A reader asked me about those cutting edge fashion magazines that require photographers to cover their own expenses and if I really think the magazine is too poor to pay for it themselves. I’m going to need a little help from my readers who’ve worked at one of these magazines (on the inside) to get the straight dope, but I’d say like many things in this industry, it’s the way it’s always been done so people just keep doing it that way. These magazines serve as sourcebooks for the fashion industry so I can see why the competition is so cutthroat and why photographers would shoot something for a loss, the potential upside of landing a major fashion advertising campaign can make you loco. It’s not unlike taking out an ad or spending money on marketing, so as long as it’s an effective way to reach potential clients then it’s worth it.
I also wanted to address the question of photography contests which, I’ll just say right now to make it perfectly clear, all photo editors and art buyers use contests to find photographers and in many ways they’re better then the paid advertising in sourcebooks because you can’t just buy an ad to get in, you have to be selected, so that means the junk is usually weeded out. Plus, I always made the magazine pay for the books so it’s no skin off my back to have one hanging around to flip through once and awhile.
What really pisses people off is they’re not fair. Well, they’re not supposed to be fair. They’re supposed to reflect the taste of whomever is on the judging panel and the point of view of the publication that created it. Also, I think the entry fees bother people (PDN 30 doesn’t have an entry fee FYI) because sometimes it seems like a dummy tax where first time entrants with no hope of getting selected make these things profitable or maybe photographers who don’t fit with the judges aesthetic submit every year but never get selected. You simply can’t do this without an entry fee otherwise everyone and their uncle would submit and it also keeps the dart throwing to a minimum forcing photographers to make a decision and choose their best work and not make the judges do the edit for them.
I use American Photography (here) and SPD (here) to get inspired and see who’s hot and when we’re stuck we usually thumb through them to discover a new approach or a new way of thinking about the assignment we have to make “hey, we don’t have to send Chris Buck to Kansas for several weeks to dig up all the characters in this story, instead let’s get this guy here in American Photography to build a miniature set and make all these funny scenes the writer describes.”
Lastly, I use PDN to find people I’ve never heard of, because well, they always seem to publish people I’ve never heard of. Sure, I think they’re biased in some areas but it’s a magazine and like any good magazine it’s a reflection of the people working there not a reflection of what they think other people will think about them. They also have real pressures from Publishers, Circulation Directors and CFO’s to keep everything running smoothly. I think you will find that publishing 30 new photographers every year that appeal to both mainstream buyers and all your photographer readers is more difficult than it sounds.
Update from inside a small cutting edge fashion magazine:
“While we do generally try to offer some money to our photographers to cover expenses, we have an incredibly minuscule operating budget; I’ve turned in issues where our total photography budget turns out to be less than the usual photo budget per page of larger magazines. This is, in fact, a matter of necessity; we just don’t have that much money to work with so there’s not much room to accommodate huge production costs. Usually our photographers do end up shooting at some cost to themselves, even though we cover film, assistants, food, and the rest as best as we can.
I’d say that the reasons for doing so are two-fold: First, as you said, it’s like taking an ad out for yourself. We’ve taken a chance on young photographers who have then gone on to win top awards for us. They’ve ended up shooting at much larger magazines and for huge advertising
clients. But that doesn’t explain the fact the we continue to draw on those same photographers who are making it and don’t “need” us anymore.
There’s a second aspect, at least to our magazine, that usually accounts for the willingness of photographers to shoot for free. What I generally offer to photographers that I trust is an opportunity to work out somewhat off the wall, non-traditional ideas that might not fit into a more mainstream editorial project. We can serve as a playground for great concepts, adventurous fashion and still-life, and cutting-edge photography. While the downside is that some of the chances I’ve taken end up tanking, the potential rewards–non-monetary as they might be–are pretty great. In other words: no gray background fashion stories.”