News Photography a Second-Hand Profession?
October 10th, 2009
News photographers in the Arab world are having a hard time making their living. Vague copyright laws and disrespect for the profession are major obstacles, with their work rarely being considered a fundamental element of journalistic work.

By Alexandra Sandels - APN

Whenever Samer Mohdad, photographer and CEO of the Beirut-based photo archival agency Arab Images Foundation, opens the newspaper and finds his own pictures randomly appearing in the paper without credit, it is no surprise to him. "There have been several times where my work has been featured in Arab publications without my consent," said Mohdad to APN.

He even recalls a few occasions where publications copied and scanned pictures from books containing his photos. All to avoid payment, according to Mohdad.  

"Paying photographers for their work should not be optional in any way," John Perkins, a British freelance photographer based in Cairo told APN. He added that he has had his pictures published in several prominent Cairo-based publications but that only one of them has actually paid him for his work so far. The other papers promised to, but in practice never did.

Jean-Lou Bersuder heads the photo department at Lebanon's An-Nahar daily newspaper. He too says he has experienced similar incidents to that of Mohdad in his work as a photographer.

"I once found my photo appearing in a magazine without permission. The publication had copied it from one of my books. When I asked them where they got the picture from, they said they didn't know," Bersuder told APN.

'Second-hand' and 'second-man'?

It is not uncommon to hear photographers working in the Arab world complain about their work being violated or at times even 'stolen'. Some photojournalists claim that their profession is considered a 'second-class job' in the region.

"I feel like newspapers in the Arab world often don't appreciate photography. It's as if they think that anyone can do it, like handing a camera to a local doorman, a natuur, asking him to take pictures to avoid paying the photographer," stressed Mohdad.

Ramsi Haydar, a veteran photographer with AFP in Beirut, told APN that photographers often tend to be 'the second man' after the writers, but perhaps more for financial reasons.

"A journalist needs only this", said Haydar while holding up a pen. "Photographers come with a lot of expensive equipment."

One journalist working at an English-language publication in Cairo further illustrated that claim. She told APN that due to budget constraints the writers are usually responsible for taking their own pictures when they're out reporting.

Photo free-loading

Since Perkins started his career as a photojournalist in 2001 he claims to have had several run-ins with free loaders, mostly bloggers.

"I've had my photos stolen a lot, but mainly by bloggers. It's annoying, but it's hard to chase them down so I don't bother. Sometimes it's actually funny, or nice, or interesting even that they choose to use my photos," he said.

Bloggers set aside; there is evidence that newspapers often take photos off the Web.
 
Berusder, head of the photo department at An-Nahar, remains sceptical to that claim, saying that the bad quality of online pictures often makes it hard for print publications to use them.

"The resolution of pictures available on the Internet is often too low for newspapers to use. You can immediately spot a picture that has been taken off the Net," he reassured.

Bersuder puts forth that the majority of newspapers in Lebanon have a photo department with the exception of a few publications. Most, he says, work with one of the large photo agencies such as AFP or Reuters, and several have staff photographers.

"Photographers working at international photo agencies rarely have their photos violated. That's, however, not the case for the rest," added Bersuder.

According to Douglas Okasaki, Art Director at Dubai's Gulf News, the copyright problems photographers face are 'not rare occurrences'.

"There is a lack of information about the use of photography in Arab media. Why do we still see pictures appearing in the newspaper without reference to the source or with a byline?"

He also pointed to blurred practices in the design and photo divisions of newspapers in the Arab region, adding that 'it's hard to find standard or professional procedures in the design and picture departments'.

Copyright controversy and technology leaps

One explanation to the issue might be what photographers claim is the 'vague implementation' of copyright laws.

"A robust copyright law exists in Lebanon, but it's hardly ever used," said Bersuder. "The judiciary doesn't seem to know when to apply the law. There has yet to be a court case in Lebanon on this matter". This confusion also discourages photographers to bring a copyright case to court.

Mohdad of the Arab Images Foundation echoed Bersuder's argument, saying that in his work with European and Arab media, he has only had problems with Arab publications, an issue he attributes to ambiguous laws.

"It's completely different working with Europe. No European publication has used my work without permission. There are stricter copyright laws in Europe and they actually use them over there," said Mohdad.

Perkins, who mainly works with European media, puts forth that general obstacles surrounding photography are not limited to the Arab world. Photographers everywhere have to deal with low salaries and high equipment costs.

"Day rates for magazine assignments haven't increased in Europe since I started in 2001. And the cost of living, not to mention digital equipment, has gone up. Now I'm expected to do what previously was the job of photo labs, for no extra pay," argued Perkins.

The development in camera technology has also complicated the work of photographers, adding fierce competition from all corners. Cheap digital cameras and mobile phones with built-in cameras now enable almost anyone to engage in photojournalism on their own initiative.

"With an adequate lens you can take good quality pictures even from a mobile phone. I remember how we for example used a fantastic picture from a man who had taken it with his cellular phone," said Bersuder.

The 'photography culture'

Obscure copyright laws and advances in technology left aside, photographers point to the need for change in what they call the 'photography culture' of the Arab region.

"It's like they think that it's 'normal' to pay for pictures in Europe because that's the practice there. In Lebanon for example, you have the notion that you can 'do anything'. No one will take you in the ear and pull you over to court for not paying for a picture," said Bersuder.

Haydar highlighted Lebanon's complicated political situation, saying that 'there is no time to deal with copyright laws when the country is without President'.

In terms of future prospects for photography in the Arab world, Bersuder emphasizes that while the implementation of copyright laws is important, photographers need also to look to themselves.

"Many photographers who are working for news publications are selling their pictures on the side here and there. This practice both hurts their reputation and drives down the market price of the pictures," he stressed.

Most importantly though, he said, photographers 'must remember to be skilled journalists above all'.

"A good news photographer is first and foremost a journalist. Just because you buy an expensive camera it doesn't mean that you are a good photographer like some think".

Perkins offered rather sceptical thoughts on the future, asserting that his profession has become a 'cheap industry' that he doesn't want to be part of.

"I'm considering calling myself an artist from now on," he concluded.


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