By Seth Kushner
Credit Where Credit Is Due
My livelihood is based entirely upon photos. I get paid to take them, and in some instances I get paid when they’re republished. There was a time, not so long ago, when resale of my work accounted for a large part of my business. Now, post crash and mid-recession, I get paid less frequently for taking photos and very rarely for resale.
I occasionally have a thriving business and freelance career, except for when I don’t. There’s always been an element of feast or famine to what I do, ever since I graduated from School of Visual Arts, back in 1995. It was tough building my career, but by the late 90s/early 00s, I was booking regular magazine assignment from such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Time, US News, Forbes, Fortune and others. I photographed lots of prominent folks, celebrities, writers, actors and filmmakers and I would get an editorial rate for each gig, (then $500 fee + expenses) and often resold those photos later to other magazines around the world (through an agency) for a few hundred a pop, sometimes several times, depending on the demand of the subject.
As my career went on, I worked less often for magazines and more for advertising and corporate clients, which pay far higher fees. Though I worked less frequently, I made more money.
In the midst of all this, I’ve managed to work on several long-term projects, which became books, (The Brooklynites, Leaping Tall Buildings) and others, which will hopefully become books. All the while, I’ve constantly posted my work online on my personal site, my blog, TRIP CITY, etc., because that’s promoting. That’s putting my work “out there.” Unfortunately, that’s also led to problems.
Several years back I was in a phase of my career where I was shooting for lots of hip-hop and urban culture magazines and posting the photos from those shoots on my site. Then one day, my site crashed and I racked up tons of bandwidth fees. I checked my stats and saw I was getting very heavy traffic from amateur hip-hop fan sites and also my photos were being downloaded at alarming rates. Soon, I saw my work posted all over the place and used un-credited and illegally on mix tape packaging. I talked to an attorney friend and decided it was too troublesome to track down the source of these thefts and really all I could do was have cease and desist letters sent. I simply paid a higher monthly bandwidth fee and moved on with my life.
Recently, I feel the value of photography has diminished. With the advent of more cost effective and higher quality digital cameras, and along with apps like instagram and hipstamatic, it’s become easier than ever for amateurs to take their ordinary snapshots and add a cool filter to make them into “art.” Seemingly everyone is doing this and calling himself a photographer.
With this devaluing of my art, I’m also finding my work stolen more and more often. Thankfully, I’ve managed to develop an recognizable style, so it’s not uncommon for a good friend to send me an email with a weblink asking if the photo on the page is mine. It almost always is.
A recent example of image theft is my portrait of comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, originally shot for my new book, Leaping Tall Buildings. Mr. Bendis had announced he was writing a book on writing comics and this made news, and because my photo of him is a good one, many of the various news sites posted it along with the press release. No one asked my permission, no one paid me, and no one credited me. This wasn’t the old days (just a few years ago) of editorial photo resale, this was the internet, where everyone thinks everything is free and nothing has any value.
I was incensed. With work slow and little money coming in, the fact that my image was being “stolen” was more than I could bear. I began writing emails to the editors of the sites, including the Hollywood Reporter, who should have known better. That particular editor was a mensch and added my credit, as did some comics sites, but others simply ignored me.
All I was requesting was credit. I understood I wasn’t going to be paid, but come on, at least cut me a break and promote me with a credit line so at least it would count as exposure. That’s not too much to ask!
I take “snapshots” all the time. They’re nice – check out my insatgram photos some time – but I do NOT take snapshots for my work. A LOT went in to the Bendis portrait, as is the case with ALL of my shoots.
I got in touch with Bendis through Marvel Comics months in advance. Then I had many emails with Bendis trying to figure out when he’d be in town and when we could potentially do the shoot. Arrangements were made, I thought of a concept, I dragged my equipment to the designated location, did the actual shoot, returned home, downloaded the photos to my Mac, edited through them, performed color and contrast corrections, and finally retouched and enhanced them. All that had to happen for me to get the final image, which was then utilized online by others FOR FREE.
I understand the internet is a free-for-all and usage fees are virtually non-existent, but if you’re going to steal my work, please do me a favor and add my credit line and even a link to my site so I can get more work doing what I love to do. Cool? Cool.