Tuesday, 15 December 2009

POV: On Unpaid Photo Internships

A famous award-winning conflict photographer seeks an intern, for 3 days a week for three months, with demonstrable experience in photo and processing related tasks, but the position is unpaid.

And the blogosphere and photography forums erupt! Perhaps for good reason.

As one can imagine, photographers of all stripes with opinionated but honest points of view, others with axes to grind and a lot of personal luggage, all made their voices heard...which made for an interesting read.

Unfortunately, some of the commentary devolved into personal attacks on the famous photographer's character, and used ad hominem arguments. Such comments demean those who make them, are counter-productive and unnecessary. Yes, perhaps a tad understandable...but certainly not defensible. Understandable because of the state of the photo industry, and its throes during this difficult transition phase. Let's be honest, there's considerable frustration out there.

In the other corner of the ring are those (not too many) who claim that they'd take the unpaid internship job in a heartbeat...just to gain the experience to be working (albeit briefly) with the famous photographer. Some even go so far as saying they would pay for the privilege.

In my view, that is also not right. I recall my father telling me - at the very start of my career and on hearing that I had been hired by the then largest international bank in the world, then being sent on a 9 months arduous training course - that I ought to pay them to train me. Not surprisingly, my response was to roll my eyes as far back as they would go. I still have the same view.

There's also the notion that offering a non-paying internship brings only the most dedicated candidates...those with a can-do attitude and the hunger to work hard no matter what. The notion has merits, but it also has exploitative connotations.

So here's my personal opinion:

If the scope of the internship is essentially to bring coffee and doughnuts, push paper, make photocopies, and assist the famous photographer's assistants, then it's a job and should be paid as such.

If, on the other hand, the internship is truly an opportunity to learn, observe, assist and be part of the famous photographer's work flow, then it's an internship in the real sense of the word. Such an opportunity can provide tangible rewards to the intern's future photo career. Who wouldn't want a letter of recommendation from such a renowned photographer?

Having said that, I also believe it would be commendable for the famous photographer(s) to provide a stipend to the intern; some token amount to at least cover out of pocket expenses, such as food and transport. After all, we're talking about New York City, an incredibly expensive city. It's possible the famous photographer had no idea that a request for an intern was made, and that it was his assistants/staff who decided to bring in extra help or to cover some of their vacation time, and getting a worker for free would be an ideal solution.

Luminaries of the photo industry have a responsibility to use their immense influence and put forward their example to encourage newcomers, and those who are still struggling to make their talent visible. Generosity is always an admirable trait in people, and rarely goes unrewarded.

As to those who believe that fame spoils people, here's a quote by Somerset Maugham:
"The common idea that success spoils people by making them vain, egotistic, and self-complacent is erroneous; on the contrary, it makes them, for the most part, humble, tolerant and kind. Failure makes people bitter and cruel.”
There are many examples of this being true. The Foundry Photojournalism Workshop is such an example. A dozen or more of excellent and established photographers give up a week or more of their time to teach and encourage emerging photographers...and they make a difference.