PRUETT: Say farewell to your favorite photographers

RACER magazine shoot, Laguna Seca, 2019. Image by Abbott/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Say farewell to your favorite photographers

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Say farewell to your favorite photographers

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It’s saddening to consider how the professional North American racing photographer is facing extinction. All because of the dreadfully short-sighted decisions being made by our biggest racing series as we emerge from the coronavirus shutdown and get back to racing.

Most of the finest shooters who document motorsport in your favorite magazines, websites, and Instagram feeds are small business owners who function as independent contractors. When you open an article to read about who won the pole at wherever, or see the tweet from an auto manufacturer about how one of their drivers delivered a star performance in whatever race, the accompanying image was most likely taken by and supplied through a contract signed with a small business owner.

In many instances, we’re talking about a single shooter with two or three important clients they’ve found in the paddock. They feed those teams and manufacturers and sponsors with creative images to tell their stories and promote their brands. In turn, they rely on the income from those clients to support their families. It’s a very simple, well-defined, and longstanding cycle.

It’s no different from a driver or mechanic who gets paid for performing their jobs at the racetrack. Take the track away, and the countdown clock to hitting the unemployment line or filing for bankruptcy begins. The same track-based need also applies to photographers. Without access to the track, they’re unable to shoot, and therefore unable perform their jobs. Again, simple stuff.

But what happens when your favorite racing series decide to ban the small business owners from the facility? It’s a sickening story of playing favorites, and having no regard for placing dozens of the best photographers of our generation on the brink of financial ruin.

That’s the reality they’re facing, as independent shooters have been barred from attending the NASCAR races that recently resumed. And also from IndyCar’s Texas race in June. (We’re still waiting to learn which direction IMSA and the SRO Motorsports Group are heading for their sports car returns in July.)

It’s being done in the name of limiting the amount of people at the fan-free events, and deeming some folks essential, while others, who perform the same exact photographic job, have been marked as non-essential because of who they do (or don’t) work for in the paddock.

We’re talking about five to 10 independent shooters at the average event. At the big ones—the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Indy 500s—the numbers swell, but in a paddock comprised of hundreds, they are a tiny fraction of the racing community.

Independent photographers and agencies have been barred from the NASCAR’s ‘comeback’ races, and publications instead rely on a selection of images provided by the series for coverage. IndyCar has taken a similar approach for Texas. Image by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In the case of NASCAR and IndyCar, only the series full-time shooters, and the major photo agencies they’ve signed (plus AP, in the case of IndyCar) are allowed onsite. It’s selective starvation in that regard. All because a few people atop your favorite racing series have decided the small business owners that aren’t on their payroll lack the importance to survive.

For those who were fortunate to be hired or to sign supply deals with a series before COVID-19, they’re safe. For the overwhelming majority who signed deals with teams, drivers, and manufacturers, they’re being locked out during the pandemic. These unfortunate men and women are praying the coronavirus disappears before their life savings and retirement funds have been drained. This is where extinction of the North American racing photographer begins.

I wish this were a small thing where just a few small business owners were at risk, but that isn’t the case. Visit the photographer’s room in any media center, and the overwhelming number of folks there work for themselves. They pay for their own travel, spend small fortunes buying photo gear, pay for insurance, and bear all the risks while working to support their clients. Most make enough to live decent lives, but huge profits are nowhere to be found.

If you’re looking for the cheapest hotels in town and the best bargain meals, ask the small business owners with cameras in their hands: sacrifice is the norm in order to generate a profit. And if you’re a fan of work ethic, the independent photographers are among the first to arrive at the track each morning, and always the last to leave. I take pride in working harder than most as a reporter, but these crazies are always there churning out images for their customers when I pack up and leave, long after the rest of the paddock has gone to dinner and returned to their rooms. Somehow, the ones who work more, for less, are the ones being banished. It makes no damn sense.

Inside those photo rooms, you’ll also see those who work for the racing series, and often, there will be a few shooters dispatched from a large agency. They represent the numerical minority. In Thanksgiving terms, the series employees and big agency shooters sit at the kiddie table while the small business owners fill the dining room.

And while some of the great independent shooters in your favorite series were born outside the U.S., most working here are Americans, or Canadians, or naturalized citizens. In patriotic terms, domestic jobs are being taken away by choice, not by need. It’s tribal mentality, and the rich ignorance on display is baffling. Rather than taking a moment to consider the wellbeing of the entire racing community, your favorite racing series are demonstrating how little they care for those outside their fortified walls.

With no fans in the stands – or in any other area of the track – it would not be difficult for photographers to work while maintaining COVID-19 safety measures. Image by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Another common practice is for sanctioning bodies to charge those small business owners an exorbitant sum to work in their series. For small business owners to sell their work to a client, thousands of dollars are often demanded by those series at the start of each season to receive the rights to supply those images. And despite paying the fees, the door has been shut as big agencies and employees have been given exclusive access to shoot the races.

Oddly, the manufacturers who pour untold millions into each series have had their contracted photographers barred as well, despite making formal pleas for the policies to be reconsidered.

Sadder still, the actions by NASCAR, which was the first to set this business-killing policy in motion, are being parroted by other series. NASCAR’s road map has become the guide for other series to hide behind.

The arbitrary nature of these decisions is what’s so maddening. It’s a case of executives choosing which small businesses live or die, and if they think otherwise, they’re kidding themselves. It’s telling giant auto manufacturers, and the teams and sponsors who make the sport possible, their chosen photographers and the contracts they’ve executed are unwelcome and invalid.

And that’s where this generation’s Jesse Alexanders and Dave Friedmans are at serious risk of going out of business. Odder still, some series have given teams a fixed number of people who will be credentialed for each race, and in some cases, parents, spouses, and friends will be found inside the track. All while legions of professional racing photographers are cast aside. And if you think there’s a way to game the system by adding some of the independent shooters to those team credential lists, think again: They’ve been listed as ineligible for consideration.

Hell, even a handful of reporters are getting the golden ticket to turn up and cover the races while sequestered in the media center. Granted, the same reporters, who aren’t allowed to leave the media center, can just as easily watch and write from home, but nonetheless, my non-essential brethren have gotten breaks to attend where those who truly need to be there have not.

Some of the most ingenious people found at a racetrack throw 500mm lenses over their shoulders and go trekking in search of excellent images to capture. As lone operators who do not require support staff or close proximity to others to perform their jobs, there are few layers of support within the sport that are better prepared to work while social distancing than the very people who’ve been banned.

They don’t need to be in the garages or up close on pit lane to document the action; that’s where long lenses and skill comes into play. With empty grandstands, and vacant photo holes, and remote corners to explore, one shooter can cover his or her imagery needs while in a different zip code from the next.

Rules are already in place for the favored photographic employees and big agency types to follow; the only issue here is in the double standard where small business owners have been disinvited from their workplace.

Ask those media outlets, and auto manufacturers, and teams whether the independent racing photographers they use to communicate with the world are considered essential, and you’ll receive a resounding, all-caps YES in response. Our sport’s greatest visual communicators will disappear without immediate policy changes. I wish I understood why our favorite racing series refuse to listen and act.

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