So you want to be a freelance photographer?

You hate your job. You have a job that many other people are studying for, being interviewed for, are dreaming about. A job that other people only wish they could do. You’re a secretary, a lawyer, an IT consultant … fill in the blanks. But you hate it. You simply must change your life. You want to be free, you want to be creative. You want to earn more money! (Preferably while sitting on the beach or languishing on a tropical island.) You want to meet interesting, creative people and be inspired by their quick wit, their years of experience, their completely over the top ideas.

And how can you achieve this lifestyle? By being a freelance photographer, of course!

Well, since I am a freelance photogapher, and wouldn’t change what I do for anything (unless I could exchange it for the abovementioned lifestyle, of course), far be it from me to try and discourage you in any way. If you can dream it, you can live it.

The glamourous life of a freelance photographer has a few pitfalls along the way, though. And this week I have been stewing about a new one. Here’s the story:

I have a client. A nice one. A really rather good one. I get regular work from this company, the fees are reasonable and, bar the occasional hitch, I usually get paid on time. This, in the freelance industry, is worth gold.

So, a few weeks ago I was commissioned by said client to take photographs to illustrate a little book. A nice, loose brief – okay, okay, some people flip at the thought of a loose brief, and any illustrators, writers and photographers out there would be shrieking ‘No! No! Get a tight, specific, written brief!’ But I like a loose brief. I like to be able to do my own thing. I go a little overboard, redoing the images, coming up with different ideas, so that my client has a number of options to choose from, but that’s part of the fun. In this case, the brief was to illustrate the book and to make sure that it was a little bit different. This is something I can do! So, nice, loose brief, with a good per-photo rate. I’m happy.

Because  I had been given carte blanche on what to deliver, I put a great deal of effort into conceptualising the images – many sleepless nights were spent swatting away images, many showers lasted longer than they should as I drew pics in the steam, many detours were taken while I drove past my destination because my head was full of the pictures I was planning to take. (Okay, so that’s pretty much how I live my life anyway!)

Then, once the pics were done, I thought I could do more. I could make them really different to the other pics in their series by applying some Photoshop techniques. Nothing too fancy-shmancy, but something different. So hours were spent selecting, desaturating, saturating, vignetting and filtering. Then I dipped into the profit of that nice fee to make A4 colour prints of the images I had created. And, feeling really good about what I had put together, I arranged a meeting with a member from the design department and talked her through what I had done.

‘It’s all done in layers,’ I tell her. ‘So if there’s anything you don’t like, you just switch off the layer. Apart from that, though, if you don’t like what I’ve done at all, there’s still the original pic to print as you see fit. And, as always, if you don’t like what I’ve done, then I’ll gladly do a reshoot. Just please don’t spend time and money working on the images, as it’s something I’m happy to do as part of my fee.’ Seriously! I said that. I must grow up some day!

‘What a great shot!’ she enthuses about one. ‘This is beautiful work,’ she says about another. ‘Thank you, this is really interesting. The pics are beautiful.’

Yes, yes, I know!

And then there’s the email – just a few days later. An email addressed to me and to another photographer who had also worked on the series for them. ‘Thank you both for the excellent photographs,’ it says. And then: ‘but every image needs to go to repro. I had expected to be able to place the images without having to send them to repro, but since I can’t, I can only afford to pay you X.’

Despite a signed contract reflecting the fee that they had offered, despite the fact that all their images go for repro anyway (they had, in the early days of this particular project, until the huge amount of work they had signed up for, demanded only raw images, so of course everything would have to go to repro), despite the fact that they had insufficient images from which to judge whether the pics ‘need’ repro, they made a blanket deduction from my invoice of R200 per pic. Two hundred rand per image – that amounts to a deduction of R4 200 off our fees! That kind of work must surely warrant a reshoot? The work must surely be totally crap?

I email – no reply. I phone the landline – she’s not at her desk. I phone the cellphone – she doesn’t pick up. I call the designer I had spoken to. She’s slippery. In one five-minute conversation she tells me that no pictures go for repro, only those that are of poor quality, that all pictures go for repro as a matter of course, that no photographer is allowed to do any retouching to any photograph supplied, that they want to implement the Photoshopping that I had done, but that the repro house had to do it.

So … hang on here … I’ve created images that you like. You like the ideas. You want to apply them. But they have to be completely redone by some chap at a repro house. And to do what I have already done, you need to pay him. And you need to pay him from my fee?

Um … yes. That’s about what it amounts to. Yes.

Righty-oh. So. What do you do? Sue them? Wave the contract at them? Take it to the newspapers? Sure you can. And how will this serve you in the greater scheme of things? Well, firstly, it’s going to be a long battle. Individual against corporate. Of course I can win, but it’s going to take time and effort and money. But again: how will winning this battle serve me in the long term? This company won’t give me another scrap of work – and, as I have mentioned, as clients go, these guys are pretty good. Apart from that, once word is out that I had been ‘difficult’, I’ll lose work from other clients. It’s a small industry and people talk.

So, as a freelance photographer, in addition to the fabulouly glamourous lifestyle that you’ll be leading, you will have to, from time to time, suck it up.

This month I am R4 500 short and am sucking it up through a great, big straw.

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