Monday, 14 June 2010

I can't work for national newspapers, but I'm a photojournalist; I need someone to publish my work.

 A colleague asked me today, what he should be doing with a lifetime of acquired skills as a photographer  working for newspapers, when newspapers were down sizing, losing staff and cutting budgets to freelances?

What answers could I give to this question, especially as we have just learned that the Mirror Group is following the Guardian, News International and others in losing photographic contributors.

A few years ago after spending all my working life supplying newspapers as a freelance I had to make the decision to carry on regardless, supplying regular newspaper clients for the same money each year, whilst my expenses increased, and in the case of regional newspapers actually for less money than a few years before, or to say enough is enough.

My business model of supplying mostly national newspapers was no longer viable.

Whilst the actual catalyst of change for me was the death of my business partner, it was clear that had that not happened the business would either have slowly expired, or maybe, if I had been lucky my little agency might have been bought out by Getty or one of the others.

The change was difficult, painful, and hard.

I left sport - my comfort zone for more than 25 years, and London where I had been based.  I ended up going part-time for two years – in Nottingham.

When I came back to full-time smudging it was not as a smudger, but as a photographer supplying editorial imagery to businesses, non government organisations, and the local authority.  I also do a hell of a lot of stock.  

From 2003 - 2009 my business improved year on year, quarter on quarter, although the overheads are somewhat scary compared to say 1994 - (the last year I experienced a proper increase in pay from a newspaper).

This last 18 months have been very difficult, and my gross has remained static.  I have had to continue re-inventing myself, my work and finding new clients all this time, and am doing so today.  It is not easy; there is no magic spell.  Many of us (photographers) will not make it through to retirement as full-time photographers; that is clear.  Statistically I suspect those of us who have been in the industry longest will have the best chance of weathering the difficulties.

The one thing I am certain of, however we survive, and to whoever we manage to sell our work, few of us will find that newspapers form a majority of our clientele going forward. The Guardian, The Telegraph, News International, Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Post, and now Mirror Group Newspapers all have either dispensed with staff photographers or cut back to no more than a handful.

Freelancers whilst used in droves twenty years ago, are now hardly budgeted for.  We have to get real, and have to understand, that whilst we may be photojournalists by trade, training and profession, we simply aren't going to be supplying newspapers going forward.

I spoke at length to one of the local universities here in Nottingham a few weeks ago, and virtually none of those who get degrees go into the photographic industry, and none of them become photojournalists, (can't imagine what they do with all those Photography degrees).

"Where do I go now?" My friend asked.

Newspapers are not the only outlets for editorial photography.

In the last fortnight, I have photographed a garden centre and an Aikido Dojo for web sites and promo literature.  I have supplied a German photo agency with hundreds of stock images, I have supplied imagery to the local council for their brochures, edited hundreds of images for UK based photo agencies, supplied images to several unions for web use and staff magazines, copied a 1950s photo album and made it into a photo book, resurrected several 'turn of the century' photographs, and reprinted them for private use.

All of these things have utilised my skills as a digital editorial photographer, none of these clients is a newspaper.

Nobody said it would be easy.

Pete Jenkins

Member of: The National Union of Journalists


  1. Spot on Pete ....

    I never thought in a million years after starting out as an NCTJ trained apprentice photographer and making my way through local newspapers to the heady heights of Chief Photographer and then Picture Editor, that, nine years after freelancing that things would turn out so bad.

    So, we all have to find new niches and forms of income. I design digital books for clients using my images and those of others, I sell framed images, I supply stock images.

    I, horror of horrors, have moved into photographing high end weddings .... Luckily, the high end wedding market can be a lucrative if competitive place, but they're just like shooting a feature and they're with a nice bunch of people, in lovely locations, they feed you well and appreciate your hard work and creativity - and they pay better than most any other work I do nowadays.

    I never in a million years thought I would cover weddings as a trained editorial photographer......but once you get into the market, you realise how much that business has changed and how focussed they are towards quality and training and customer service, which is rewarded very well indeed.

    It's bloody hard graft being on your feet for 12 hours or more at my age, but I enjoy the flexibility, the creativity and the clients.

    This year for the first time, broad based editorial / PR / marketing and corporate income has been surpassed by weddings income.

    I haven't worked directly for newspapers for 6 years, and I'm sure I never will. They have cut their own throats, but I'm not going to cut mine.

  2. I'll bet there are many similar stories, Pete. Since I went freelance after 20 years as a sub I do less than 5% of my work as a shifting sub in the magazine sector where I used to work. But I am getting more work than ever from a greater and more stimulating variety of sources.

    I'm not saying it's all easy, and there are the usual worries about long-term income. But I don't regret my move.

    What's interesting about what you say, and what I've found, is that the skills we've built up are still in demand. And that's the key. Instead of futile attempts to 'stop' people taking photographs, writing or otherwise producing content, we need to be arguing and demonstrating the value of skill. Most people can take a photograph, but most, I would imagine, cannot do it as well as you – which is why clients will go to you.

    Sure, there will be some who want content for free or on the cheap. But there's still a demand for quality, arguably more so in our media-saturated age, and that's where the skill comes in. And the proper pay.