Open letter – why I charge dancers for my photos #copyright #earningaliving
No #WordyMonday today. It might be the anaesthetic (I had major surgery last week) but I’m really tired of this kind of thing, so after having had three very nice, measured and considered emails on the same theme from three different dancers this month (the most recent of which arrived today) I’ve decided to put a generic response here.
The first time someone asked me this I was gobsmacked. I’m a professional photographer, why would I not charge for my images? I should also say that these questions are only asked by dancers on the way up the ladder and not by many of them. The stars, PRs, recognised troupes, choreographers and companies and performers with more experience know how it works already. And while the established choreographers and companies produce wonderful work that I love to cover, the people I most want to help are those who practice outside the mainstream and those who are just starting out.
So if you’re one of the people who has sent me a nice measured email please don’t be offended, I’ll answer you directly if and when I have time. But chemotherapy for aggressive breast cancer has left me with long term disabilities. I manage them well enough most of the time, but don’t imagine for one minute that I have a normal person’s energy or that I can work – or even function – whenever I want. That’s part of why I’ve written this blog post. I value my relationships with all the dancers I shoot and don’t want to jeaprodise them any more than I must.
Just as a dancer wouldn’t expect to pay the writer of a book should they decide to base their choreography on its story, just as they wouldn’t expect pay the painter if their choreography was based on a painting that inspired them, a photographer – legally – has copyright of the images he or she takes. It is this kind of process that allows all art to take place, since most art is about, or derivative of, or has been inspired by something else.
In fact any photographer is legally able to shoot a public event, and it is courtesy (and a genuine desire to build a long term relationship with the dancers I’m shooting) that make me ask permission first. It’s also why journalists can write about events and photographers can deliver documentary photography on events without having to pay the people on which they’re reporting. Dance is a performance event.
Sometimes I am asked to shoot one of a number of acts. If I have time I ask the organiser if I can shoot the others too. If the organiser says yes that is great, I stay in good faith. If they say no then I’ll go.
I am a photographer and journalist. It is how I earn a living. Provision of photographs is a service. Provision of reviews is a service too. Neither would happen if there were no photographers or journalists at the event. It takes many years to become a really good photographer and more to be one who specialises in dance. Now I’m one of the best. But if I only went to shows where I had a paying commission I would never write about or photograph some of the most exciting dance in the country. Underground dance, non-funded dance, experimental dance and more are really exciting but tend not to be appealing to editors of magazines. So I’ll shoot them and one way or another will blog them and see if I can get small reviews or images in places without getting paid, because I believe in these people am enthused by their passion and really want to help.
One such up-and-coming person (as I believe them to be) sent a beautifully worded, respectful email into which had been given a lot of thought. It suggested an appropriate quid-pro-quo might be reached, the implication being that the dancer concerned had done enough by allowing themselves to be photographed. Another said – again very respectfully and nicely – that they didn’t like the idea that I was charging the dancer money for photos I had taken of them and another seemed confused as to the function of a photocall. Sadly they’ve all missed the point.
Let’s set aside the time and money it takes to get to a place, the time it takes to shoot the images, the time it takes to do good post-processing (remember we’re talking very low light) which can take between two and five times longer than the time it takes to shoot. Let’s set aside the time it takes to write something, to pitch various media and to do background research. Let’s set aside the cost of the websites, the photo storage, the cameras themselves and their maintenance. Let’s set aside the cost of the kit and all the other direct and indirect business costs. Let’s set aside the many years I’ve taken to get to this level and my level of expertise itself. Even then, there’s an opportunity cost involved which reflects the money I would have earned had I not been doing this.
I don’t get paid for the PR I generate. I don’t believe a journalist should be paid for PR because they can’t be impartial if they are. Through my blog posts alone I would probably have introduced the event and the dancers to somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 people who would not have otherwise known about the performance.
While the performers in the event did nothing more than they would otherwise have done and gave me nothing for it.
So … Can you suggest a way that will enable me to pay my bills and continue to photograph and write about the fantastic and imaginative dancers, choreographers, producers and directors that I come across? Those fantastic people who do art because they’re artists, who don’t necessarily have huge funding and may not have any, but who do their art anyway. Those people who create such wonderful dance that my heart hurts at the idea of not being able to help, or at least recognise them? Because the work I do does sometimes have other benefits, potentially much more than the commissioned work for the bigger people. Sometimes my reviews provide a little extra ammunition or proof of appreciation that helps with the next grant application or the next commission. Sometimes I get the opportunity to suggest great but lesser known dance to those who schedule big things. Soon I might even schedule them myself. And sometimes, hopefully, the external validation from a serious dance photojournalist whose images have won prizes and who has learned 68 different dance types to ensure she really knows about what she shoots and writes can do very much more.
Otherwise I’m going to have to continue to charge as I do.