I Wish More Photographers Were Like Prince

I Wish More Photographers Were Like Prince

This is a guest post by photographer and educator Todd Bigelow. The original piece appeared here.

The passing of Prince last week gave the world pause to consider the nearly peerless artistic success and untimely death of an iconic musician. He was renowned for his ability to create a distinctive sound and deliver to his worldwide fan base a library of songs that put him among the Lennons, Jacksons, Bowies and Marleys of the music world. Despite his relatively demure physical being, he had the spine of a giant, something that served him well in his battles against corporations intent on owning and profiting from the Minnesota native’s archive. Which is why he’s my hero.

It’s simple to see the parallels between Prince’s work and the work of thousands of freelance photographers in the country. We’re artists, we’re creators, we’re story tellers. But most of all, we’re individuals attempting to express our vision in our own way. In other words, it’s personal. Prince excelled in understanding this throughout his career, a career that began in the era of vinyl and tragically concluded in the era of streaming.

When Prince passed away, he was immortalized not only for his vast artistic accomplishments, but for his willingness to stand and fight for the right to control his personal work in an digital era when corporations are uncompromisingly demanding those rights. Is there anything that photographers can take from Prince’s untimely death? Yes.

Owning Your Work:

Above all, Prince maintained ownership of his work. He wrote the majority of his work by himself and was renowned for his ability to play the dozens of instruments heard in his recordings. Doing so allowed him to maintain complete control of who sold his songs and how those songs could be used. Photographers can easily do the same. First and foremost by refusing to sign the ubiquitous Work For Hire agreement. Your archive is your livelihood and can serve you well over your lifetime and be passed on to your family for royalty generating income in the future. Don’t believe me? Consider that Prince’s estate is worth around $300 million and is expected to grow in the future. As the Los Angeles Times reported in a front page story on April 25, “Prince’s music is expected to remain the cornerstone of his estate–and one that he defended closely as digital shifts turned the recording industry upside down.” Granted, most of our archives will not reach that valuation, but that’s irrelevant. If you end-up creating powerful, meaningful and, dare I say, iconic images during your freelance career, but signed away the rights to a corporation, you will have no opportunity for licensing revenue in the future. The royalties will belong to the corporation, not you or your family.

Copyrighting Your Work:

Prince steadfastly protected his work by registering the copyright it with the US Copyright Office and going after those who were found to be publishing his music without authorization. Photographers can and should do the same. I find my work all over the web and in print as well and make no qualms about pursuing infringers. Unfortunately, most photographers don’t. Traveling to various parts of the country to teach my workshop I’ve found that the vast majority of photographers fall into three simple categories when it comes to copyright:

  1. They don’t care about copyright and view it as something reminiscent of the darkroom era (those who sign WFH tend to fall into this category).
  2. They don’t understand the process and don’t care enough to take time to learn how to register their work.
  3. They don’t see how their work could be valuable in the future.

How important was copyright to Prince? Again, the LA Times front page story: “As Prince’s kingly worth shows, those who own their copyrighted work can build sizable levels of wealth.

Screenshot shows the magnitude of unauthorized use of one of my images in the digital era.

Screenshot shows the magnitude of unauthorized use of one of my images in the digital era.

Licensing Your Work:

Prince and other musicians such as pop music’s (dare I say pop culture’s) king Michael Jackson clearly grasped the importance of licensing their work. That understanding led Prince to be the frontman in the fight against corporate takeover mentality that has grown into a firestorm in the digital age. As new platforms evolved the antiquated distribution model of the music industry, corporations jumped at the opportunity to seize more licensing rights by offering one-sided contracts that strip artists of much needed licensing revenue. Pandora and Spotify’s meteoric rise in the streaming platform reportedly decimated royalties for musicians who agreed to allow their work on the platforms. Prince pulled his work from Spotify, foregoing the largest streaming service in the world for the much smaller but artist-friendly Tidal. In other words, Prince didn’t want his personal work valued for pennies on the dollar and said no to the volume based streaming service. That’s right, he said “no” to the largest distribution platform for musicians. He said “no” to corporate control of his work. In light of that, I ask photographers now; does this fight sound similar? Does it not mirror the situation photographers face on a near daily basis? It takes nerve, the willingness to be labeled a “problem” by corporations and a strong spine to say “no” to bad deals, yet these traits are increasingly hard to find in freelance photographers. Prince had them all.

