that have been denuded. Payments for images used have been to all intents and purposes frozen since around 1994, expenses cut, and the photographer is now expected to do more than ever before, and use more and more expensive and complicated equipment which for the freelance means a large investment in gear and in training.
The final insult is that newspapers are now enforcing payment reductions, on those very same fees, which haven’t increased in fifteen years. News International started the latest round of cuts, and others couldn’t stop themselves from joining in, including, the Guardian, and the Glasgow Herald.
So what has this got to do with union branches?
I have been a member of the NUJ since the early eighties. Initially, I was a member of the London Freelance Branch, probably the largest branch in the Union. Based in London and working largely for publications such as the Sunday Telegraph, Telegraph, Guardian, Times, Mail, Daily Express. I regularly attended branch meetings, and in those days there were sometimes less than a dozen of us attending, (todays LFB usually manages 50+). The branch was helpful in many ways and during the eighties I found myself involved in a number of disputes the first of which was Wapping, probably one of the most unpleasant disputes in living memory. I was in my twenties, and was still recovering from the glimpses I had seen of the difficulties in the Miners strike of 1984. The shutdown of the Fleet Street premises of News International actually took me by surprise, and left me in a daze. I was also involved as a freelance in the Advertiser North London dispute.
During these painful times having contact with fellow NUJ members was a godsend. Although in these two particular disputes as a contributor I lost out, there was some help for me via the union, as well as advice, and as importantly communication.
Having others around me who could offer advice in a difficult situation has always been valuable, and often under-played buy those who have not been through the experience.
In 1999, I moved to Nottingham, and due to the distances involved I chose to move from London Freelance to Nottingham. Nottingham is a little city branch with perhaps some 150 members (as opposed to 3,500+ in LFB).
Nottingham branch is more of a community than say London Freelance. Although as with most branches the majority don’t attend one meeting to the next, there is a relatively high turnout of 12% to 15% most months, sometimes far higher. The city and county have a number of publications and organisations with chapels, so most union members tend to be unionised within the chapels associated with their workplace, so that they are closer to the work they do and the problems they have. Each such chapel has a father/mother, (a chairperson) and a secretary, and other officers from the workplace fulfil the various other roles.
The chapel officers then make regular reports to the branch, and these are read out or discussed at the meetings and the branch as a whole offers assistance as required. So in Nottingham we have chapels for the Nottingham Evening Post, BBC, and ITV. All of these have had issues over the past few years and the branch has done much to support them, whether it is industrial action (not necessarily strikes), redundancies, or individual cases of bullying.
I have participated as fully as I am able, as have many other branch members, and proffered support as and when it has been required.
For me the biggest thing about Nottingham branch is the fact that it brings together freelances and staffers from the industry into one room, once a month. The chance to exchange experiences, swap stories and network, both socially and for business is a great boon. In fact the great majority of those who attend Nottingham branch are freelance in one sector or another.
If a member has a problem that they cannot deal with on their own, or needs advice there is often someone in the branch who can help, or at least knows someone who can help. Nottingham is fortunate in that for its size it is a strong branch, and often has representatives on the National Executive Committee, several of the Industrial Councils such as the Freelance, Broadcasting and New Media.
Nottingham is fortunate too in that it has a healthy photographer membership with (for instance), Alan Lodge, Rob Rathbone, others and myself. A broad range of experience, which we are able to share with our colleagues as and when required. Many other branches do not always have that good fortune.
What of activism?
This means different things to different people of course, but when talking of activism in this context, I am thinking of trade union activism, and more precisely working to make the conditions of professional photographers better. This involves many things including (but not exclusively) remuneration, expenses, copyright, rights grabs, orphan works, helping other photographers in difficult situations, responding to calls for help, dealing with poorly grafted legislation as it affects photographers and the implementing of such.
Meet ups are very important, but so is communication in general. Without the ability to communicate with hundreds, even thousands, by way of the Internet, e-mail lists and forums, I could not possible represent photographers as effectively as I have been able to. Communication is everything, and after all, the NUJ is a communications union. Forums such as EPUK (which I am not involved with), and NVJ Photo which I am allow photographers hundreds of miles away from eachother share experiences and react very quickly indeed. It was because of the speedy communication that e-mails gave us that we were able to do so much so quickly towards helping Kash in Afghanistan. If we had had to do everything by telephone I am convinced the whole campaign would have been far more difficult, and who can say, but probably less successful.
So there are many things that people can do to get involved. Be careful not to make the mistakes I have made, and lets hope that going forward, lots of other NUJ photographer members can share in future successes, in the way that I have been privileged to have been able to do.
NUJ Photographers Branch Meeting, 6.30 pm, 16th July 2009, Headland House, 308-312, Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8DP
So very soon we could have ourselves our first photographers branch. That will be good news for all NUJ photojournalists. After that we should be asking for our own Industrial Council.