Here’s what freelance photographers face

April 26, 2017
Photo via Pexels

From an editor’s point of view, the process is simple: Assign a freelancer, get amazing photos that help tell a story, pay them, repeat. For freelance photojournalists, it is often a different story. Among the frustratingly common challenges they face range from sparse communication after landing assignments, to fishy wording in contracts, to fighting for payment.

As part of CJR’s ongoing series on freelance journalists, we decided to flip the script a bit to focus on advice for assigning editors. Particularly, we asked the same 30 photojournalists interviewed for this piece what they wish editors were more aware of while working with freelancers.

TRENDING: 11 images that show how the Trump administration is failing at photography

Here are six takeaways editors need to know:


What goes into a day’s work goes beyond shooting photos.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

It’s easy to overlook all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing photography such as traveling and post-production work. Even if the assignment is simply to photograph a subject for a couple of hours, the full process can get pretty complex. Many of the photographers who spoke with CJR say they fear editors may be losing sight of this. “You know an average day when you count travel, filing the work, and the fact that photographers get up for the good light and work past dark, [it’s a] very very demanding job,” says Natalie Keyssar, whose work has appeared in Mashable and Mother Jones.

Particularly for those working outside the US in more dangerous locations, there are additional factors photojournalists must consider. Mexico-based photojournalist Prometeo Lucero tells CJR gunshots, tear gas, and rubber bullets are very real concerns for journalists working in the country. These concerns directly drive the larger frustration around rates and speed of payment. Lucero says he has received payment for work sometimes as late as six months to a year later. “Most editors don’t understand the problem of being freelance on payment,” says Lucero, who has worked with Expansión, a CNN partner in Mexico, and Newsweek. “They are paid on time so they may not feel the necessity for other people to be paid on time.” Keyssar adds, “Places that are trying to put up a slideshow that you almost got killed for and worked on for 3 years, for $1,500, which at the end of the day it’s just not a fair value of the work.”


Photojournalists are journalists, too.

For many publications it is not uncommon for the focus to be first on the written story, while visuals get treated as an afterthought. While this is inevitably going to be the case for some stories (maybe even rightfully so), some photographers who spoke with CJR told us they wish editors would involve them in the process sooner. It may seem obvious, but photojournalists are journalists and should be treated as such. “Being respected as a journalists and being respected as a primary storyteller of these stories is another thing that’s a really big deal,” says Keyssar. Getting photographers involved early on and having them collaborate and create the story alongside the writer can only enhance the end product and produce higher-quality journalism.


A photographer’s style may be a better fit for specific stories.

This takeaway comes with caveats: Deadlines, location, and other factors can make it difficult to always match up the best photographer with a specific project. Many photographers specialize in a type of photography and/or subject matter. As a result, matching a photographer with a story that covers their expertise can bring a uniquely critical eye to an assignment. Ike Edeani, whose clients include People magazine and The California Sunday Magazine, tells CJR the value of having varied perspectives in newsrooms should apply to freelance photographers as well. Edeani says the final product can be noticeably different depending on the photographer’s background.


Obviously, photographers should be treated with respect.

It’s something we are taught from a young age, but between busy schedules and demanding deadlines, editors should not lose sight of treating all employees, including freelancers, with respect. The little things like returning calls from freelancers on assignment promptly can really make a difference. “[Editors] need photographers almost as much as we need them,” says Kholood Eid, who has shot for Reuters and The Denver Post. For many photographers, it comes down to wanting to feel like part of the team—even if they are only going to be working with an editor for a short time. Talking through story ideas, providing feedback, and establishing realistic expectations are aspects many photographers who spoke with CJR said they value in editors—and notably these requests are no different than what most staffers would expect.


“Photojournalist” doesn’t mean “jack-of-all visual trades.”

In such a competitive industry, photojournalists want to deliver work that’s memorable and leads to more calls and connections. Over the years, many photographers were encouraged to be flexible beyond just taking photos as a way to be more desirable in the market. While it’s cool if a photographer wants to immerse him or herself in video and other skills to enhance their work, this is not a requirement. “I get that jack-of-all-trades, but like, I’m still trying to be a photographer,” says John Tully, a New Hampshire-based photographer who has worked with Rolling Stone and Inked. “There’s a million ways to tell stories. I choose photography as an outlet.” Photojournalists are often open to learning new skills, but they don’t always have the time and money to invest in equipment and training—unless an organization is willing to support them. As for those who advertise multiple skills, many say some editors expectations are unrealistic. Stories of editors sending photojournalists out on assignment and hoping they would get amazing photos and video in a couple of hours was a common scenario among the freelancers we spoke with. Monique Jaques, who’s worked with National Geographic and Christian Science Monitor, says, “It is hard doing two mediums at the same time. It’s very difficult to do 100-percent on both things. I find myself missing things if I’m doing two mediums at the same time.”


There are a lot of really good photographers out there.

It’s a common refrain around the industry that the 2016 election emphasized how much of a bubble we operate in. Many of the photographers who spoke with CJR said the field of freelance photography is no different in that mostly white men from large, coastal cities are called on for jobs. Edeani tells CJR even as a black man he feels men are sought after much more than women photographers. “I still feel privileged as a man in the photo industry, so I think that’s pretty remarkable that that’s the case. There are so many incredibly talented female photographers out there, but it does feel like they have to do more to kind of achieve a certain base level of—not even success, but work.” Resources like Women Photograph, a collection of freelance women photographers available to contact for work (and where I found a number of photographers to interview) exists to help shift the scales.

In addition to race and gender, photojournalists who live outside of hotspot cities are also painfully aware of the seeming preference given to photographers in coastal areas like New York and Washington, DC. Tully, who’s based in New Hampshire, tells CJR he got so many calls during the primaries he had to turn some offers down. After the primaries, however, he says the calls basically stopped. “There is value in being an outsider going into a community for an extended period of time,” says Tully. “[But] there’s also a value to [choosing photographers] that are kind of living in those areas and basically have to confront the people that they photograph or they meet on a daily basis.”

Want to share your freelancing experience with CJR? We encourage you to email Carlett Spike at cspike@cjr.org.

Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.