Posted by: kerryl29 | May 29, 2018

Market Value

I’m going to apologize in advance for what is little more than a rant.  I’ll get back to a more direct presentation of images next time.

Coneflower Morning, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from someone expressing an interest in licensing one or more of my images.  I get requests of this sort from time to time; it’s not an everyday phenomenon, but it happens frequently enough that it’s not a major surprise when it happens.  As a result, my work has been published in magazines, books, brochures and pamphlets, as well as on electronic media.

The requests for usage have emanated from both for-profit and non-profit entities.  When I’m contacted by a non-profit, I’m usually being asked to make what amounts to an “in kind donation.”  That is, the non-profit is asking me to let them use my image without payment.  If I’m sympathetic to the goals of the non-profit and as long as the agreement is of a one-time use/non-exclusive nature–i.e. the requester is licensed to use the image once, only for a single, express purpose and I retain all rights to that image going forward–I’m agreeable.  For example, I have allowed the Nature Conservancy, an organization whose work I strongly support (and, not incidentally, I’ve been a member of for many years), and a number of other smaller, regional environmental and conservation organizations with missions I believe in, to use my images without payment.  When I’m contacted by someone regarding a for-profit project, some kind of remuneration is de rigueur.  Sometimes I’m told that the offer is X–take it or leave it.  Sometimes there’s a negotiation.  Ostensibly I have a fee-schedule, but it’s rarely more than a starting point to a discussion regarding compensation.  I’ve always expressed a willingness to work with someone requesting a license as I recognize that limited funds often back comparatively arcane projects, even those that are technically for-profit.  I have, on more than one occasion, allowed others to use my images (again, one-time, non-exclusive) for a pittance.

Spring Has Sprung, Big Walnut Preserve, Indiana

In this particular instance, the request came from someone (the “senior editor”) who is part of a group based at a large, Midwestern public university, that is putting together a book that is to be published this coming fall.  The publisher is a small press located in the western United States; the subject matter is esoteric.  The original request asked for unspecified use of an unspecified number of hi-res versions of my images.  I was told that I would have to sign a publisher’s agreement.  As compensation I was offered–get ready–a publication credit, nothing more, and was told that “if I was agreeable” I would be sent “screenshots of the requested photo or photos” in question.

I found very little to like about this request and my first instinct–in retrospect, one I probably should have followed–was simply to ignore it.  For one thing, this smelled for all the world like a for-profit (if small-time) process and I was being asked (in not particularly polite terms, I might add) to make what, in a practical sense, was a donation.  There was also the not irrelevant lack of specificity: what images were they interested in using?  How many images?  Why was any definitive description being so coyly avoided?  And why did I have to express my agreement before being told of these rather key pieces of information?  And what kind of an agreement was being proposed?  Couldn’t I see the “publisher’s agreement” before acceding to something?

Potholes, Fall Creek Gorge Preserve, Indiana

But I didn’t ignore the request.  Instead, I sent the following one-sentence reply:

“Before I respond to your request, if I may ask, is this a for-profit publication?”

What I received in reply was the following:

“It is a for-profit publishing company. We are, however, doing this book on a shoestring budget. We can pay around $25 to $35 per photo, if you require a fee.”

Oh, so there is possible remuneration!  Absolutely nothing of the sort was even hinted at in the original note.  I guess the hope was that I’d be so thrilled at the original “generous offer” that I’d simply hand over my images.  Given the “oversight”–I’m being extremely generous here because I don’t believe for one second that this was anything but intentional–regarding compensation, I really should have told them, at this point, to kick rocks, but instead I replied to this note by telling this person that to consider the offer I’d need to know exactly what images they were interested in using and I’d have to see a copy of this publisher’s agreement (because if this wasn’t a non-exclusive one-time limited use arrangement, there would be no agreement of any kind, regardless of compensation).

Sweedler Preserve, Tompkins County, New York

That note was sent nearly three weeks ago; I’m sure everyone reading this will be stunned to learn that I’m still waiting for a reply.  I’m sure that everyone reading this will not be stunned to learn that I sent that note expecting to never receive a reply.

