393 LETTERS TO NEWSWEEK
April 16, 2001
Editors Note: For decades working conditions for editorial photographers have been
steadily deteriorating. Publications have expected more and more from freelance
photographers and almost never increased the level of their compensation. Over the years many
talented photographers have given up the profession and moved on to doing other things,
because they simply could not earn a decent living.
Now Newsweek has taken the unprecendented stance of lowering their rates to freelance
photographers by 15%. As far as we know none of their staff writers, editors or staff
accountants are taking pay cuts. Their management is not taking a pay cut. They are still
paying standard rates for paper, telephones and air travel, but the people who produce the
images for the magazine are expected to learn to live on less.
Now, Burke Uzzle and David Burnett, two of the most respected and experienced photographers
in the industy have said enough is enough. These are two of the most talented editorial
photographers working today. Their awards and accomplishments, through long careers, are
Their letters to Sarah Harbutt, Director of Photography at Newsweek, paint a graphic picture
of how desperate and unfair the situation has become.
There is an important lesson here for young photographers -- and any editorial photographer.
If you believe that working hard, being loyal, always being available and not just doing an
outstanding job, but always going well beyond what is expected will eventually be recognized
and appropriately compensated -- forget it. They may pat you on the back from time to time,
but they won't give you anything you can take to the bank. In good times they will ignore
requests for increased compensation. In bad times you will be the first they expect to take a
If they won't pay Burke Uzzle and David Burnett, then you can be assured that you will never
be good enough (ever if you live to be 100) to command higher fees.
If you have any hope of making a life long career of editorial photography you must find ways
to join with other photographers and exert collective economic clout in the face of the
overwhelming power of the large publishing groups. Watch this space for more about how this
can be done. But first, the letters from Burke and David.
Letter From: Burke Uzzle
Last week you did me the honor of having one of your picture editors call on me for a very
important assignment on death row, and I really wanted to do it. First, because it was you.
Secondly, I have already spent a week living in a prison on death row - a long time ago for
the old Life Magazine. When that story ran it got so much attention that the governor of
Illinois commuted the sentence of my subject to life - proof that photojournalism can really
make a difference. I really wanted to have another go at that subject matter for you.
You're in a very important place in our world now, and you must know how proud I am of you.
When I was young Magnum photographer, I had the most wonderful of times living just down the
street from one of my best friends, and your father, Magnum photographer Charles Harbutt. He
went on to be a president of Magnum, and has had a life of great distinction. Well, Charlie
and I have both long since left Magnum, have had our long lives in photography. And now you,
that little girl Sarah, who played football with my kids in Brooklyn, is in one of the most
important jobs in my world. Please forgive the sentiment, but It's a feeling that gives me
great pleasure in getting older.
Even before you were old enough to play ball with us, however, my relationship with Newsweek
had already started. Among other things, I had done the Newsweek cover when Martin Luther
King was assassinated.
Now this is the funny part - in those days I was making as much from Newsweek as they want to
pay me now, in a whole new century.
Trouble is, in those days myself and Charlie and all the other young photographers could more
or less get by with a Leica and a loincloth. Now that loincloth (which was never that
becoming) has turned into sixty thousand dollars worth of gear and way more overhead. I used
to run five miles a day to stay in shape. Now I run five miles a day to stay ahead of the
sheriff. (The loincloth still fits, but I don't get it out much anymore.)
It's a strange time. Much of the business is about celebrities and making big deals and
eloquent pictures of milk on faces and stuff like that. Now, while all that's fine with me,
there are still some really talented photographers around who have wanted to have a different
kind of life quite apart from the world of celebrities, to grow as people from their
experiences out there in that "other" world, and to turn it all into fine, serious work that
will actually make the world a better place.
The group that has not been so much about making deals are the photographers who have
historically wound up on your pages; they have brought the world to your readers.
In a way, that brings us to one of photography's dirty little secrets. A lot of photographers
are not very good at business. And it's hard, especially when you're young and hungry and
need a few bucks and a few credit lines to get started, to stop and think about the business
ramifications of it all. But boy, do we photographers need to get better, and fast. We've got
to start defending ourselves.
That brings us into the era of downsizing and screwing the help and eliminating the benefits
and making the bottom line all that counts.
The paycheck for the talents, which have to be considerable to even get your attention, are
not enough to support life. Those day rates need to come up - a lot!
Those pictures that make you and your magazine look good are made with lights and lenses that
cost a fortune - used by people with children that need health insurance that costs a
fortune, and all for, get this, day rates that are declining at Newsweek.
So, circumstances that really trouble me led to my turning down that Newsweek assignment last
week. Over money. Over a grossly unfair day rate. (and Newsweek is not the only culprit.)
Personally, it made me feel really terrible, and angry.
Terrible, because it was you, I know you to be an exceptional person and picture editor. We
had a great relationship when you were at the New York Sunday Times Magazine. I know how hard
you try, and how good you are, and how deeply you care about things. And boy, have you paid
your dues. You richly deserve to be where you are.
Angry, because of all the stuff that's going on in our world today that has put me into a
position of turning down an important assignment because of money. We're having to lose sight
of the stuff that really counts in life, being forced to decline meaningful assignments out
of a seething, internal outrage at being treated unfairly.
It's now come to the point where I personally believe I'm being had. It's hard for me to look
at what's happening and not conclude that your bosses have decided to systematically screw
the photographers. What is the value standard that is at work here? How can this not lead to
a progressively more shallow magazine? How can I want to go the extra mile for such people?
I just don't want to go along with it any more. I want to be paid fairly for my work. Just as
I bring honor to your pages by investing my talents, and experience, and caring - I feel it
is only right that you should fairly honor my abilities and commitment to fine work.
