Rural photography competitions can help foster a thriving rural photography scene – but most don’t

After running rural drone or photography workshops I’m usually approached by at least one parent asking whether their daughter, who is really keen on photography, should pursue a career as a photographer. (And yes, virtually every time it has been daughter, not son.) If I say ‘yes go for it’ (as many other photographers do) I’m taking the easy way out and setting someone up for devastation down the track; as well as steering education-related decisions in a detrimental direction. And if I say ‘no’ then I’m raining on enthusiasm. It’s not a pleasant position to be in but I choose honesty because that’s ultimately far more useful than encouraging someone to head up a dry gully of heartbreak. I suggest that the keen photographer embarks on another career and continues with photography in their spare time. And if they build a part time photography business that is going well enough to turn it into a full time career, then and only then, go for it.

Now I have another classic example to talk about, illustrating why professional photography careers are almost obsolete.

The Cattle Council of Australia is running what has become a common way to legally obtain the rights to use the work of others without paying for it. Which is commonly known in photography circles as a ‘rights grab’ competition. In this case – for the total cost of $500, split up into just $250 for the winner, followed by $150 and $100 for the second and third placegetters, the Cattle Council will have the rights to use all images and videos entered (not just the winners) – in perpetuity. But this ‘competition’ is one of the most poorly thought out that I’ve come across. The problem clauses are:

“2. All entrants acknowledge that by submitting photos or videos into the competition they grant Cattle Council of Australia the right to use the images for future marketing or advertising purposes without attribution in perpetuity.” (IE it’s not just the winner’s work that will be used it’s every entrant’s, the images and videos will be used for business purposes, creators won’t even be acknowledged, it’s not just a one-off use and it’s not just over the following 1-2 years it is forever).

“3. The creator will retain copyright of the works, and the right to use or sell the images as they see fit, however this will not impinge on the rights granted to Cattle Council of Australia under this agreement.”

  • Clause number 3 is a waste of space because most businesses paying for usage require exclusive use, or at least want to know when and how the image they’re considering, will be used by others. IE most won’t touch an image that you’ve already signed away the rights for, or usage that the Cattle Council could potentially object to; noting ‘…this will not impinge on the rights granted to CCA’. In any case, nobody who sells images would sensibly give away their work for just a slim chance of winning only $250.
  • There’s no mention of model release forms (written proof that recognisable people in the images have agreed that the image can be used for commercial purposes) or signing an indemnity clause. Unlikely though it may be this leaves the Cattle Council open to legal action if a recognisable person in an image objects to being part of the Cattle Council’s marketing material.  Not that indemnity clauses are the be-all and end-all, they look ridiculously inequitable when included in ‘rights grabs’ and would probably be laughed out of court, if the organising body ever ended up in hot water. Either way it would certainly be extremely bad PR.
  • While usage by the Cattle Council is presumably fairly predictable, all entrants are signing away control of what their images are used for – forever – and potentially for purposes they may not agree with.
  • There’s also an obvious lack of detail provided re video entries. EG what is the maximum and minimum film length, or maximum file size? Should videos be uncut, or edited and a soundtrack included? If the latter, should proof be provided that the music has been paid for or genuinely royalty-free?

What is wrong with members of the public donating photographs to an organisation representing a multi-million dollar industry:

  • The hypocrisy of using other people’s work for nothing, while at the same time lamenting low beef industry profitability.  The soundest way to garner respect from other walks of life is to show respect for others. Part of this is paying a reasonable amount for business inputs instead of attempting to gain them for free. It doesn’t matter whether the goods or services were produced by someone in their spare time or someone who does it for a fulltime living. Logically – if something is worth using for a business purpose, then it’s worth paying for and should be paid for. Many rural photographers start off small and then build up to running a business – nobody goes from zero to 100 overnight. And fledgling businesses most need support early on, when many would view them as ‘amateur’ (despite being professional standard and with long term plans).
  • Rural image makers are fantastic advocates for regional Australia and many already donate copious amounts of time and energy that countless others benefit from.  But instead of recognising and rewarding the efforts of these advocates, the Cattle Council has set up a rights grab designed to take advantage. The careers and confidence of the many very talented rural photographers could be bolstered by paying a reasonable amount for every image and used by the Cattle Council of Australia but instead they’re undermining by setting the value effectively at zero, and without even an author credit. This demeans the value of rural image creators and it helps water down the quality of rural images making it into the public sphere by reducing the capacity to create. This is a vexing missed opportunity to do some good by helping these photographers become established and boost the quality of rural images appearing before the general public, long-term.  Of late I’ve been looking around wondering where the other professional rural photographer are, to pass commercial (advertising/marketing-related) work on, and finding scarcity. I am dismayed because in recent years commission work has not been something I’ve had the time to undertake – I want to be able to pass work on, but finding almost no options in the commercial ag photography space. Successors will never be able to build sustainable regional professional ag photography businesses, if ag industry bodies do not have the decency to respect and support their work. If industry can’t support their own, heaven help regional Australia!
  • This competition is another reminder of my personal good fortune to always enjoy having a number of irons in the fire. I’ve never wanted to only work as a professional photographer undertaking commissions, and in recent years I’ve spent most of my time passing on what I know via workshops, amongst other things. My intention has been to help capacity-build in regional areas by passing on what I’ve learned over a few decades and most of this has been at low or no cost. But in the meantime, Australian agricultural bodies representing multi-million dollar industries, almost all based in capital cities, are undertaking practices which actively undermine regional self-sufficiency. I feel very sorry for young rural photographers being faced with the disrespect being dished out by hypocritical ag-related organisations – run by well paid staff living in our largest cities. It is exasperating.