For the record, I don’t believe that the original request was part of a scam.  I believe that the project, as briefly laid out in the first e-mail I received, is essentially as described.  The request was terse, and made with all the warmth of a tarantula, but I don’t think it was technically dishonest in nature.

No.  This was a classic example of something I have seen–directly and indirectly and with increasing frequency–infecting the image-making world:  people who not only want but expect to receive something for nothing as a means to further their own pursuit of profit, even if it’s on a small scale.  What’s particularly obnoxious–at least to me–about this sort of thing is that the people who do this would never return the favor in kind.  I mean, do you think that if I (or anyone else) contacted this editor out of the blue, told her I was working on a book and asked her to edit it in exchange for a written acknowledgment, she’d agree to it?  Me either.  It would be regarded as an outrageous request.  And rightfully so.  Consider, in that light, the felicity of what was being asked of me.

Spring Forest Floor, Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, South Carolina

One of the downsides of the digital age is that the ubiquity of images–and the seemingly infinite means of sharing them–has led to an overarching devaluation of photography, as an enterprise if nothing else.  In fact, intellectual property broadly seems to have fallen to second class status.  Fighting the inherent value of something set by the (theoretically) free market may seem quixotic, but I’m unwilling to capitulate to a formula that implies that I should feel lucky to receive a photo credit in furtherance of someone else’s profit-based enterprise.  That’s not negotiable as far as I’m concerned…and never will be.

Prairie Dawn, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

All of the images accompanying this post were made in nature preserves protected by the Nature Conservancy and like-minded local and regional organizations.

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Responses

  1. Spot on Kerry! This piece falls under the “can I (publication) have something for nothing” category. I have experienced similar situations myself and due to my insistence of very reasonable compensation the publications went elsewhere for their photo content. Their loss.

    • Thanks, David. I’ve already gotten a lot of feedback to this post (most if it via Facebook comments and direct e-mail); I think this sort of thing may be even more common than I believed to be the case (which is really saying something, as I was inclined to believe it quite commonplace).

  2. Stunned? Certainly not, been there a few times. These “editors” just know they’ll eventually find someone who would be happy to agree.

    • The “stunned” remark was a sarcastic utterance. 🙂 I don’t think anyone should be surprised by any of this.

      And, agreed…the conventional approach these days is to shop around for something adequate that won’t cost anything by locating someone who’s just happy to have something published.

      • Thought it was 😁. Had to comment, though, this resonated so much!

  3. For anyone who has experienced this same issue, I heartily applaud your article, Kerry! This should serve notice to photographers to not stand for this type of treatment by those only concerned about their own fortunes. I had a similar experience where the request didn’t feel right and flatly turned it down. There are ways to get your work out there to be noticed without having to go this route. Thanks for the great article…and rant!

    • Thanks; the comment is much appreciated.

      Maybe if we all take a stand, we can fight this rising tide of devaluation. (And maybe if we all flap our arms we can fly to the moon. 🙂 )

  4. Sigh… I suspect it’s really a losing battle. I would guess that with the advent of the smart phone cameras and the selfies that there are far too many folks out there who wouldn’t recognize or appreciate a good (great!) image if it hit them over the head.
    It reminds me of my own family taking the very same photo of one or the other standing, with the same pose, in front various landmarks from their travels. For such folks, the photo becomes a thing like a dog raising its leg. See? I’ve been there! I have to give my family some credit… at least no heads were usually cut off.
    Your work creates something entirely unique. It’s stuff one can get lost in. On the other hand… (and there’s always that other hand), I suspect that I contribute to a bit of devaluation since I tend to get bored looking at the same image over a long period of time, no matter how enthralled I was with it to begin with. It’s what has ultimately kept me from committing to printing and hanging (even my own) stuff! Does that make any sense? I’m likely the type that might have been bored even with a Van Gough or an Ansel Adams! 😉

    • Thanks for the comment, Gunta; it’s much appreciated.