And I really don't like having to conclude that management people, thinking only with their
calculators, are taking advantage of the vulnerability of young, naive photographers that
have not figured out that they and their careers are being sold down the river.
Let's all get through this bad time, and start growing again. Hang in there Sarah, you can
make a difference in a lot of lives.
Letter From: David Burnett
No one ever said a career in journalism would be easy. Fun? Perhaps.Exciting? Certainly.
Satisfying? Absolutely, especially on those projects whose publication embodies the
cooperation between photographer, picture editor, writer, and ultimately the editorial team,
the kind of work which makes all of us proud to be journalists.
Providing the first draft of history for the rest of our contemporaries to see, and better
understand our times is what motivates us all.
What perhaps was never touched on in our formative moments, the ones where you confirm to
yourself, yes, this is why I want to be a photojournalist, was the overlay of business and
necessity for understanding how a photographer's own business must run to stay afloat. I
remember not a single instance at the Danang Press center, the press lounge of the Chilean
military during the coup, the Medecin Sans Frontieres workstation at the Korem Camp in
Ethiopia, nor the briefing room at Khomeini's Reffa school having a discussion of day rates,
copyrights violations, or meal "per diems". For the most part, when someone said "rights
grabbing" it was reserved for a military junta or a corrupt government, not a newspaper or
Perhaps we fooled ourselves into thinking that none of these matters concerned us, but by in
large, we did what we did because we wanted to record history, witness what was happening in
our age, and make pictures that would last for the next generations. But even during the
worst of the fiscal problems in the early 80s, there was still a sense of amity, comradeship,
and cooperation which gave one a sense of assurance that it would all work out. That the
editorial people, for all their funny ways of seeing the world, would somehow convince the
money people that yes, it was still worth having a dedicated team of photographers whose
first interest was making great images for a publication, to the exclusion of just about
Calling ours a "hand shake" business is overstating it. It was a "phone call" business. The
number of times I grabbed my gear and left home on a phone call is more than I could ever
count. (And when some CEOs of the new mega picture agencies say they are bringing "a
professional touch to a cottage industry", I have to say that the cottage industry was on
almost every count a better way to operate.)
Somewhere along the line over the last decade as our economy has unleashed new pressures and
new realities, a good deal of that sense of togetherness between freelance photographer and
magazine has been whittled away. And we are all the poorer for it. Now, it turns out that the
latest of these new realities is a roll back of photo rates at Newsweek. As a practicing
photojournalist in this business for more than 30 years and a sometime contributor to the
magazine it might be melodramatic to say that my professional career will be literally
crushed by this fifty dollar roll back.
After all, its only a few days a year, and I guess I could absorb such a minor decrease in
rates. But it's really not about just the fifty bucks. Our collaboration has been, I hope, as
well received by the magazine as it has by me. (The few days I spent with Al Gore for
Newsweek last fall yielded, among other things, the First Place in the White House News
Photographers contest for Campaign 2000 picture.)
What hurts most of all is the realization that somehow Newsweek no longer seems to respect
the people that help make the magazine what it is. Slow as Newsweek may think we have been to
understand the hard edged realities of our business, there is now a well understood, and
properly founded view that photographers are, for all their creative wackiness and unbounded
enthusiasm for their work, IN a business too. We need to be able to Stay in Business to Be in
Given the lack of photographers' rate increases in the last decade, the period which saw ad
rates and revenues soar at our clients
businesses, the true day rates ought handily to be somewhere in the $750 to $1000 range.
Publications get a lot for their money, and we work hard for what we get. So, to see the
upper management of the magazine apparently sign on to your planned rate cut gives one pause.
Do they not feel the images in the magazine are part of what make it special?
The last time I looked, none ofthe news magazines looked like 1960's era wire service copy,
fresh from the telex machine, text upon text upon text. There must be some reason photographs
are used at all. I suspect it's because without the pictures, and without good pictures, the
glue which holds a reader's attention just dissolves and melts away, leaving a product
without a real sense of itself, and how it wants to show its presentation of the News.
Surely no staffers at Newsweek expects to take a pay cut after many years of service. If so,
that would be news itself. In fact, maybe that's the answer. To have everyone at the magazine
take a 15 or 20 % pay cut to help insure the viability of the company. I'm sure everyone
would understand. Nothing personal by it, just do with less. That the magazine has decided to
go this course with photographers is not only disappointing but insulting. We photographers
who have helped make the news magazines what they are, ought not to be the only ones who
suffer the distinction of lower payment for our creative work.
Given what I know of your love of photography and your appreciation of photographers, I'm
sure this cannot be an easy time for you. As a freelancer, I can't tell you what a good omen
I felt about your arrival at the Picture department. And to have all the potential energy and
excitementof helping Newsweek to go in new directions photographically assaulted by the waves
of justified resentment from your photographer colleagues must be truly a disappointment. I
know it is for me.
One hopes that the Senior powers that be at the Magazine will, instead of accepting this
badly thought out plan, at the very least convene some of your more regular contributors and
see if ground can be laid to find a policy which will be well received by the photographic
community, as has been done at a few other magazines in town. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect
the Magazine didn't recently just inform it's paper suppliers or computer vendors that it
would begin immediately paying 15% less than the week before.
I for one, have enjoyed working for Newsweek on the occasions when it works out for both of
us. But until the rates are brought around to reflect the new realities of our business, I'm
afraid I'll have to desist. My sincere wishes for a wonderful tenure at the magazine, and I
hope part of that tenure includes a chance to bring back some much needed common sense to the
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