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In the Hostile World of Freelance, a Seasoned Photojournalist Reinvents Himself

By Amy A. Ross

At first glance, it can seem hard to imagine that a professional photographer with a portfolio as thick and impressive as Jeff Haynes’ would find himself struggling to find enough work to make ends meet.

Over the span of 25 years, Haynes’ career included news coverage of an seemingly endless list of news events from the OJ Simpson trial and the Columbine shooting, to numerous editions of the Oscars, the Grammys and the Olympics; most of them as a photojournalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP). However in 2008, Haynes found himself scrambling for work after his employer opted to relocate his position from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York or Washington, a demand he was unable to accommodate due to his personal life.

For the first few years, the veteran photographer found a relatively steady stream of work through a contract with Reuters, but in 2013 the international news agency decided to dispense of it sports coverage in the United States. As he struggled to make ends meet, Haynes found that the world of freelance photography is a hostile one. “There is a demand more for pictures than ever before, but there is less of a monetary value placed on them,” Haynes said. “Photography has been downgraded because anybody can take a picture at any time and it is pretty darned good.”

As he pointed out, the struggles of the news industry directly affected photographers, who were very often the first to be cut in company layoffs. Furthermore, people with much less expertise and knowledge of the craft are increasingly capable of taking publishable photos due to the increase in high quality consumer cameras. Not only can these cameras focus and adjust to the light on their own, they also enable users to take a virtually endless amount of pictures. In addition, postproduction tools and software facilitate the correction of mistakes that result from the lack of skill. Thus, in the midst of financial tensions, many news organizations prefer to sacrifice some of the quality that professional photographers can guarantee, in exchange for saving money on those salaries. “

The industry has started to hire people with very little experience and equipment for $120 a day, and we just can’t afford it,” Haynes said. On the photographer’s end of the equation, surviving off of freelance work has also become increasingly difficult as a result of the the overhead costs of photographic equipment. “The hardest part is not having a regular paycheck and at the same time having to purchase all the camera equipment that was provided as a staff photographer, from a cellphone all the way up to a $10,000 camera lens,” Haynes said. As a result, he has found himself at a place he didn’t imagine a decade ago: reinventing himself at 47 years of age.

Among other things, this implies branching far out from editorial photography. “Now my camera is a hammer and I’ll pound nails for anybody; I’ll go from a high-end corporate client to my friends’ family pictures for $100,” said Haynes. Most of his current work serves customers  like Sports Illustrated, the NBA, and Best Buy, where he does weeklong courses to teach employees knowledge about cameras that will aid them in sales. He also does some photography for the Associated Press, Getty Images, and some corporate clients in the Midwest. Haynes urges upcoming photographers to tread with caution and carefully consider other alternatives to supplement their photographic work.

“Maybe I am 47 years old and bitter, but I see where this is leading and the people at the beginning of the product are suffering the most,” Haynes said. “I’m not saying there aren’t going to be photographers but I am saying that I think it it is going to be very, very difficult to break into the industry. You are really going to have to stand out from the crowd.”