      I don’t think you’re devaluing anything. What you’re describing (nothing to apologize for, not incidentally) is entirely different than the sort of experience I related in this post. In the instance I described–evidently representative of a disturbingly broad phenomenon–the people in question plainly do have a desire for the images in question. They’re simply attempting to use the depressed nature of today’s photography market to avoid having to pay anything for the right to use them.

  5. Unconscionable and out of touch with common humanity. Loved your rant, Kerry. It seems there are lot of ‘takers” out in the world, and this person was certainly one of them. Good for you to call them on it.

  6. Sometimes a good rant is good for the soul, Kerry. Wish you’d have dropped some names/institutions,businesses… just to shame some folks

    • Thanks, Mike.

      I left out the specific IDs because I didn’t want to detract from the larger point (for which this instance is merely an example).

  7. Interesting. i have had two requests for photos lately. The first one I was contacted on my blog and asked if she could use it- thought it was a good cause, for a booklet for students, with the promise of credit to my name, I put a photo of a duckling in her Facebook account, but unfriended her after because I don’t know her and don’t want her to have any more. I did write to her on my blog that it was a one-time thing and to be used only for the purpose declared.. Never heard from her again, I received no thank you, nothing. Another person wanted to use my pow wow photos of “her regalia” . on her website while giving me credit.I asked her what was “her regalia” and I told her I took the photos publicly and do not have permission from the models, although the society has rights to use them but I own the photo. Never heard from her again. I realize I need to write out a contract sent by email . how do you get the pay? by Pay Pal? I can google this because it might be different in Canada. Also one company is whooing all the camera sites making it sound good but I hear their pay is not that great, none of the stock companies pay well any more..

    • Literally every time I’ve reached an agreement for compensation I’ve been paid by check, through the mail, though it often takes 4-6 weeks for it to arrive after I’ve signed an agreement. I don’t see any reason why payment couldn’t be made by PayPal (other than the incumbent fees involved in doing so).

  8. That outbuilding, and the little farmhouse, no longer exists at Nachusa Grasslands. Too bad, I bet the bison roaming around out there now would have enjoyed exploring the old place.

    • The day that image was made (you were there!) was the last time I was out to Nachusa. Didn’t realize that the buildings were gone. I haven’t been out there since the bison heard was introduced; how’s that going?

  9. The population of bison is growing fast enough to warrant recently thinning the herd. Some have been shipped elsewhere to provide some genetic diversity. So, the experiment has been successful, I guess, but long term effects of bison on limited acreage remains to be determined.

    Downside is most of the main unit has been closed to the public for safety reasons. Gone are the days of hiking from one rock outcrop to another through the big bluestem. It’s still possible to poke a camera lens through the perimeter fence, but it is a remarkably unrewarding experience; a bit like a starving person looking at diners through a restaurant window.

    • That’s really too bad, about the restricted access. Nachusa was a great place to go for prairie wildflowers in the summer.

      I should really get out to Midewin at some point this summer and see how the prairie restoration is going. When I was last there–it’s been years six or seven years–volunteers were still planting seedbeds.

  10. This is a valuable rant – in my opinion, there’s no reason to apologize for it. It serves us all well to read about your experiences, and to think about this. I agree that the proliferation of images across the internet has resulted in their devaluation. I love your table – turning question about whether the editor would give their services as readily as they expect you to give yours. I’ve had a few photos published with no monetary compensation, but I was careful about where and who, and the experience was fine. A textbook company purchased an image and again I was lucky – it all went smoothly. But the exchange you relate above is absolutely no surprise, and you have to wonder how many people are being duped. I really like your indignation and the way you stand up for your work and its value.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      A part of me feels that what I’m doing amounts to an exercise in futility–trying to hold back a tidal surge with a surfboard, if you will. Regardless of fairness, the dye is cast; imagery has been devalued and nothing I do is going to change that fact. But another part of me–the subsuming part, at least to this point–says that whether I can change the rules or not, I don’t have to play the game.


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