I’d rather be writing about something else

Here we go YET AGAIN! I’m starting to get just the tiniest bit annoyed* at attempts by government to destroy copyright law while claiming it’s progress.

This time it’s the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) showing a distinct lack of intellect on the issue.

Last time this was tried, back in 2010, we were at the cusp of a new government and the Digital Economy Act was being hammered out in Parliament. The clause of contention for photographers was Clause 43 which would have allowed the use of orphan works (photos whose author could not be traced) without the copyright holder’s permission.

Luckily for us, after intense lobbying by photographers, the Stop43 campaign and others, the Conservatives (then in opposition to the Labour government) agreed to pass the act only if clause 43 was removed.

Now it’s back, but this time it’s even worse and it’s now part of a bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is unrelated to copyright and therefore fewer people are aware of its existence. Even worse, if passed as primary legislation any future changes to the act will be permissible as secondary legislation without the need of a return to Parliament. Didn’t I previously say democracy was being undermined?

Clauses 67-69 effectively strip the automatic right of copyright from anyone who creates a work including photographs. Within those three clauses you lose the right to control your images if they are found on the internet but not easily traceable to you, you lose the right to say whether or not a photo can be used in any given context and you lose the ability to negotiate your own fees should you decide to sell rights in your photo. In addition, the bill extends exceptions to copyright so more people can use your work, including commercially, with no need to ask permission first.

Of course this is a dire situation for photographers whose livelihoods are built on copyright, but it will affect anyone who takes a photo they wish only to be used in limited ways. Amateurs and professionals alike will be affected.

The clauses also ride roughshod over the rights of the subjects within photographs to decide the limits of use of their likeness. It breaches international copyright laws, though apparently the IPO don’t know enough about copyright to understand this. In short, it is an ill-conceived mess reminiscent of reforms to the NHS, education, just about anything ministers decide to change before they’ve properly considered the issues involved.

What professionals and amateurs need to do is lobby their MPs, lobby the Lords and make it clear these clauses do not belong in this bill. Copyright may well need reform, but it’s too big an issue to shuffle past our noses disguised within another bill, and these clauses are not the answer. If the question is how do we stimulate growth in the UK economy, the answer has to be better planned than this.

Further reading and guidance on how you can get involved:



*My entry for Understatement of the Year Awards 2013

Horse Meat Found in Cheap Photography

I was listening to Billy Bragg being interviewed on the radio the other day and while he was never one of my favourite artists, he has always made a fair amount of sense. On this occasion he was even good enough to admit his voice was never his strong point. Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to an apology for his vocal on Between the Wars.

During this interview Billy was talking about the state of the record industry and the difficulty young working-class singers and songwriters face when trying to get a big break because of the way the industry has changed. The interviewer suggested that surely the market would seek out the best talent, regardless of background, to which Bill replied, “You know what happens if we leave it to the market, you get horse meat in your burgers.”

The wider point Mr Bragg was making was that the record industry no longer has a filter in the form of the likes of John Peel who would have plucked an artist from obscurity on the basis of a few good songs regardless of background. Billy believes it’s often the privileged kids from public schools who get the break and as he put it are “clogging up the charts.”

This “class” issue is an interesting one affecting photojournalism, and has lead to a situation where photographers have to self-fund coverage of events, then hope to sell the images to publishers who can force prices down because as they see it the pictures have already been shot and the photographer will be grateful to claw back some of their costs, never mind make a living. Success is now more to do with whether you can fund your shoots rather than pure talent.

I rarely shoot editorial in the purest sense now. Newspapers rarely call me up to shoot assignments for them (my previous post explains where they get pictures from since the collapse of their budgets), though I still shoot PR pictures in a style to suit newspapers. I won’t fund assignments in the hope of selling something later. I do shoot personal projects and if I sell something from those that’s fine, but it’ll be at my own prices and on my own terms.

Horses racing the final furlong at Bath Racecourse

Is your corporate image a winner, or a Findus dinner?

In the corporate photography sector there is also downward pressure on prices, but I decided a couple of years ago, even in the grip of a deep recession, to set my rates and stick to them. I have to say I’m glad I did because when I see some of the work being churned out by photographers charging significantly less than me, I’m happy to boast that their clients are not getting what I offer. I don’t think I’m some David Bailey of the corporate photography world, but I know what I do well, I stick to doing it and I charge what I believe is a fair rate for the quality and service I offer.

I genuinely believe if a corporate client is only interested in getting the cheapest photography they can find, they won’t get anything worth having. Newspapers have already proved this theory. Their imagery is more horse meat than beef right now. Businesses wanting to avoid the Findus fate will invest properly in their images because people aren’t stupid. They can spot bull in photos and they don’t need a DNA test for that.

Democratising Photography is Killing Democracy – An Essay

Alongside “digital revolution”, the phrase “democratisation of photography” is one of the most irritating phrases to come out of the… um… digital revolution.