Photographers can follow Prince’s, Michael Jackson’s or even Bob Marley’s lead in maintaining control of their work if they so choose. It makes no difference that musicians create audio works of art and photographers create visual works of art. It’s all intellectual property in the eyes of the law. Photographers can otherwise choose to allow any one of the many mega-agencies (Getty, Alamy, Shutterstock, etc) or media conglomerates of the world (Time, Hearst, Conde Nast, Gannett, etc) to control their work for them. The choice is an individual one, but one that carries repercussions throughout the profession.

© Todd Bigelow

© Todd Bigelow

When photographers, especially “top tier” photographers, agree to allow corporations to dictate to them the value of their work, they contribute to the demise of the artists who stand for control of their own work. That’s especially disconcerting because highly respected photographers can help drive serious dialogue on the issue of corporate rights grabs. What Prince understood that so many freelance photographers fail to grasp is that maintaining licensing control is not just about generating money from licensing fees. It’s just as much about principle and respect. The principle that every artist has the right to decide how and where their work is published. The principle that you have a right to feel outraged when a corporation demands your licensing revenue while simultaneously reimbursing the CEO for use of his private jet. Standing on principle, though, can often mean standing alone. Prince was okay with that. He had a strong spine. I just wish more photographers were like Prince.

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There are 7 comments for this article
  1. Craig at 9:41 pm

    While there are valuable lessons to be learned in this is not in doubt. Prince was a model of protecting your work and maintaining your rights. But I don’t think this is an appropriate analogy. Prince was a one in a million talent. The absolute pinnacle of his creative field. Because of that, he could demand a lot more. He could hold out against corporations for more because what he produced was so valuable. But what about the guy playing the third violin in the Philly symphony orchestra? What about the guy who rights jingles for third rate TV shows to make a living while playing in a bar with his rock band (passion) on weekends but not making any money at it? What about the wedding band guitarist? I doubt these guys are owning their masters and all rights in perpetuity.

    I bet Terry Richardson holds all his rights when he shoots for Vogue. I bet Annie Leibowitz does too. I bet Salgado keeps his rights too. They are one in a million in their field. But the average working photog…. The photojournalist freelancing for the small daily in Texas. The guy doing corporate events? The wedding photog? These represent the vast majority of photographers working today and the leverage is just not there.

    • Todd Bigelow at 11:57 am


      Although your perspective is well understood, I respectfully disagree.

      Young photographers, as well as veterans, certainly can retain their work by simply saying “no” to allowing others to benefit financially from owning their work without just compensation. You don’t have to be a Leibowitz or Salgado to stand for maintaining control of your work. I’m definitely no Salgado or Leibowitz yet I continue to make a living as a professional photographer without giving-up rights. I started out understanding the importance of maintaining control of my images 25 yrs ago and have stood by that ever since. At least 20% of my annual income comes from royalties and protecting my copyright.

      Photographers need to find good clients and outlets that offer fair contracts with fair rates. Photographers don’t need to transfer rights to corporations so that the corporation can reap future financial benefits. They need to try to negotiate and, if unsuccessful, say “no thank you” and develop other clients. If the work is good, they’ll succeed.

      The corporate and wedding photographer examples are a bit different. Those photographers charge rates that take into account the type of use required. In other words, the rate covers the large usage rights and is based mostly on deliverables and duration. There should be fair compensation built in up front to cover the extensive use. If not, it’s the same situation as above. Say “no thank you” and develop other clients.

      Whether you’re Prince, Salgado, Leibowitz or Bigelow (haha, I can’t believe I threw my name in with them!), you can say “no” to letting others obtain control of your work. It’s a choice.

  2. Eric Kayne at 10:45 am

    Prince seemed to do everything right by retaining control of his music, but yet, I’m befuddled that he didn’t leave a will. Surely, someone in his cadre of lawyers over the years asked him about this, but from what I’ve read, it’ll take years to figure out what to do with his estate.

    It’s pure conjecture, but perhaps the Imp of the Perverse consulted him in this matter. As a parting joke, he is letting those left behind figure it out without his guidance and clarification.

  3. Craig at 12:34 pm

    To a certain extent I agree with you todd. I think your heart is totally in the right place. Photographers should fight for their work and their rights. but above everything else, I’m a realist. And I don’t believe in cutting of your nose to spite your face. What do you think the young kid who just won an assignment from time magazine at the Eddie Adams workshop is going to say when the editor gives him a Contract to sign befor she shoots the job? Do you think she’s going to say no because time wants to keep her rights? I think that’s maybe one out 10 kids who would do that. And that right there is the problem, and the publications know it. They’ll find someone else. Plain and simple. if I’m not mistaken a lot of people don’t shoot for SI anymore for just this reason. I think photographers are better served by trying to figure out how to deal with new realities than clinging to the past. Whether that takes the form of diversifying the types of work they do, or negotiating for higher day rates I’m not sure.