The Cattle Council of Australia is just one of many Australian ag industry bodies to run a photography ‘competition’ such as this; but this one does stand out because of the extra feeble prize money and complete absence of any mention of publicity benefits that the winners may receive. It is time Australian ag industry bodies had a good hard look at how they can do their bit to boost multi-faceted capacity building in regional Australia and how other professions are treated.  Not just by giving hardworking rural photographers some well deserved recognition and thanks and paying for all images used, but also by running annual conferences in regional areas, not capital cities; and shifting head offices out of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Worst of all, from the Cattle Council’s point of view:

All rural industry organisations struggle to maintain membership. The days of unquestioning member loyalty have long gone, if they ever existed. Existing and prospective members need to be convinced that the rural industry body they belong to, will do something well above and beyond what is possible for an individual. Many rural Australians are already advocating for their industry on an individual capacity; via posting words and images online. Asking the general public for images that they are probably already posting on their own social media accounts is effectively saying that the Cattle Council can’t produce anything different or of a higher standard. Thus helping to dilute the reasons for joining and maintaining membership. It’s scoring an own goal.

  • The best images won’t be entered, because people don’t want to sign away the rights to them.
  • I judge rural photography awards across Australia and on average at least 90% of the entries are not good enough for any business or organisation to use for any purpose. Far better to split $500 prize money into 5 lots of $100 to purchase the right to use the top five entries. This would encourage the entry of images from photographers who are only prepared to agree to usage if some money changes hands, so would lift the overall quality of entries.

Rural photographers:

  • Do consider donating to worthy not-for-profit charities, although with clear attribution.
  • Don’t donate your efforts to businesses.
  • When you come across inequitable photography ‘competitions’ run by businesses and industry bodies, give organisers feedback. And if you hear the tired old ‘sorry we have no budget’ – ask the person who says it what their weekly wage is and if they’ve had a pay cut lately, or stopped paying their rent.

Photography competition organisers:

  • If you only care about what you want and not what’s good for the individuals entering or rural Australia as a whole – then it will show. Do you really want to foster the image of zero corporate responsibility and zero care for your member’s welfare, and set a poor example that others will emulate? Sit down and think hard about what’s in it for entrants. And no, an ego trip won’t cut it.
  • Either write your own carefully thought out terms and conditions or find someone with sound experience to help you write T & C that are not only fair for everyone involved, but which will also get you better results.
  • DO NOT just copy T & C used by another organisation on the presumption that what they have set up is good quality – many vary from unfair for entrants to posing a legal risk to either organisers or entrants or both. Unfortunately, some other organisers may copy the CCA’s T & C on the mistaken belief that a high-profile, national organisation would know what they are doing in this area.
  • The National Farmers Federation and the NT Cattleman’s Association have run poorly thought out, disrespectful photography competitions in recent years. In previous years I invested time in private conversations suggesting improvements (I’ve volunteered assistance for photography competition organisers for more than twenty years, with some fantastic outcomes for all concerned.) Unfortunately this advice has repeatedly been ignored so I no longer bother wasting my time and just cut to the chase instead: this is poorly arranged and reflects badly on all involved.
  • Other photography ‘competitions’ have been run too, such as the Australian Lot Feeder’s Association annual calendar competition. The competition has a sponsor and the calendars are sold to members for $20 each & non-members for $30 – but apparently the photographers whose images make it into ALFA’s calendar don’t even receive a free calendar, let alone any money. IE this is an annual request for donations.
  • The annual Wandoan Photo Challenge has a set of terms and conditions that are the best I’ve seen for any rural photography competition in Australia. These T & C are clear, simple and fair for all involved. If a small competition run by hardworking volunteers can get it right, what excuse do salaried employees have for stuffing it up so badly?

Well-run rural photography competitions are win/win for all involved and lead to better results all round, including lifting the overall standard of rural photography. The 2020 Cattle Council photography competition isn’t one of them.

Tags: ,