After the very heated discussion occurred on my blog last weekend, I have decided to use my blog for the first time to host an internet discussion forum on this topic and perhaps others in the future.
I have invited colleagues from the field to comment on the issues brought up during the discussion and will be posting their replies here. At the end of the week, I will be adding my own personal thoughts but I wanted to let other industry leaders speak their piece first in an attempt to turn this dialogue into an educational discussion.
Today’s postings come from John Harrington and Brian Smith. I have cut and pasted their exact words here. Please be considerate when replying to these emails and avoid using personal attacks or defamatory language. Cursing is for bars and football games and shouldn’t be used here. I’d ask you all to act in an adult, rational manner when constructing your arguments. If you misrepresent yourself, I will delete your post. Otherewise, I’d like to keep this an open discussion among peers.
Without further ado…
From Brian Smith, Pulitzer Prize winning celebrity photographer based in Miami, Florida:
“Like a lot of photographers, I owe a lot to the jump-start that summer internships provided when I was starting out. All of my internships were for publications and I got paid every time. Though I certainly didn’t get rich at ten bucks a photo on my first internship for UPI, landing a photo in LIFE magazine just as I starting photojournalism classes at the University of Missouri was priceless.
Interning for a publication and a photographer are very different scenarios. The newspapers and wire-services I interned for put me to work immediately on my first day with a “hey kid go out and shoot this.”
As an independent photographer there’s an expectation that when I’m given an assignment it will be shot by me, so I couldn’t tell a client, “thanks for the assignment. I’ll get an intern right on it.“
Every spring, I get 20-50 requests for internships, but based on the inquiries that I receive I don’t know what I’d do with an intern. Most inquiries are along the lines of “I love your work and I’d really love to hang out and watch how you light.” No offense, but I’m not certain how this benefits me and I’m not certain why I or anyone else would pay and intern just to teach them all the stuff they should have learned in photo school.
On the other hand if I ever got a letter begging to scan my archives or sweep my floors, I might just listen. And if sweeping floors sounds demeaning, I’ve been a photographer for thirty years and I still sweep the floors…
From John Harrington, author of Best Business Practices for Photographers and photographer based in Washington, D.C.:
“On The James Nachtwey Internship Issue: John Harrington
As someone who has, for a decade now, been running an internship program, and also as the author of Best Business Practices for Photographers, perhaps I can add to this discourse. However, I thought I’d bounce a few ideas off of my friend and colleague, Vincent Laforet, who was the person who brought this blog post to my attention, and so, throughout, I’ll intersperse Vince’s comments as well.
Vince’s first reaction when he shared this with me was “This is like Ghandi being ripped to shreds on the internet. Nachtwey is the guy who has the most polished image in the world. The most even-handed, fair, and caring. He’s the guy who has the pressed white shirt in the middle of South Africa, back in the day. There’s not a single bad thing I could ever say about the man. To see him ripped to shreds like this is unprecedented.” I had the same gut reaction. Jim, if nothing else, deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this issue, rather than the scurrilous attacks ad nauseam.
Vincent went on “I think it speaks to a changing tide. With this economy, there’s a huge push-back on people working for free. Other than the fact that he photographs a lot of the underprivileged people in the world, so there’s a bit of irony in that, but this is not the first time that a free internship has been announced, in fact, paid internships are even a rarity.” In point of fact, back in August, with absolutely no fanfare or critical commentary, Jim’s studio made a similar solicitation here (http://jamieslist.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/internship-jim-nachtweys-studio-unpaid/)
Next, I thought it worthwhile to turn to another friend and colleague, David Burnett. Burnett is the co-founder of Contact Press Images, and a legendary photographer in his own right. Burnett shared, “For some people, you’d be nuts not to do it, if you can afford it. It’s called investing in yourself, and not just assuming you’ll do your eight hours and be cool. That’s when you get the job at 7-11 just to pay for this. New York expects a lot from you – it demands that you do what’s required, and I think you have to pony up. Again, you have to pay your dues – whatever it takes to do that, and if you don’t, you don’t have a right to complain.“
In his comments on the original post, David noted about the benefits of filing contact sheets for Gamma, years ago. He expanded on that point in our conversation, saying “Even if you’re filing contact sheets – if they’re Gilles Caron or Raymond Depardon, you have to be a complete idiot not to get something out of it.”
