Guilt, gratitude, music photography

Added on by Leah Robertson.

It’s Thursday, and three days have passed since I came home from shooting Golden Plains Music Festival. It was gear-meltingly hot all weekend, and I’m still exhausted. I reckon I clocked two twelve-hour days of shooting, plus another maybe ten hours editing. 
I’ll be paid $200* for my work - flat, without allowances for travel, nor additional fees for post-production. The pictures will run on TheVine, a broadly-read, Fairfax-owned entertainment site. 

This, in the live music photography world, is a privileged position to be in. TheVine treat their contributors financially better and with more respect than most other Australian music/entertainment sites, which is why I’ve shot (live music) for them exclusively for the past while. 

And I’m happy to, to a point - despite this rate working out at around $5/hr for something like Golden Plains - because I love shooting music, and something’s better than nothing, right? And, as everyone repeats to me: no-one earns anything in music editorial. 

I’m ‘happy to’, also, because in some ways I’ve been trained to be. Emerging music photographers are taught early that being selected to shoot a show is a privilege, and that their payment (which is more often than not show admission) is fair, even enviable. There are plenty of other people who want the job. The tickets are expensive; you’re lucky.

These arguments have been repeated to me so many times - by editors, and by other photographers - that it seems most everyone believes this. I don’t. I think it’s bullshit - a skewed culture of imposed gratitude, applied in the wrong direction. I am not grateful for the opportunity to work for free or for a low rate. 

A healthy system would work like this: photographers are hired to shoot something because their work is worthy of publication, because they’ve worked hard to get it to that standard. They would retain full copyright always, and be paid, and if payment is impossible (which, granted, it sometimes is) then other compensations would be made. Made because editors are grateful for the favour their photographers are doing for them.

For example, such compensations could look like: loosening licensing restrictions so that once the commissioning publication has run the pictures the photographer can on-sell them for profit. Like: minimising photographers’ festival expenses by arranging food vouchers, in return for including pictures of the catering outlet in their festival gallery. Like a bartering system where a publication works with its key advertisers to help sponsor photographers’ exhibitions or books. Or simple stuff: throwing photographers comp passes to shows they're not shooting.

I’m not pitching these as concrete suggestions - rather, pointing out that with a little thought and creativity (of which there is no shortage within music media) contributors could feel valued even when they aren’t being so financially. 

Regarding finance: photography’s a prohibitively expensive profession. We outlay for equipment, for maintenance, for insurance, studio hire, computers, backup systems. If we’re not paid, we don’t break even as assumed, because we need to recoup expenses. In fact, we usually factor our business expenses into our quotes.

I currently feel so unvalued doing this type of work that I’m on the cusp of abandoning music shoots entirely to work only in fair photographic sectors that will reward me for my services. I watched another music photographer whose work I admire very much get to this point recently and drop out, which was sad. I wanted to see where her music work would end up. But I understood, too - it’s exhausting and thankless, and the only alternative is to work outside these parameters and create your own game, which is only possible if you have the trifecta of confidence, business smarts and high creativity. It’s rare and I don’t - which leaves me and those like me at the whim of employers, crossing my fingers.

 Or has me leaving.

Now, I feel guilty for writing all this. It’s uncomfortable to step outside that pervasive indebted mentality. But I’ve come, eventually, to see the situation this way: people hire me because they're impressed by the body of work I have worked really, really hard to produce. Thus, the only person I need to feel grateful to for being hired is myself. And those who have taught and supported me along the way. 

Perhaps, affirmative psych talk (there’s been a lot of therapy). But a job’s high desirability does not make it ok to skew contributors into believing they’re lucky to do that job for pittance. Nor does it equate to something being easy work. Multi-day festivals are some of the hardest jobs I’ve ever shot. While writers work in teams and alternate to ensure rest, photographers generally cover whole events alone, not stopping for fear of missing something, with an extra 15kg on our backs. 


As we stand, the 2011-12 MEAA recommended freelance photography rates (currently in review) are:

Photojournalists, per day: $1,135
Photographers, per day: $911
Per half day: $607
Per hour: $227

Photo reproduction $217 for a single column photo, scaling upward from there.

This means, for a job like Golden Plains, at one of the highest rates available from an entertainment publication for live music photography, I worked at 5.8%* of my recommended rate as a music photojournalist (if we calculate the rate offered to me at $66.66/day* and if we ignore the business operational costs I generally charge for).

I see no reason why large, commercial entertainment publications are exempt from at least working toward these rates. Clearly the full amounts would be laughable to many (especially those that don’t understand the costs of running a photographic business), but surely no-one would argue against an increase from the 5.8%* mark (which is the top tier, remember). Sites like TheVine and FasterLouder/Mess+Noise are backed by huge companies (Fairfax, Sound Alliance - the latter funding their publishing component with an advertising sector boasting clients such as Smirnoff and Red Bull). Their homepage advertisers are currently, respectively Optus, Vodafone and CUB.

This is not indie publishing, and I need to feed myself.


A post-script: employing keen young photographers who don’t know their craft to work for free is not giving them a leg up - it’s exploitation and it’s damaging to the industry. Stop it.

This post is in part inspired by exhaustion and in part by this Tumblr and its spreadsheet, which lists publications globally and outlines how they treat their photographic contributors.


* EDIT: I was unaware before publishing that TheVine are in fact offering $300 for work completed at Golden Plains, making the top-tier example rate slightly higher and increasing payment to 8.8% of the recommended industry standard.
Also it should be noted that this post is not intended as an attack on TheVine solely - rather, I am using my recent work for them to illustrate a broader problem. In fact, if other publications lifted their contributor treatment to TheVine's standard it would be an excellent start.