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News & Insight

Sports Illustrated Lays Off Three Photo Execs & Photographers Are Losing It. But Why?

By Kishore Sawh on January 20th 2016

If you’ve been paying attention to the photography publishing world lately, you may have thought the sky was caving in since Sports Illustrated magazine, published by Time Inc., has laid off three top photo-related executives. Director of Photography Brad Smith, Photo Editor Claire Bourgeois, and Photo Director John Blackmar have all been fired, let-go, made redundant, or what ever way most properly fits, and many photographers would have you absolutely crying foul.

But is anyone really surprised? If you’ve been working in the photography or publishing industry in any capacity over the past ten years, you’d surely have noticed a crescendo of lay-offs of staff photographers country and world-wide. Sports Illustrated was one of a few magazines with staff photographers left, and the final six of those were binned last year, again causing much hoopla in the form of fiery-spit and venom from the mouths of working professional photographers.

So, that it should be greeted with incredulity that the rest of the photo execs would be downsized should, in itself, really be what’s greeted with stupefaction. The writing wasn’t just on the wall, as much as it’s been embossed in bold on the insides of eyelids.

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This pertains, if anything, especially to Time Inc. publications like SI, which have been at the center of a very controversial photography contract that has only seen 50% of the photographers actually sign it. The contractual agreement would see the majority of control of images be severely limited by the photographer, with no limits of use by the publications – including selling, branding, and so forth. Even amidst outcry, Time Inc. has thus far stood by their contract calling it ‘fair and equitable,” and continued to mention that half of approached photographers sign it. That said, there’s been some suggestion of change afoot as rumors that the success rate of the contract was low enough for Time Inc to warrant a re-draft, but who knows.

From my experience, many photographers haven’t a clue about the changing landscape of media, marketing, and publishing. As creatives, we tend to find ourselves engrossed in the craft, and that’s not really a bad thing, but sometimes it pays to look up, because our track record shows that we’re not typically early adopters of change. We can also be elitists of sorts, and any comment thread of articles like this highlights that, as evidenced by the almost soul-crushing predictability of comments that yammer on about amateurs using Rebels and iPhones and how they’ll never match the pros.

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But here’s the thing, many ‘amateurs’ who are undercutting so-called pros, are doing damn good work whether we like that they are or not, and for traditional publications who are seeing circulation and readership fall dramatically (Sports Illustrated is one of those, spare one issue – guess which…), that they should seek more economical routes makes sense for them, just not us. How can we expect publications run by a bottom line not to? So the landscape of our craft and medium is changing and rapidly, so must we change with it. And cream, will always rise to the top, period.

Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.
– Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral.

[REWIND: WHAT MAJOR PUBLICATIONS GO THROUGH & LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING PHOTOGRAPHERS]

What do you think? Are you an adapter? Do you truly believe that photographers can fight to keep things more as they were and that the landscape can avoid the massive audience and marketing shift? Do you believe the hallmarks of a professional are the same now as they were 15 years ago? And here’s the jackpot question, do you think this kind of photography work is going to be a viable career choice in the near future?

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bob Davis

    Nothing really new here…the TV networks started doing this 20yrs ago and moved on to the freelance market for their crews. One thing that bit ESPN is the IRS which said that their full time freelancers weren’t actually freelancers and they had to hire them on as staff…For magazines to get around this they will just hire a bunch of different photographers and not settle on just a few.

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  2. David Laplante

    To make money you have to get job not wait for it to come. If you are at the top of your art ,if you shoot what people want to see you will be successful.
    Marketing is a thing but Branding you work is even more important be consistant make outstanding work stop looking at others work make your own and you will stand out. Thats what i’m telling myself and im now in the 6 numbers per year.Stock is a thing but fake looking pictures that you see from a website to another dont add value to companies these days, since everyone can access it same for drone videography or photography the more there will be the less spectacular the shots before it was rare to see aerial shots now it’s normal.

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  3. Donald Jones

    Increasingly, what used to be a knowledge and skill gap between pro’s and amateurs is being bridged by technology. Add to that the move to digital publication versus print makes the market less accommodating to the “professional” photographer. Except for those at the tip top, the money now is in workshops or volume work.

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    • Barry Chapman

      There do seem to be more and more photographers who seem to be deriving much, perhaps most of their income from workshops, setting up and aggressively marketing online mentoring, and the training circuit.

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  4. norman tesch

    stop selling to stock places for pennies. everywhere you look people say market for what your worth. dont forget the magazines also need photographers. who will buy an issue of sports illestrated with no photos. sure there will be people out there with their i phone in the nose bleed seats and as long as the pics dont have to be bigger than the screen it will be good enough but what is next have high school kids wright the articles so they dont have to pay writers? what more can they say if you watched the game on tv?

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      I agree with you about selling to stock companies. Unless you’re doing a massive amount of volume there is no money in it. My experience with Corbis & Demotix is dismal for the fact that I have photos out there they’ve sold and I haven’t been paid for or was paid very little for.