The challenge, of course, is remaining in compliance with labor laws. As one commenter on the original thread cited federal labor laws regarding the legal issues about this, it’s worth re-citing here:
The standard for making this determination is whether the “educational or training programs are designed to provide students with professional experience in furtherance of the education and the training is academically oriented for the benefit of the students.” See U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, Opinion Letter, FLSA2004-5NA (May 17, 2004).
Further, the following six criteria must be met:
* The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
* The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students;
* The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
* The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantages from the activities of the trainees or students and, on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded;
* The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
* The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
It’s not possible for an individual to “waive” their rights to be protected under these laws, save for the above criteria. If Jim were to bring someone on that doesn’t arguably meet all six tests above, not only could that person file a complaint if they got upset mid-way through the internship, but the Department of Labor could extend their investigation beyond that complaint into unfair labor practices back years, to past interns who were not paid, and substantial fines could result.
Back in February, the Wall Street Journal wrote regarding concerns on this issue in – Exploiting Student Interns (2/17/09) (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123491344319503797.html) and here’s the Department of Labor article that addresses this (http://www.dol.gov/whd/opinion/FLSANA/2004/2004_05_17_05FLSA_NA_internship.htm)
I think there is a limited set of scenarios where an internship should be unpaid – and at the top of that list is when a student, taking a course for credit, is not allowed to accept payment for the internship. I can tell you that in the 70+ interns I have had in the last decade, we have had a few that have fit that criteria. So too, we have had two or three interns who have – a couple of days a week while on summer break come in to observe our operations and to also lend a hand to the full-time paid interns, however, these part-time unpaid interns were living at home and working other summer jobs. Further, they brought none of the skills that Jim’s studio was looking for, other than an interest in learning. That said, once we learned that doing that might well be placing us in violation of labor laws, we made certain that the program continued, in a paid capacity, except for those that fell into the educational institution limitations.
When we asked Vince about whether or not he pays his interns, he responded “yeah, I pay everyone who works for me, unless, maybe, its a one day personal project or something. If I do something with friends and colleagues, then we’re all working for free.” As someone who has had more than one discussion about the best way to handle interns, assistants, and office staff with Vince, I know that this is his approach, and is consistent with our approach.
Chris Morris notes in the comments of the original post “My start in the industry started with an unpaid internship at the Miami Herald in the early 80’s. Without this internship, I would not be where I am today in the industry.” I agree that many many photographers got their start doing unpaid internships, however, now is a different time than the 80′s, and Vince commented “One has to ask oneself how the decline of Time and the struggles of VII (in terms of sales) has contributed to Nachtwey having to ask interns to work for free. As an editorial photographer these days it has been even more difficult to work.” And I agree. I honestly don’t think that Jim has a Ferrari parked outside his studio, nor even the latest computers to do work on. His work, as rightly commended by TED, is work that changes the world, not his fortunes. What does it say that one of the most prolific photographers of this time – overwhelmed with projects that potentially could change the world – cannot afford the staff necessary to effect that change fully? As Vince remarks, “If this can happen to Nachtwey, then photographers around the world beware – those days are apparently over.“
Burnett goes on, suggesting, rightly, “paying your dues is a part of the deal, and how you choose to do it is your option – I’m not saying you have to do an unpaid internship. So often, I wonder what would have happened if I had run off with Gene Smith and Minimata for awhile. “
As someone who has met Jim on several occasions, and also his studio manager Jessica once, I can honestly say that their approach is akin to the hippocratic oath’s first tenet “first, do no harm.” Is their solicitation fair? To the ill-informed, the answer likely is “no.” However, to attribute “exploitation” to the request for applicants misses the mark, as candidates are free to apply, or not. Will some apply that believe what they lost in income they will make up for in experience? You bet. Will some hold beliefs about this opportunity that will turn out to be less than expected? Perhaps. Does this idea of working for free to get your start (or ahead) further the notion that clients attempt to foist upon the beginner as “we’ll give you photo credit – it’ll be great exposure for you…” ? Yes, it does.
