- Published On
- January 10, 2023
For independent journalists, there's a high cost to replacing or repairing damaged equipment
Independent photojournalist Jake Lee Green says sometimes he works for “starvation rates,” which can make maintaining his equipment next to impossible, especially if it's damaged.
“I'll be out on the field for 12 hours a day for a story and make about $200 — even $150 a day,” Green said.
When the Los Angeles-based photojournalist was assaulted in summer 2021 while covering an anti-vaccine protest in the city, he said the camera, a Sony AX53 that retails for more than $1,000, was still in working condition after the attack but a $120 microphone was unrepairable. Green, who shares expensive camera equipment with a colleague for some assignments and uses his own for freelance gigs, said it could be a career-ender if his personal camera were to be damaged.
“Last time one of my personal cameras was damaged, it took me more than a year to get it repaired and I can’t imagine having to go through that again,” he said.
In 2022, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented just eight reports of damaged news equipment from journalists in the course of their work. That’s the lowest number — and the lowest number of assaults of journalists — since the Tracker launched in 2017, mostly due to fewer national protests. With 203 reports of damaged equipment recorded in the database, the vast majority — 73% — occurred while journalists covered protests across the nation.
Josh Pachecho, a freelance photojournalist who lost a GoPro while documenting a reproductive rights protest in LA in May 2022, said that when incidents like this happen, it’s unlikely that the lost or damaged equipment will be replaced.
“In 2020, I dropped one of my cameras while covering a protest in New York City, and the truth is that it hasn’t been repaired and it probably won’t be,” Pacheco said. They still use the camera even with the damaged lens.
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for National Press Photographers Association General Counsel, told the Tracker that the cost of equipment damage has become all the more critical as shrinking newsrooms rely more and more on independent visual journalists for additional support. (NPPA is a Tracker partner.)
In 2012, the Pew Research Center, using findings from an American Society of News Editors survey, estimated that from 2002 to 2012, the number of photographers and other visual journalists in newsrooms had decreased by more than 40% in the decade.
In 2013, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire 28-person photography department and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cut its photography department by half that same year. In 2018, New York Daily News also eliminated its entire 10-person photography staff.
The ongoing newsroom staffing shortage puts more responsibility on independent visual journalists to purchase their own equipment, Osterreicher said, estimating that an independent visual journalist spends $5,000-$12,000 on essential camera equipment alone. They’re also often responsible for having personal photo editing software, equipment insurance, reliable internet service and transportation to get to and from assignments.
“And that's all on top of whatever it is you normally need in terms of where you live and if you have a family and are paying for food. So you know, people definitely do not get into the business of visual journalism to get rich,” Osterreicher said. Visual journalist Tara Pixley, co-founder of Authority Collective, an organization that aims to promote diversity in photojournalism, said the monetary burden that comes from working as a freelancer is a huge hurdle that keeps many out of the profession.
“It’s been very difficult to make it in this industry, especially as someone who doesn’t come from a financially privileged background,” Pixley said.
Pixley said that having to carry the costs of expensive equipment even before being hired for an assignment is one of the biggest obstacles for photojournalists.
“The labor is upfront but the payment is often on the backend,” Pixley said.
Independent photojournalist Emily Molli was assaulted while covering a September 2021 anti-vaccine demonstration in LA: Individuals doused her and her camera with a mixture of oil, water and glitter. She told the Tracker it wasn't the first time her camera was targeted.
“Whether it's the police or protesters, I've had instances of people just grabbing at my camera and equipment,” Molli said. “Even if it's not permanent damage, even if it's just to keep you from shooting something on that day, it has a financial impact. And then having to replace equipment once it's broken, has a really bad financial impact.”
Molli said she hasn't covered local protests since that assault and the incident forced her to reconsider which events she is willing to cover after experiencing multiple targeted aggressions in the past two years. And as newsrooms continue to rely on freelancers for content, Molli says clients need to rethink the rates they are willing to pay.
“If I get paid the same amount to cover a peaceful protest than I do to cover something that they know is probably going to turn volatile, then there should be an element of hazard pay or some kind of guarantee that they at least make it right if some kind of bodily harm or equipment damage happens,” she said.