Monday, March 25, 2013

The Value of a Photograph

Last week I wrote a brief post about an online Guardian piece by Rowenna Davies reflecting on a 2003 school student protest in which she took part. There's a little back-story, about the photo that accompanies it, that is also worth telling.

The Hand Up For Peace (HUFP) article originally appeared with a generic demonstration photo from Getty Images. In this context, the shot was a space-filler: it didn't add any new information, and was only marginally related to the text. The picture of mine that replaced it later the same day was one of a set I had taken of the HUFP campaign. Why the delay?

The Guardian pays the writers who contribute to its Comment Is Free pages - not a lot, but enough to make the effort worthwhile. But when they called on the morning of publication to ask for one of my photos, I was told they had “no budget for pictures”. I wasn't prepared to collude with the implication that photographs are worthless, and declined the invitation to send one in for free. Hence the image from Getty, with whom, presumably, the publisher has some form of bulk-buy, eat-as-much-as-you-can-stomach deal.

However, I have known Rowenna a long time. She is a friend of my daughter, and both were very active in the HUFP campaign, which I supported. She also recognised the value of having the right photograph to complement what she had written. So when she phoned me to offer – very honourably - to pay for the photo herself, I had to concede defeat and send one in. I didn't take the money. I don't normally turn down offers of payment but, to be meaningful, this one had to come from the publisher. Why does the Guardian (along with so many others) appear to hold photography in such low regard? Why wasn't there a budget for such a significant element of the story?

It seems that the present-day hyper-abundance of digital imagery - much of it available at little or no cost - has desensitised editors and back-room bean-counters to the power and purpose of photojournalism. If quality is no longer a concern, with newspapers under severe pressure from the web, and many associated web-based ventures failing to generate adequate revenues, why pay for the right photo when you can fill the space for nothing?

The HUFP pictures were some of the last I shot on film. Quite apart from the thought and effort I put into taking them, in order for the Guardian to find and use them, I also had to process the films, scan the negatives, optimise the digital files, caption and keyword them, upload them to my website and keep them there. For ten years. All these things cost time, money, or both. If nobody pays up, it's not a sustainable way of earning a living.

This is not just a result of the precarious economic situation. After all budgets, although cut, are still there for writers - it's only photographers who are ever asked to work for free. But budgets reflect priorities, and suggest that the real problem is the failure of many publishers to recognise the journalistic value of the right photograph. How we ensure that they do is not obvious, but doing what I did in this (I plead, special) case is not the way to go, for which I apologise to my fellow photographers.

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