      And just as a note – you can publish iPhone photos in a magazine and they will look fine. There are some wonderful point and shoot cameras that will produce photos worthy of being published. All of that is part of the problem. The publications aren’t paying top dollar for the best photographers because they don’t have to anymore.

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      And the stock photography market just got a little worse today with Corbis being sold off to Getty in China. The site Demotix, where many of us contributed to as independent photojournalists is now gone, without notification and with many of us (myself included) being owed money. Adding insult to injury many of our photos are at Corbis, where we have no legal relationship with. So yeah, stay away from stock!

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  5. lee christiansen

    So often the phrase “adapt or die” is thrown out but as Steven says, adapt to what?

    When the market rates are being hit by part timers who don’t need to earn a full time crust from selling images it will hit those who need to sell their services at a reasonable rate.

    I guess we can all go out and get proper” jobs and just do our photography part time – that would be adapting. I could earn less and adapt that way. Or someone asked why don’t I just double the amount of clients (bless ’em for trying to help…)

    Clients are trying more to grab exclusive rights or even copyright to images which restricts the all important future sales of images. Refuse and there is another photographer happy to do it – either because they’re desperate enough to agree, or because it’s not their full time income and they’re just chuffed to see their pic in print. Perhaps if we all hold out things will change, but the photographic community just doesn’t act as a whole that way to enact change quick enough before the rest go out of business.

    We all see pics taken with iPhones in publications and magazines. Adapt to that…? Not sure how I compete with free. And the quality is often good enough – its not like the black magic we had with film, it’s getting easier to get a decent pic without a pro.

    I shot for a very expensive brochure recently. Many of the images already to be included were with iPhones, and some of them were quite acceptable. Now of course I’m bringing my lights and retouching to the game and mine had an extra something – but it leaves the client asking if good enough is good enough, is that extra quality worth the extra £££ and often they’re deciding no it’s not.

    And of course we’ve all seen amazing images from amateurs. Quality doesn’t just belong to us pros anymore.

    There will always be a need for quality images, but this isn’t the domain of just the pro anymore – and this is in part what is hurting our industry. Why pay £££ when a credit will suffice?

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  6. Steven Pellegrino

    This is the stuff that hits me in the wallet because I don’t get paid until my photos are published. Assignment work for a freelancer is slow and low paying. For over a year I was shooting images exclusively for Corbis Images and their breaking news stock division Demotix and a few months ago stopped because I’m not getting paid. My photos have sold, because I’ve found them, but I don’t get notified and am owed for photos published in June and September.

    Recently I was watching an interview with David Burnett and he was talking about some of these companies, like Corbis, Getty, etc and how they are all racing to the bottom, price-wise. The cheaper they sell their images the less we make. A few days ago I read that Corbis is breaking up their company.

    I see it all the time, especially on Twitter, where someone posts photos of a breaking news story and several media outlets will tweet out “great photos, can we use them and we’ll make sure you get credit”. The pros will turn them down right away, but there are enough people shooting enough photos and would be thrilled to get a national credit, just for the fun of it.

    So you ask “are you adapter”? Adapt? Adapt to what? Working for credit? Working for less money? I don’t know what the new business model is supposed to be. Quality isn’t the first priority. Good enough and free seem to be the direction this is heading. Looking forward my only choice for adapting is to find a different area of photography to specialize in or get out.

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    • Anders Madsen

      Your last paragraph probably sums up the state of news photography quite nicely – it’s a dying craft and while there will probably always be a small niche left for the really good (just like someone making their living repairing horse carriages today), most pros will be better off seeking new opportunities and diversify if they are freelancers.

      On the plus side, I’m experiencing a higher demand for professional photography services from companies looking to enhance their websites, LinkedIn- and Facebook-pages and the like – the days where the employee portrait were done with a cellphone against the white wall next to the toilets are slowly coming to an end, at least in my part of the woods.

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  7. Justin Haugen

    Great points Kishore. Every time a new process or product comes out that can help us be at the cutting edge of our craft, we should investigate it instead of question and mock it. I’d rather be ahead of that rat race than to be left behind. I think that type of mindset is going to be phase itself out eventually as it’s a relic of a more lucrative and secular era in photography.

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      Your sentiment is nice, but as it pertains to this it doesn’t mean much. There isn’t a new product or process you can buy that will encourage a magazine to pay you, the photographer, top dollar.

      Take Kishore’s comment:
      “So the landscape of our craft and medium is changing and rapidly, so must we change with it. And cream, will always rise to the top, period.”

      Don’t you think that Sports Illustrated already has the cream of the crop when it comes to sports photographers? And I don’t care how much money you spend on gear, to get the best photos you need access and without being credentialed, you’re not getting your bag of gear into a pro sporting event.

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    • Justin Haugen

      Sorry Steve, I don’t work in your field so my struggle isn’t the same. Everything you’re saying is valid.

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