Professional Photojournalists Can Learn Some Lessons From American Farmers—Really

A sorghum field in South Texas near Kingsville. (Matt Pierce)

I spend plenty of time in the fields with farmers who teach me about their craft and their trade so I can help tell their story. When I am out and about I view myself as a student learning something about one topic or another in hopes that it can somehow make you and I better citizens of our world—maybe even a bit more responsible. But of the things that I learn from our farmers is that humility that only a farmer can really have.

Recently I was contemplating the news industry as a whole and where I stand with one of my clients. I was debating if working with this news outlet was even worth it or not and why I even put in so much effort into maintaining these relationships with them? The answer wasn’t clear and in many respect it still isn’t, but one thing is clear—it takes some humility to get the job done. A farmer taught me that.

I was recently talking to some farmers who were explaining to me that their market prices were not meeting their production. You seem to hear that often from the farmers and they are right. Their expenses are increasing while the amount that they get at market isn’t. Technology costs and tech companies are only furthering the damage done to the industry in many aspects. The market isn’t supporting them the way that it used to support them.

Despite all of that the farmer keeps plowing and plugging away doing what he does while trying to make ends meet. The farmer doesn’t complain about bad management and businesspeople who make their lives harder while trying to increase their own value. No, the farmer just goes on doing whatever the farmer does.

To put that in perspective for me, I compared the farmer to a photojournalist. Unlike the farmer, there are plenty of us to go around. It seems like with advancement of smartphone technology the requirements to be a news photojournalist are pretty low. Like with most thing the barrier to entry is at least somewhat gone. If you have a little bit of money to play with and a desire to do this kind of work then you can pretty easily get into it. Key words there: “little bit of money.”

That is where apps like Stringr come into play and where news managers that use those services have their cross to bear.

You see, like a farmer fuel is worth the price of gold and a photojournalist has to pay that price in order to get from job to job—especially at the local level. Where I live gasoline prices are nearing $3 per gallon. Most jobs posted on the Stringr app are 15 to 20 miles away from my home. In theory, that is a gallon of gas one way and a gallon of gas the other way. Most jobs that you find on Stringr out here in the middle of the world are like that—we do not live in the major population centers of the country.

In addition to the gasoline and vehicle maintenance we have to pay for our smartphones, pay for our cell service, pay for our data, and pay for our insurance. We also have other expenses that we pay for like thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, editing software, and other business related expenses. Like the farmer we foot all of the expenses, take all of the risk and reap very little reward even if we manage to get the video sold through that platform.

Did you also know that when you send content into places like Stringr, they distribute that to other paying customers while you get a measly $30-$55 bucks IF IT IS USED by one of their customers.

Truth of the matter is that professionals take all of the risk and Stringr and apps like it offer little assurances for a professional to make anything in return. They are geared for amateurs and not professionals. Problem is that professional organizations are buying that video from apps like Stringr and sending the shaft to hardworking professionals.

Of course, they say that there is a “professional level” for professional shooters, but little is known about that program and what it seems is that there is little to no assurance that even then you will get paid for accepting an assignment from one of these platforms.

I guess I should back up a little bit and explain how this works: The app like Stringr posts an “assignment” on their platform and freelancers can accept those jobs as they come up. If you accept the job you drive to the location and gather the video content. From there you edit it and submit and hope that the content is picked up by a media outlet. If it is, you get paid. If it isn’t, you as a professional are just out that money that you spent to gather the video. Do you see the problem here? Of course you do.

So, again, like a farmer we take all of the risk and end up without even enough to make expenses. So not to single out Stringr and the content buyers that use the services, other places like Shutterstock and iStock by Getty do a very similar thing. You can upload hundreds of images and few of them ever get purchased by buyers. Problem here is that even fewer of them are ever even shown to potential buyers. Again, you take all of the risk and get very little earnings. I think this year I may have spent 100 hours uploading content to iStock by Getty and have made about $33. Not to mention all of the time, gas, equipment and insurance that I put into getting them. The problem here is that professionals are being cut out of the equation and our industry is taking the hit. Professional photojournalists are being kicked about by their industry.

So, can we learn a lot from a farmer? Sure we can. WE can learn to just never complain, work long hours, never get paid a fair wage, and get dumped on by big corporations all while living up to a higher expectation.

Perhaps to level the playing field we need a legislative change. Obviously, I do not support forcing photojournalists to register with government agencies or anything like that—far from it. I also support an open and free marketplace. What I do not support is this idea that professionals can be traded in for hobbyists and amateur shooters. What sets us apart is the education, professionalism, experience, and equipment provided by a professional. Perhaps we need checks and balances in place for freelancers who provide a very important service? Perhaps what we need is to make sure that photojournalists are paid properly and compensated fairly for our time, experience, and equipment.

By banding together we can put a stop these practices just like the farmers did by creating co-ops. We can bypass these deceptive and unethical practices by boycotting these apps and by boycotting news outlets that use their content. Leave them to their own struggles to find the cheap content that they “demand.” My suggestion is that we make it harder for these companies to operate and harder for these media outlets to buy their cheap content—just like the farmers. We need to control the market prices.

To all of my professional photographers out there I have a message: Band Together and Stop This Unethical Madness.

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