Both are self-serving expressions designed to suggest something unrelentingly positive and benign; a conjuror’s sleight of hand designed to distract us from the awkward realities they conceal. The digital revolution (or reduction of everything to digits) has plenty of winners and losers, a subject worthy of another article. Here I’m looking in particular at what “democratisation of photography” means and its consequences.

Democratisation of photography refers to the ubiquity of cameras and the relative ease of publishing or sharing images electronically. In the days of film it wasn’t that so few people took photos or that you needed a licence to own and use a camera, it’s just that now everyone has the ability to publish their photos where once this was the preserve of the professional. Photo-sharing has made public what once was hidden away in shoe boxes in the attic.

While it’s true that publishing a photo is easier than ever, is this democracy? I mean, REAL democracy? Are peoples’ lives improved as a result? Will governments fall because the tools to publish are no longer confined to the photojournalist? I fear we may find we lose more than we gain in this exchange.

There was a time, not that long ago, when photographers of a very high calibre were employed in fairly high numbers by newspapers to take the majority of the images that were published. These men and women of Her Majesty’s Press would be out on the streets acting as the eyes and ears of journalists who were generally chained to their desks where they could stay warm in Winter, cool in Summer, drink coffee and write some nice words to go around the photos in the newspaper.

Much of what photographers covered was mundane and routine; Sunday church fetes, cheque presentations and mayoral visits, but also very often at the sharp end of things. Road traffic incidents, court hearings, sieges, house fires, reports of break-ins, covering the misdemeanors of government officials or those in charge of our children, all of life was visible to the press photographer’s lens, where it might not otherwise have been visible to wider society. And yes, sometimes a bit too much of life – the celebrity end got out of hand to say the least, but again that’s a separate article.

Photographers often found themselves at a tangent with officials of the state, having to educate police officers and court officials on the law surrounding the seizure of journalistic material or the right to take pictures from a public place, and often the photographer would win (and get the shot) because they’d been trained in these specific areas even when the officials they faced had not.

That era of scrutiny and resistance to mis-used power may well be over. The Bristol Evening Post has made all its photographers redundant. Not a single staff photographer any more. Much the same story has been repeated at titles all over the country and the network of dedicated, trained, experienced freelancers is dwindling as rates have dropped below levels enough to sustain a business. The training structures for photographers are falling away too.

Many of the photos you see in your local paper now are supplied via a PR agency or taken by readers and newspapers are happy to exploit as much free content as they can get their hands on. Unfortunately this has lead to a drop in the quality of local reporting. Many journalists only have enough hours in the day to sit and re-write (or copy and paste) press releases.

Local papers no longer battle on behalf of their readers or uncover the stories that used to help them sell. When newspapers rely on the public to submit pictures of events, sometimes scenes of crime or accidents, they’re effectively using untrained photojournalists (citizen journalists, another dreadful term) in situations where only trained professionals should be. Even at events as benign as the switching on of town Christmas illuminations there have been occasions when amateur photographers have been told to delete photos from their cameras or face arrest. Without the training to defend their rights, some comply.

How has all of this come about? Partly the general decline in newspaper readerships and thereby their advertising revenues, a decline which started long before the internet became the threat to newspapers that it is today. Executives could have invested in the future of newspapers, instead they insisted on unrealistic profit margins, only attainable by the stripping of assets and a decline in investment in journalism.

Newspaper executives believe their salvation lies in charging for online and dwindling print advertising, while not paying for the things that make people want to read their publications; good journalism reinforced with good photography.

What this coincidence of internet innovation and executive incompetence means is we no longer have the voice we had. It’s a mistake to believe online campaigns can take off where newspapers now fail. We need well-trained journalists, photographers and editors to distill the issues that affect our daily lives and this must start with regional papers, firstly because national newspapers often pick up on local stories, secondly because although we may currently still have some of the best writers and photographers in the world among our national press, there is no longer the training ground and career structure in the regions that will feed into the nationals in generations to come.

I very strongly believe that a lively press is the foundation of real democracy. I believe newspapers could regain some lost ground by investing in their online versions, which are by and large risible, but it’ll take a very courageous chief executive and a great deal of shareholder patience to succeed. Quality, in-depth news coverage requires real human resources and deep pockets. There is no way of doing it on the cheap.

It’s astonishing that in the light of the Leveson enquiry newspapers continue to under-invest in editorial staff. Training is vital to prevent future misadventures, yet many newspapers rely on unpaid interns to make up the shortfall in the newsroom. In terms of photojournalism there will be less scrutiny of those in public office and an increase in incidents of members of the public getting into trouble or hurt when they try to do a professional’s job.

Democracy isn’t cheap and it certainly means more than the ability to take and share photos. Let’s not be distracted with all the cool new stuff we can do while some of the necessary stuff that used to happen takes us into a future where real democracy is devalued, swept aside to make way for the digital revolution.