Photographer Christopher Grabowski on the challenges of freelancing

ChristopherGrabowskiby Rachel Sanders

Christopher Grabowski is an award-winning photographer whose work has been published in the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, and MacLean’s among many other North American and European publications. Grabowski is presenting a Tyee Master Class in Vancouver tomorrow and took the time to talk with Story Board this week about  photography in challenging environments… as well as the significant challenges faced by freelance photographers.


What is your Master Class about?

My master class tomorrow is called “Photography in Challenging Environments” and I treat that fairly widely. Because there could be various challenges for a documentary photographer. In wars it could mean you’re in physical danger yourself. But you never control the environment in terms of your point of view for shooting, or your lighting or anything like that. It’s not, obviously, like studio photography, so it’s quite challenging. The whole situation in which you find yourself may be challenging in terms of understanding what’s happening around you. So there are various issues you have to resolve and there are also purely technical questions — how to get from point A to point B and avoid being shot at and stuff like that.

There are challenges that are purely photographic challenges but also other kinds of challenges that your presence in unknown terrain creates. There are situations where you actually know about something you’d like to learn more [about], or photograph or document and it’s just difficult to get there because some places are not accessible and there’s language barriers. And sometimes if you’re not part of a bigger news organization that has resources to hire helicopters and translators and handlers and so on, you’re on your own and then you have to be resourceful and creative just getting there and communicating with people.


Will you be talking at all about what it’s like to be a freelancer?

Yes, I’ve been employed by various media organizations during my photography career, so I know both sides. I freelance in Germany, I freelance in Canada, I was staff photographer in a sports magazine in Poland, and I was a sort of contract photographer in Germany for a smaller newspaper. But most of my life I freelanced.


What are some of the challenges of freelancing?

Mostly economic. If you know your trade and you’re good at it, then obviously you’ll have less challenges of the kind I talked about before. But being a freelancer adds one more challenge which is it’s difficult to make money off your photography or your writing or your videography.

If you work a lot and travel a lot you can do various things, like travel photography and a little bit of news photography for the agencies… but then how are you supposed to have a family and stability in your life?


How have things changed recently for freelance photographers?

I think it’s getting worse because there’s less money. There’s also various other aspects, like a lot of photography goes the way of mechanical watches. People who used to fix watches, they had to change their profession because of the invention of digital watches, disposable watches, basically.  There used to be broadcast quality photography, broadcast quality video, broadcast quality sound, right? But with pretty much everybody using digital phones for photography, sound recording, and video recording, this is now the standard.

I still believe the story is what counts. Like Dziekański’s video at the airport was shot with some digital phone, some really bad video camera, pocket camera but it uncovered a very important story. So story always trumps the quality of the image. But then with this sort of quality and less and less skills actually required to operate these devices… and a lot of this footage and these pictures are used by news organizations. So there’s less market because the media is filled with other material.


Photographers have taken a bad hit in all the media layoffs because the perception now is that anyone can take photographs. 

It’s true, actually. The perception is not wrong. In my opinion, the situation in this area has evolved along the lines of the digital watch market. There’s a lot of people just changing batteries. And there will be very few artisans that really know their trade. I think people always appreciate quality in anything, but people consume what they’re given and people don’t really have much influence on what goes into the newspaper.


What advice would you have for freelance photographers just starting out?

A freelance photographer really really has to be a smart person, a media-smart person and very artistically talented person so they can survive as a freelance photographer. But a smart media person… that involves using other media than photography. I think that you can’t be just a photographer these days. If you’re working on stories, documentary stories, there’s less willingness for mainstream media to send a writer after a photographer who shot some story. So it’s more difficult to place that story in mainstream media because there are photo stories here and there but  often, for example, the Globe produces fake photo stories. A writer writes an article and then the photo editors just grab pictures on that theme or from that area from different agencies and they put it together the way photo stories used to be laid out. And it sort of looks like a photo story on the first glance, but it’s really not. It’s a bunch of pictures from different agencies taken over a period of time by different photographers.

There’s always been a tendency to send a photographer to illustrate a story already written. But now with the internet and the ease of finding digital material out there, the photo editors can very easily, instead of sending a photographer, just grab a few pictures from various sources and put it together and still have a decent illustration for a particular story.

And I’ve hardly ever heard about a photographer providing a story, researching a story, photographing a story and then the mainstream media sending somebody to provide the text. Therefore I think for photographers who can also write, or writers who can do decent photography, there’s a much better chance to survive in that market.


What do you think unions can offer freelance photographers in the way of useful professional support?

Because freelancers are the bottom of the pyramid, [media organizations] often offer terms that in the longterm are not acceptable because they cannot make a living. And I think that simply by discussing this issue in the wider world and finding a solution and just exposing the practices of some media organizations it may actually help to formulate some sort of a policy that would help people to stand up for themselves.


You can see some of Christopher Grabowski’s photography on his website and learn more about tomorrow’s Master Class on the Tyee site.

Posted on May 9, 2014 at 10:48 am by editor ·

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