Maggie Steber is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who has worked in 64 different countries, covering guerilla warfare in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and the fall of Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. She does her work on a freelance basis and is often as worried about paying her bills as she is about flying shrapnel. “You have to keep an eye on the time so that you can make deadlines,” she told Hyperallergic. “And you have to dodge bullets, and you have to make sure that you’re safe.”
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of full-time journalists employed in a newsroom has declined by 26% between 2008 and 2020. Newsrooms have instead become more reliant on freelance photographers, even when they need coverage of wars or other dangerous conflicts.
Freelance photographers are “increasingly more important because of the economic restraints many news organizations face these days,” said Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association. Sadly, their importance is tied to their willingness to operate on a shoestring budget and to put themselves in harm’s way on their own dime.
“For the most part, freelance photographers [provide their own] equipment, whether it’s a camera, safety equipment, or things like helmets and flak jackets and first aid kits,” Santiago Lyon, former vice president and director of photography for the Associated Press (AP), told Hyperallergic. Having to buy these tools and supplies comes with its own risks. In the words of Dieu-Nalio Chery, a freelance photographer who has worked for AP and won the 2019 Robert Capa Gold Medal: “If you have a problem with your own equipment, it’s your problem, it’s not [the news organization’s] problem.”
In a 2017 blog post, the freelance photographer Felipe Passolas — who has been working to cover the crisis in eastern Ukraine and on the Syrian Border — wrote that it is “difficult to compete with big media, like CNN or BBC, who have huge economic and material resources at their disposal.” These resources, he added, allow media behemoths to stay on the front lines and cover fees for expensive services like fixers, locals who can act as guides and translators.
Freelance war photographers don’t get sick days like their counterparts on staff. Chery notes that some media organizations “will just choose someone else” if a photographer gets sick, and if they don’t like the photos taken, “they will complain, or maybe they won’t pay them.” Getting health insurance can also be difficult for freelance war photographers.
“Not every insurance company will insure you if you’re going into conflict, but there is some conflict insurance you can get. It’s very expensive,” Steber said. “I don’t know how much it is because I’ve never had it. I didn’t ever get any myself, which also was kind of stupid, but I couldn’t afford it.”
Freelance photographers are “a very vulnerable population,” Lyon said, particularly as all photojournalists face increased scrutiny and threats to personal safety. According to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 2,000 journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2022. At least 23 journalists have been killed in Ukraine since the onset of the Russian invasion, and the United Nations is investigating the recent killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on the West Bank, reportedly by Israeli gunfire, as a possible war crime.
“Once upon a time, photographers enjoyed a sort of a neutral status, and were respected by both sides in part because combatants and governments rarely saw the results of their work,” Lyon continued. “The advent of satellite TV in the 1990s began to change that, and then obviously with the advent of the internet, that changed even more.”
But even as freelance photographers’ jobs become more and more precarious, media organizations do not pay them more when they are in high-risk situations. “If you spend the whole day taking photos, [photo editors] will pay you the same amount of money whether it’s a conflict or not,” says Chery.
The upside to taking photos of war is that there are more work opportunities. And there are organizations like the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and Professional Photographers of America (PPA), which help support freelance photographers with grants to purchase equipment; the NPPA also provides insurance to freelance photographers as well as workshops on health and safety.
Even with these resources, some freelance photographers have left the profession altogether in recent years because they were not making enough money to survive.
In her 2018 book Becoming the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11, Lindsay Palmer, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains why freelance journalism has become more competitive. “In the first decade of the twenty-first century, editors began relying more and more heavily on stringers, freelancers, and digital activists to get images and information from places where they could not always afford to send their full-time news teams,” Palmer wrote. “This strategy created a staunchly competitive market for staffers and freelancers alike.”
A democracy depends on a free press, but as media companies become more dependent on freelancers — many of whom do not feel supported in their roles — the very prospect of a free press is under threat.
“It’s mostly just a lack of communication and a lack of respect. That’s what I hear from younger photographers,” Ed Kashi, who has been working as a photographer for over 40 years, told Hyperallergic. “I don’t want to spend so much energy trying to sell myself. I want to expand my energy to create work, and also to have a life.”
As we continue to see the importance of war images captured by freelance photographers today, society faces a moral and social obligation to protect the individuals taking these photographs. It becomes more apparent that Frederick Douglass was right when he declared, during one of his first lectures on photography in 1861, that “the moral and social influence of pictures” is more important in shaping a nation than “the laws created during its time.”