Art Inquisition: Do You Give Your Art Away for Free?
Hey Mad Art Lab! I’m Jamie. I usually write over at Skepchick Prime about statistics and politics and stuff like that, but I recently had a bit of an art quandary and Amy invited me to write a guest post about it over here at the cool kids’ corner of the Skepchick Network.
As some of you may know, when I’m not spending my time playing with numbers or dating Jon Hamm*, I am taking photos. I’ve only started learning photography around two years ago, so I’m still more of an amateur photographer but I’m getting a lot better and every once in awhile I end up with a pretty good photo or two.
* By “dating Jon Hamm” I mean I met him one time and hung out for a couple minutes in which he seemed more interested in playing Words with Friends than chatting with me. I did touch his shoulder though so that should count for something.
So, you can imagine my excitement when I was recently contacted by a reporter with the Chicago Sun Times asking if he could use one of my photos from last year’s Chicago Chinese New Year Parade in his print article on the parade for the Sun Time’s Lifestyle magazine SPLASH. He was offering no pay but promised attribution. Now, I’m not a professional photographer and have a day job as a data scientist, so I do not need to worry about selling my photography for money. Although I have been paid for my photography in the past, I’ve also done volunteer photography for various events around Chicago and even taken photos of hot dogs and strangely decorated cars for NPR. I have never, though, had one of my photos printed in a beautiful, glossy magazine, so my first instinct was to jump on the opportunity.
After a couple minutes though, I realized that something seemed a little off. I mean, doesn’t the Sun Times have their own photographers on payroll? That’s when I remembered that last May the Sun Times laid off their entire photography department including one Pulitzer prize winning photographer, opting instead to give their non-photographer journalists lessons in iPhone photography. This switch from professional photojournalists to writers with iPhones has resulted in declining photo quality in the Sun Times.
It appears from the message I received from the Sun Times journalist that when they need a photo better than what they can get on their iPhones, they troll Flickr until they find a photographer willing to let them use their photos for free. Now, to be fair, last year’s Chinese New Year parade took place prior to the firing of the Sun Times photography staff, so presumably they either have their own parade photos and just like mine better or they did not send photographers to the parade last year. Either way, my personal view is that the Sun Times is a for-profit new media organization and should not be garnering free content from local photographers. I sincerely doubt the Sun Times would ever consider asking a writer or journalist to write an article for them without pay, so why ask the same of a photographer?
When I brought up my dilemma on the Skepchick backchannel, Amy brought up another side of the matter, pointing out that even though photojournalism may be dying off due to the lack of monetary value placed on photos now that we can get so many free on the internet, so is print media. The same forces that are making it difficult to make a living as a photojournalist are also making it difficult for newspapers and magazines to remain profitable enough to survive in the internet age. The Sun Times has been in dire financial straights for many years. Frankly, it seems that the Sun Times cannot actually afford to pay photographers for all the photos they need, so if finding photographers willing to allow them use of their photos for free is the only way for them to keep their newspaper from filing for bankruptcy again, then that’s what they have to do. In fact, just the fact that they even bothered to ask my permission before using one of my photos is more than many media outlets would do.
I understand the financial problems print news media have been having, and had any other news outlet contacted me I probably would have let them use my photo. In the end though, I felt like letting the Sun Times use my photo for no pay was doing a disservice to the talented photographers that were fired last May. It just felt wrong to me, so I informed the Sun Times journalist who contacted me that I was unwilling to let them use my photo unless they considered paying me. I got back a “thanks anyways” and presumably they found another photo from a different photographer to use.
If you were put in the same situation as me, would you have let the Sun Times use your photo for free for their magazine? What if it were an online-only article? What if it were the Chicago Tribune? NPR? Do you think it was right for the Sun Times to fire their photography staff considering their financial difficulties? What do you think is the future of professional photojournalism and print media?
The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. It used to appear a couple times a week at 3pm EST. I’m not sure what happened to it, but I kind of miss it and wanted to take this guest post opportunity to revive it. Comment Comment Comment!