    • John at 3:54 pm

      I agree wholehearted with you Craig.

      That era is long gone. I have worked in creative fields ranging from visual effects to almost 18 years in the video game industry and the story is the same. The older games I worked on are pirated in the millions and I nor the company I worked at never saw a penny. The new generations now who buy content grew up in information abundance (or overload in another way) and know with a click of a button they can find something almost instantaeously and practically free. Also, photography is so ubiquitous now it’s like visual wallpaper. I know people get grumpy when they hear this but anyone with a mobile phone can be a “good enough” photographer and that is undercutting the biz. Fighting against this tide is like punching at the wind.

      BUT, there was a paradigm shift in the gaming industry about 5 years ago that alleviated this type of theft, the free-to-play game.

      Some of the biggest game companies in the world now, Riot Games (League of Legends), Valve (CS:Go), make money not from the game itself but from the extra add-ons that refresh their game in new and creative ways and for building community. They make hundreds of millions a month doing so. Hell, look at this site. It’s monetizing the curation of the craft of photography and doing it in a very timely manor. Smart!

      This mirrors what you have been saying about diversifying and figuring out new ways of monetization in photography.

  4. Todd Bigelow at 1:16 pm


    We’re all realists. But as nice as it is to, hypothetically speaking, win a EAW assignment (and as a EAW III alumnus and multiyear Black Team volunteer, I truly understand), your example shows the danger of thinking short term. Is that EAW job going to turn into a contract guaranteeing 50 days per year? No, those days are gone. So the contract is signed and the photographer does an assignment. If they’re good, they’ll do a couple each year. But the reality is that the budgets are decimated and assignments are going to come via regional accessibility and being the right fit for the shoot. I say find other clients. They are out there and have fair contracts.

    I don’t propose in any way cutting off your nose to spite your face, I simply say that having a strong spine and standing on principle can and does work, for Prince and photographers. Is it easy? No. Prince struggled. Photographers struggle. Which is why so many cave in. The next generation of photographers need better support and stronger educational programs to embolden their opportunities for long term sustainability (I’ve written about this, too). Programs like Syracuse and RIT and a few others teach about the important business side of freelancing, but far too many students enroll in my workshop with no idea, but strong resolve, on how to maintain their career. If you were at NSC 2016, you would have seen conference rooms full with students eager to learn how to work under fair agreements.

    In regards to your SI reference……….as a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated for twenty years, I’ve yet to shoot an assignment this year due to the 2016 Time Inc Photo contract. Along with many of my friends and colleagues, we continue to try to negotiate to retain more control of our work. Have others signed and taken those assignments? Yes. But many regular contributors have not. Instead, we are working with other clients who do not ask for the extensive rights seen in the Time Inc contract. Trust me, it’s not easy losing a two decade long client. But principle counts to me, and I don’t need to fund the Time Inc CEO’s private airplane use (as reported by the NY Post on Monday and linked in this blog piece).

    Thanks for your thoughts, Craig. They are appreciated.

  5. Mitchell Davis at 9:27 pm


    I have to admit that when I saw this article it stopped me in my tracks. Now first of all let me say that, yes Prince was a Genius and world of music has suffered a huge loss.

    But I’m guessing by your article that you never shot Prince? One of my Clients for more than 15 years was a major venue in Tampa Fl. In April 1998 we had “The Artist” preform. Unlike any other concert we were waiting and waiting for someone from Prince’s crew to show up and talk to the Photographer and hand out the photo passes.

    With only minutes before the show was to start the person in charge of media for Prince, shows up and hands out the Release Forms. And that is when all the trouble started. One by one you saw each photographer’s face change. In 1998 “The Artist” was the first person that I can remember that showed up with a release form stating anything you shoot at tonight’s show is OWNED BY THE ARTIST! All of the news papers and magazines were on their phones calling their legal teams. It was the start of a nightmare that would only get worse in time. All of the news papers left and refused to shoot the show. A couple of photographers signed the release but next to their signature they put “signed under duress!”

    In 2004 we once again had a show but this time it was Prince. Most of the photographers were at least prepared for some kind of earth shaking release form stating that Prince owned our first born child or something. But actually it was much worse than that. Once again minutes before the show was to start the person in charge of Media showed up and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming tonight, but Prince has decided that there would be NO Photography at tonights show.” At which point they turned walked out of the room and that was that. Hours of wasted time for nothing.

    So you see I have a completely different view of Prince and Photography.


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