Why Don’t We Teach Photographers What to Charge for Their Photos?

street photography
“The position I come from in writing this article stems from the opinion that a lack of openness about pay, the cultural norm condemning disclosing financial information, is what allows pay gaps to develop, continue, and exist.”

I’ve heard countless versions of the same story: a photo assistant discovering that the photographer charged the client double what they paid the assistant in regards to the assistant fee on the client’s invoice, a tragic problem frequently encountered and rarely remedied. When I first began photo assisting, I was massively underselling myself without realizing, and people took significant advantage – it was only when another female photographer pulled me aside and told me what my rates should be that I realized how much I had been selling myself short. And in a world where women’s requests for what we’re worth are rarely met, though asked for just as often as men, having a lack of knowledge and confidence about how and what you should be charging makes it that much harder to keep our industry healthy, vibrant, and lucrative.

We are all familiar with the long-standing debate on the validity of the pay gap. We debate back-and-forth its accuracy, argue nature versus nurture and the role it plays in professional career path choices, and rarely give the other side’s argument a fair look. That’s not what I’m here today to write, and the discussion I wish to generate is far more nuanced than just does the pay gap exist, but rather how and when do we even begin to talk about pay rates especially in a gig economy like the photography industry.

The Conversation is an Uncomfortable One

“…a lack of openness about pay, the cultural norm condemning disclosing financial information, is what allows pay gaps to develop, continue, and exist.”

The question becomes one of “how can we even begin to determine if we have a problem?” in a field as tight-lipped as ours. We hoard our financial struggles and successes like hidden treasures, afraid for our peers to judge and belittle when they know our failures, and to face jealousy and resentment for where we excel. We rage online relentlessly about young bloods ruining the industry by not charging proper rates, but never make an effort to teach them what they should charge, how to evaluate, how to gauge. We want widespread knowledge without the education, and I’d like to make the case that it’s leading us down dangerous ways. I recently found myself in a heated debate regarding this lack of transparency in our industry – seeing both sides of the coin is the first step in addressing the realities of how this issue manifests in the photography community, and the discussion I found myself left me understanding as a freelancer, and concurrently angry as a feminist. So, how do we address the needs of healthy business practices, and also acknowledge the inherent flaws in these practices that allow sexism, racism, and other such nasty, ugly -isms to flourish?

“Use your Cost of Doing Business (CODB) as the starting point. You must know your own CODB. You need to know your own minimum income needs to cover your non-reimbursable business expenses and draw a salary. Once you know your own minimum, you can factor in the specifics of a given job, what you bring to each project that is unique, and what you want for profit, to determine your Creative Fee.” – From ASMP

The position I come from in writing this article stems from the opinion that a lack of openness about pay, the cultural norm condemning disclosing financial information, is what allows pay gaps to develop, continue, and exist. By and large, this unspoken agreement to keep silent on monetary matters is what allows these detrimental financial struggles to continue. The counter-argument presented to me (from a fellow photographer with an MBA, who spoke from the business management perspective) was that having an open discussion around this topic breeds bad company morale, and is not healthy or conducive to working environments. He even went so far as to say that bringing up pay was, in his mind, grounds for termination, and also made the case that far more than gender is part of the evaluation in deciding someone’s salary.

The issue is, I think we are both right.

“I recently found myself in a heated debate regarding this lack of transparency in our industry – seeing both sides of the coin is the first step in addressing the realities of how this issue manifests in the photography community, and the discussion I found myself left me understanding as a freelancer, and concurrently angry as a feminist. So, how do we address the needs of healthy business practices, and also acknowledge the inherent flaws in these practices that allow sexism, racism, and other such nasty, ugly -isms to flourish?”

The Pay Gap and Lawsuits

Let us look at B&H’s 2017 lawsuit for paying their Hispanic employees significantly less as an example – without a discussion around wages, the inequality and racial bias in pay (& positions) would certainly have continued, unchecked, for how long? The keepers of the keys (aka the finance folks writing the checks) are the only people privy to the imbalance, and not inclined to make major disparities in pay known. And no one here is debating whether a more skilled/experienced/educated employee warrants a higher wage. The question is rather “is this pay disparity based in those qualifiers, and only those qualifiers, or are these discrepancies falling along lines of race/gender/sexuality in a discernable pattern?” and we can’t even begin to address this conversation when we’re shamed from even attempting to discuss it at all. How can we possibly assess if we’re being taken advantage of as a woman, minority, disabled individual, without a spectrum or scale with which to evaluate?

To go back to my B&H example – is my partner’s critique accurate? Undoubtedly. Having employees uncover that by and large, they are being paid is certain to breed anger, resentment, and discontent from employees – that’s not a question. What I want to explore is which need supersedes the other, ethically? Of course, discussing pay on the workroom floor was (I’m sure) deeply detrimental to the company’s standing with its employees, morale, and work ethic, and certainly that negatively affects the company overall – but does that mean it should have not happened? It’s inarguable that bias and prejudice came into play, and without discussion among coworkers, it’s unlikely the issue never would have been rectified or had reparations made. Those benefiting from this power dynamic are only inclined to maintain this same power structure – there is no incentive to balance or correct the scales when the defining aspect of the industry is the bottom line, and there are profits to be made (or money to be saved) by keeping wages as low as possible.

So then, is it at the detriment to all those not benefitting that the status quo of silent submission is maintained? Is it better to have ignorant (and potentially manipulative) peace among the ranks and happy company morale, or honest disruption for the betterment of all employees’ lives (and ultimately positively affecting the entire industry)? Bustle makes a compelling argument really communicating how transparency about pay (regardless of industry) benefits everyone by accelerating the pace at which we address these inherent biases still plaguing our society, and a lack of conversation around wages often is the culprit that allows pay bias to continue, according to Marketwatch. I am a firm believer that breaking silences on issues regarding inequitable power dynamics is the best path to deconstructing the power structure in question, resulting in a more fair, level playing field for everyone; and I also fully recognize how this would make managing a set difficult should this kind of issue come to light.

“Our industry is riddled with a lack of transparency, and we should all take the time to consider whether or not secrecy and silence for the sake of not dealing with difficult confrontations and maintaining an environment more conducive to working collaboratively is more or less ethical than ensuring that we eliminate the ability for prejudices and biases to affect how we pay within our industry.”

So I leave you with the same question I find myself facing – how can we as individuals ensure that we are all better informed, more understanding of our own values, and making sure we keep peace within our industry? I still am struggling for the answer, and I believe it’s a question we should all take the time to consider.”