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Eva Rinaldi / flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

A photographer’s open letter to Taylor Swift is starting a conversation about pay

'In my time in the photo pit, I have seen some pretty bad contracts.'


Gabriela Barkho


Posted on Jun 23, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 12:22 pm CDT

By now, you’ve surely heard of the open-letter Internet war involving Taylor Swift and Apple Music. Yesterday, freelance photographer Jason Sheldon published his own open letter to Swift, and called her out for being a hypocrite.   

On Sunday, Swift published a Tumblr post asking Apple to change their artist compensation policy for their upcoming Apple Music service. Given her public opinion of streaming services like Spotify, it’s no surprise she chose to forgo streaming her latest album, 1989, on the tech giant’s service. In her letter, Swift claimed to be fighting for the small artists by pleading fair compensation during Apple Music’s 90-day free trial, and she got her way.

The next day, she was called out for hypocrisy by freelance concert photographer Sheldon, who claimed Swift doesn’t practice what she preaches when it comes to artist compensation and copyright agreements.

“I have read your open letter to Apple where you give your reasons for refusing to allow your album ‘1989′ to be included on their forthcoming Apple Music streaming service,” Sheldon wrote on his personal blog. “I applaud it. It’s great to have someone with a huge following standing up for the rights of creative people and making a stand against the corporate behemoths who have so much power they can make or break someone’s career.”

While Sheldon is grateful to have a megastar fighting for the little guys, and talks about how Swift’s stance could potentially help him and others alike, he also goes on to write about his frustrations as a freelance photographer in the industry—and why Swift doesn’t seem to fully get it. 

He included a photo contract for Swift’s live concerts, stating, “Now, forgive me if I’m wrong, but if you take points 2 and 3 in that contract (which is provided to photographers who need to agree to those terms before they are allowed to do their job in photographing you for editorial outlets), it appears to be a complete rights grab, and demands that you are granted free and unlimited use of our work, worldwide, in perpetuity.”

Not surprisingly, the Internet ate the post right up and it got the attention of Swift’s camp, which claimed the contract was “misrepresented.” While social media has already taken sides, photographers everywhere are hoping this call-out will help improve their job prospects.

To break it all down, music photographer Rebecca Reed, who’s shot artists for Alternative Press, Rock Sound, and New Noise Magazine, explains how concert shooting and an artist’s photo rights from a live show are agreed upon.

“Most music photographers will not sign contracts that steal the copyright to their images,” Reed told the Daily Dot. “[Sheldon’s] blog post is not about the resale of images, it’s about the fact that Taylor doesn’t agree with Apple not paying her for the use of her music and her doing the same to photographers. The photographers are hired by outside publications. They are NOT hired by Taylor Swift or her management and PR. If they are, they are her touring photographers.

“This is about how people—hired by someone else—are being forced (if they sign the contract) to release all images worldwide and forever over to her company, management, and label so that they may use those images for free for her publicity when she didn’t hire them or PAY THEM for it—which is her exact gripe with Apple.”

Reed goes on to explain the slew of other reasons photographers are upset by the contract’s policies:

The photographers are not allowed to post images they take anywhere, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, their personal website, etc. As a photographer, your work is your PR. If you can’t show that you are working, you can’t get work.  

Another qualm Reed has with these strict contracts is that photographers can’t take an image for one publication and then later let another publication use it. What usually ends up happening is that the publication is redirected to the artist’s staff for the photo rights. In turn, the staff provides the image to the publication, after the photographer was unable to resell it because the image was provided for free in the first place.

Judging by the response to Sheldon’s post, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding this process and copyright issues. Photographer Keeyahtay Lewis, who’s shot huge artists and bands like Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Jay Z, and Foo Fighters, explains why.

“In my time in the photo pit, I have seen some pretty bad contracts,” Lewis said. “On the one hand, I know a band has to protect its image. The problem with that is that we are living in an age where everyone literally has a camera in their pocket at all times. You can’t control all the fans who are posting terrible photos that they took with their phones all over the Internet. So it makes no sense to me to try to control the professionals—the ones out there to do a job, who are there to make you look good, to make your concert seem like one they just can’t miss. People have told me time and again that my photos make them want to go to shows. That is my job and I am glad when I can do it well.”

Reed says that while she’s been asked to sign similar contracts, she knows photographers don’t have many choices when it comes to pursuing their passion.

“You have three options,” she said. “Take a red pen, cross out what you don’t like, and see if they will comply; sign it; or walk out. It is hard to walk away from photographing major artists like Taylor Swift. But if she can take on Apple and they can change their ways, then maybe if enough photographers walked away from providing her with press, things could change for us as well.”

Lewis says his problems with the current situation spring from the fact that things haven’t been improving for him and his colleagues.  

“It’s 2015,” he said. “If anything, the contracts are getting worse. I’ll photograph a band that has no contract, then four months later I have to sign something for that same band that would be insane to anyone else. If I asked my plumber to work for free, they wouldn’t. But I get asked to work for free all the time. People don’t even blink.”

Despite the ongoing struggles, Reed says she hopes this will help make a real difference for people like herself and other music photographers.

“There is very little money in music photography,” she explained. “A small handful of photographers are able to make a living off of it and even those also photograph other things. We photograph music because it’s a passion. It is for the love of the music, the artists, and capturing amazing moments that fans can look back on [and] remember the amazing nights we all shared. When our rights are taken, it not only takes what little money is possible for us but also a little bit of the magic and joy of the music.”

Photo via Eva Rinaldi/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Jun 23, 2015, 6:28 pm CDT