Is soliciting for free labor a “best business practice”? No, if for no other reason than because, given the description and the labor laws, there is a conflict. However, as some commenters have done, to equate even the most downtrodden of college students in the US with the downtrodden that Jim’s work brings to light is absurd – there can be no reasonable comparison.
David Alan Harvey commented on his Burn magazine site – “i am quite sure Jim had no clue the ad was placed…i am sure his well paid studio manager and regular paid staff placed the ad seeking additional help for a show or something that was coming up…” and I would concur with Harvey on this.
One argument in favor of unpaid internships that echoes across the industry is “this is commonplace for all sorts of photographers…“, and while I agree that that is the case, does it make it right? Many commenters suggested that they would learn more interning there than in several years of college, so why not do it for free, as it would be less than the college degree. More than likely, they are correct in their assertion that they will learn more than they would in college. Consistently, interns that have passed through my office have said as much, although they were paid. If the posting were “come learn from the experts and experience hands-on projects in James Nachtwey’s studio – $1,000 for a three-month workshop” there would be more than a few applicants.
Doing simply math, a three-month intern would likely work 60 days, and let’s figure it at 8 hours. That’s 480 hours, or $3,840 for the three months at $8 an hour. That’s about the same as the Momenta Workshop (Jamie, of Jamie’s list is a co-founder of Momenta Workshops) is charging for a two-week workshop in India. Which opportunity will you learn more in? I can guarantee you’ll learn a great deal during both. What if the deal was “come intern for free for three months, and in exchange, during that time, you’ll get two weeks of face-to-face interactions and experiences and guidance from James himself.” Is the quid-pro quo of computer work and heavy-lifting for one-on-one time with Jim a fair trade?
What if I, at my current stage in my career as a photographer, decided to make an investment in my next career goal, and instead of buying a pair of new D3s and G5 tower- capital investments I have been planning for six months to make, and I set that money aside to pay my mortgage and other bills here in DC as well as covering a small NYC apartment, to set the stage for my future growth? Why do some companies allow some of their employees to take a paid sabbatical for 3 or 6 months and do a volunteer project? Heck, a smart wordsmith could craft a proposal to cover their expenses to take this internship “…preparing and producing world-changing visuals that, when exhibited, will increase public awareness of ….” – you get the point.
Vince, last year about this time, had one potential solution to this. On his blog post here (http://blog.vincentlaforet.com/2008/11/08/new-ideas-embedded-galleries-prints/) he writes he will be “applying all of the profits from these print sales for the next 30 days to a student internship/scholarship” from the sale of 88 prints. Not a bad idea.
David concluded his thoughts in our conversation on this topic, saying “I don’t know how you tell some kid who spent $50k on an education what they ought to do – we’re all in different places and make different deals. I don’t know what the answer is. There’s no one answer, clearly. There’s a lot of really good work done now, and not being published. It’s getting published on websites, and no one’s getting paid for it. That’s a tough one. What do you do? Bag it, and get another job? How do you get to a point where you’re not going to be at the absolute bottom of the money barrel 24/7? It’s a very tough balance between investing (paying) yourself, and giving something away that’s really of value that should be paid for.”
Ideally, Jim would do one corporate job for $4k, and set aside that revenue to cover the costs of a 3-month intern as listed above. Ideally, the intern that is offered the internship (paid, or unpaid) will take those skills and use them to make a difference in the world with their own images. Ideally, photo editors wouldn’t take advantage of upstart photographers and demand all rights for a pittance in pay, because it’s just plain wrong. Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world, and there is no clear-cut answer to this question.”
John Harrington’s blog can be seen at: http://photobusinessforum.blogspot.com/
John’s book can be bought at: http://bit.ly/4xKb4p
Look for more commentary tomorrow from other industry leaders… Thank you for your great discourse and I look forward to your comments!
- Jamie Rose, Administrator of Jamie’s List & Director of Momenta Workshops