Birmingham, City of Protest
Yesterday, I had a shoot in Birmingham. The Equalities & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is being targeted in the Coalition Government’s programme of spending cuts, and one of their call centres is located in Birmingham. To draw attention to the way that the services they provide to the public are under threat, EHRC staff all over the country held a co-ordinated one-hour strike on Wednesday, 4th May.
I was there because one of the union’s Vice-Presidents asked me to go and take pictures. That’s not the sort of request you ignore; even though I’m no longer a civil servant, I’m still a member of the union (albeit in the Associate and Retired Members section). And this meant that I was on a gig that was definitely non-paying.
That isn’t exactly a good strategy, many might say. These days, I do have to generate income. But my union work has always been a bit different, and that still holds quite good. There are four reasons why I always shot union events for nothing:
- I held national-level elected office in the union. If I charged for my photography, I could be accused of exploiting my position.
- Members of executive committees of the union are expected to put their hands in their pockets from time to time For The Cause. This was my contribution.
- My union – the Public & Commercial Services union, or PCS – has a policy of only employing NUJ freelance photographers at NUJ rates. If I insisted on payment, I’d be taking work away from professionals.
- And there is an old (small ‘s’) socialist principle – “To each according to their needs, from each according to their ability”.
All this has meant that over the years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of pictures of protests, mainly in Birmingham. Now, a few years ago, Birmingham applied to become the European City of Culture. The city was unsuccessful in that bid, but it gave me an idea. Why not a collection based on acts of protest in the nation’s second city? And so the concept for “Birmingham – City of Protest” was born.
I’ve discussed this with a few other colleagues, and we think there’s potential here for not just a collection, but a whole exhibition. Of course, that requires a lot more work, but a couple of us are going to get together in the next few weeks to see how we can take that forward.
Of course, there has to be some enlightened self-interest in here. Getting work displayed is the route to making a living at this photography game; and I have to be careful about the non-paying gigs I take on nowadays. If you do too much work for nothing, you get known as someone who’ll work for nothing. There’s no shortage of Good Causes who would love to have someone doing this sort of work for them. (Strange how many charities get uncharitable when you ask them about money; equally strange how many charities have big budgets for publicity campaigns but are reluctant to let freelancers see any of it.) There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about this within the industry recently, and the advice is never to work for nothing. But if you must, then do it on your terms, not anyone else’s. And know where to draw the line.