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Why a camera might be the least important thing a photographer brings to the job

Why a camera might be the least important thing a photographer brings to the job by Terry Hart

August 25, 2016

During the Olympics, people around the world delighted in a photo of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt winning his third gold medal in the 100m race. The photo, taken by Australian photographer Cameron Spencer for Getty Images, captures the Jamaican runner a full body length ahead of his competitors, legs and arms blurred, but torso and ear-to-ear grin in sharp focus as he crosses the finish line. The Washington Post called the photo “iconic”, saying it is “winning the internet.”

But despite the enormous contributions professional photographers like Spencer make to our social, cultural, and economic lives, many photographers themselves struggle to earn a living. So it is disappointing to read a recent article by Jonathan Band at Project Disco (a blog run by trade association CCIA) proclaim that concern over one of the major reasons for this struggle—online theft—is misplaced.

Band argues that it is primarily competition, not copyright infringement, that is to blame for the plight of professional photographers. Everyone has a camera in their pocket, he says, and that has reduced demand for professional photography. He points to Apple’s recent “shot on an iPhone” campaign as “demonstrate[ing] the enormous creativity of ordinary people enabled by digital technology.”

Band’s article demonstrates his lack of understanding for what it takes to be a professional photographer and the value of professional photography to the public. To be clear, it’s great that technology brings creative tools like the iPhone to the masses. I am in complete agreement with Band on that point. But what Band failed to mention is that Apple used both amateur and professional photographers in its campaign. This underscores the most significant reason Band’s article misses the mark. Band doesn’t understand what distinguishes professional photography from amateur photography: it’s not the technology used to take the photograph that makes a photo great, it’s the person taking the photo—their expertise, experience, vision, and imagination. The same is true in other creative professions. Whether a writer is using the latest version of Microsoft Word or a typewriter, what makes a great author is their ability to write well and captivate their audience.

On one level, Band’s argument is disappointing. Professional photographers already know they are in competition with anyone with a camera. It’s a reality they are reminded of every day they go to work. Wedding photographers routinely deal with clients who are debating between hiring a professional and just having a friend with a camera capture their special day. Commercial and media photographers know that editors and publishers are always on the look-out for alternatives to hiring their own photographer. There’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to documenting requests for creative professionals to work for free (@forexposure_txt). It’s the sad truth that so many use this reality as leverage to lower the compensation of working professionals.

But on a broader level, the argument is entirely wrong. Copyright infringement does hurt individual photographers, whether through lost compensation, missed opportunities, or stolen exposure. But the harm goes far beyond that, to the market as a whole. Editors and publishers are less likely to offer premiums for exclusives, which had long served as an important revenue stream for professionals, since they understand that, due to rampant infringement, nothing posted online remains “exclusive” for very long. And the ease of “right-click” copying perpetuates a mindset that devalues professional photography. “Why should I pay for images,” says a hypothetical internet user,” if I can just get them for free?” Meanwhile, some businesses exploit weaknesses in the law to build services predicated on uncompensated display of images. As photographer advocate Eugene Mopsik is fond of saying, “everyone has figured out how to make money off of photographs except for photographers.”

This should concern everyone, not just professional photographers. Recall the Usain Bolt photo—probably half the spectators watching that race had iPhones. But it was only Spencer’s that captured the world’s imagination and defined that moment. And it came about due to far more factors than just luck. A recent Associated Press article detailed the enormous effort and resources that are required for covering an event like the Olympics Professional photographers don’t just capture moments, they capture the truth. Photography takes skill, craft, and training—more than just the click of a button. And good photography costs more than just the price of the equipment used.