Hard Times as photographers face Catch-22

Women's football: and another free picture from Getty
Women’s football: and another “free” picture from Getty Images

ANTON RIPPON’s recent report on the non-payment of sports photographers by local newspapers has prompted a response that underlines how tough business conditions are for freelancers

There is the old chestnut about the person who wants to apply for a new job but the advertisement says that the company wants someone “with experience”, which the would-be applicant hasn’t got and doesn’t know how to obtain since unless someone gives them a job in the first place …

In its own extremely modest way, it’s what Joseph Heller was writing about when he penned Catch-22.

Earlier this month, we reported on the alarming – and growing – trend for local newspapers to use freelance photographers’ work without actually paying them.

The story centred on an enquiry that the Sports Journalists’ Association had received from a north-west based snapper, Colin Shorrock. He used to be paid £25 a shot for football photographs from non-league games that appeared in his local evening paper.

But after he was informed that they would no longer pay freelancers, he stopped submitting pictures. But photos that he’d sent in before the no-payment policy came into force were still subsequently used. When he submitted invoices, they were ignored.

Not only is Shorrock now out-of-pocket. By being frozen out by his local paper, he feels as if he is unable to join the journalists’ union, or even the SJA. “I’d like nothing more than to be a member of the SJA and the NUJ, but unless I actually start to get paid again for the use of my photos, then your rules prevent me joining,” he writes to us (somewhat mistakenly, we might suggest, since the introduction of the Associate Membership category , intended to cater for situations such as this).

“The local press in my region have ‘no budget for freelancers’ and as I’m not prepared to give my work away, I can’t join your Association, as I can’t make enough money to be considered a professional photographer.”

“I photograph mostly women’s football and, as I’ve been doing it a long time, it’s not a problem getting access to games. But the one thing that the formation of the FA Women’s Super League has brought is the Getty photographers.

“Getty’s contract with the FA means that the media get sent these images for free. Some freelance football photographers don’t do the FAWSL for this reason.

“In the two years I was getting paid for my work, I was building up enough of a portfolio to apply for a DataCo licence. Once, the payments stopped, my ability to apply for this licence stopped with it.

“The photography department at University Centre at Blackburn College has now removed Photo Journalism from its FDn Photographic Media course.

“In the meantime, I do hope that other photographers get in touch with you regarding this issue, as I feel it’s important.

Getty’s position with the FAWSL is similar to the contracts that the world’s biggest sports photo agency has with other sports bodies and many football clubs. It makes absolute business sense for them, as well as for picture editors on sports desks across the country, where budgets have been cut and cut again over the last 30 years. Free pictures? Why not?

But such a market-dominating position leaves thin pickings for even the best, most enterprising freelance sports photographers who want – need – to find a willing market for their work and that actually pays for the use of pictures.

One SJA member saw our previous report and contacted us. “I can confirm what you write about non-payment.

“I provided sports photos for a local paper – independently owned and subsequently taken over by the Guardian Media Group, then by Trinity Mirror – for 20 years and in the last year was earning £400 per month for covering two matches on a Saturday. If the pictures weren’t used, I still invoiced and was paid.

“By 2010 I was told I would get £35 per picture, if used. I declined the offer and my son took over. By 2011-2012, I heard that they were not paying anything at all, and the quality of the sports photography has plummeted.

“My brother, a fairly keen amateur photographer, occasionally submits athletics photos to his local paper in the East Midlands for no payment. They are invariably used.”

On its knees: the business of sports photography has never known it so tough
On its knees: the business of sports photography has never known it so tough

Another photographer, Pete Jenkins, told us: “I was a member of the Professional Sports Photographers’ Association until it turned up its toes, and I was a full-time professional sports photographers between about 1980 and 2003, a regular supplier to the national press, including some 13 years with the Sunday Telegraph and 10 years running my own sports photo agency, the SpedeGrafix partnership. I am currently based in Nottingham, mostly keeping clear of sport and, along with Andrew Ward, represent photographers on the NUJ national executive council.

“I agree with everything you say, and indeed it is the relaxation of rates that caused me to re-evaluate servicing the UK and overseas national press – something I had previously done all my working life.

“In your piece, though, you omitted to make it clear that the current rates on the nationals have either remained static or decreased since 1994, that the number of professional sports photographers on staff, the number of working full-time freelancers, and the number of sports agencies have all been radically reduced. Newspapers that had 50 or more staff smudgers in 1994 now have, in many cases, none at all in 2013.

“I was a very high-earner, with most of my income coming from sport. Nowadays, with the likes of Getty screwing up the market place, there is little place for anyone other than the ultra-specialist – and it is difficult even for those guys to do more than mark time.

“Regrettably it is the day of the ‘weekend warrior’. Nothing wrong with part-timers – many of us started there – but it has to be part-timers with a proper work ethic and professional attitude. With newspapers and publishers telling people that the going rate is thruppence a week or zilch, it is of no surprise to me that our part of the industry is floundering.

“When photographers of the stature of Mike King [twice UK sports photographer of the year] had trouble getting access to the Olympics in London you know what a state things are in. Me? I didn’t even bother and I covered sport all over the world at one time.

“I have the contact details of perhaps 300 sports photographers who were regarded as the cream of the crop not that a long ago, and while most of them are still working in photography, almost none of them –certainly very few – are now full-time sport photographers.”

Catch-22? Seems like the life of an independent sports photographer is more like Hard Times.

  • Are you a professional photographer who is no longer being paid for your work for some newspapers? Are you a local newspaper sports editor who has to apply new budgets that stop you from paying for contributors’ work? Post your views and comments below, or write in confidence by email to

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