A few years ago, I was sent to photograph a prospective MP as he knocked doors on a housing estate in central Scotland. Two hours in, with instructions from my picture desk not to come back until I had enough to cover a double page spread, we turned a corner, and came across a friendly but stray dog on the pavement. Could we do a shot with him stroking the dog ? “No”, he said. I asked him to elaborate. “Dogs don’t vote”, he said.
And in an instant, I understood what he meant: a picture of him with a dog in the paper would mean one less picture of him with a real voter. And that voter’s family, friends, neighbours and colleagues would see that photograph and feel a connection, and be more likely to vote. Dogs wouldn’t.
This week, the NUJ will begin one of the most important elections in recent years. And in looking through the campaign materials of the three of the candidates, I’m struck by how all but one of the candidates have chosen not to try and attract the vote of photographer members, whereas they are deliberately courting other sectors of the union.
It isn’t because they’ve forgotten that photographers exist. And it’s not just because only one in 17 NUJ members is a photographer. These candidates are chasing every vote in what is expected to be a close contest. It’s because the received wisdom within the NUJ hierarchy is that photographers may moan, but they don’t vote. They may complain, but they don’t seek change. Somehow we’ve become the dog that no-one wants to stroke.
The election comes at a difficult time. The NUJ’s credibility is still recovering from two public relations disasters of its own making over the Drogheda Independent House Agreement and the Israel boycott. The first 24 hour strike at a national newspaper in 18 years failed to increase a below-inflation pay offer. And membership, while now nudging 40,000 for the first time in recent history, remains lower than anticipated, adding to the financial problems.
The NUJ DGS election
Who is standing ?
Who can vote ?
All full NUJ members who are no more than three months in arrears of subscriptions on 15 May 2008 are entitled to vote.
How do I vote ?
Ballot papers will be sent out to all members on 27th May. Voting is by single transferrable vote – give the candidate you support most a “1”, then a “2” for your second preference, and continue until you have no preference for any remaining candidates.
Voting forms must be returned by 4th July
This should be a time when members look closely to those who seek to lead them. But if the last election is any guide, around 1,850 of the union’s 2,300 photographers will barely glance at their postal ballot paper as they transfer it from the doormat to the bin.
And those figures assume photographers are no worse than other parts of the union at voting: if the nay-sayers are correct, the real level of apathy among photographers is much, much higher.
Hope over experience
It may be a triumph of hope over experience, but I’m slightly optimistic that things will be a little better in this year’s elections. The main reason is that one of the candidates is John Toner – a vastly experienced activist, the current Freelance Organiser, and the main point of contact for most freelances in the union – on the ballot paper. There hasn’t been a candidate more in touch with photographers since the well-respected Northern Ireland photographer Kevin Cooper ran for the post of General Secretary in 2001.
In every EPUK story I’ve covered involving union photographers, John has been there working quietly away in the background.
When environmental photographer Adrian Arbib was menaced by four balaclava’d heavies and forced to stop photographing the dumping of toxic waste at an Oxfordshire beauty spot, it was John who handled the court challenge which allowed Adrian to continue working at the site.
When Nottinghamshire photographer Alan Lodge was arrested while photographing armed police officers, it was John who attended the court hearings, and who believed strongly in Lodge’s innocence even after a surprise verdict of guilty.
And during the kidnapping of photographer Kash Gabrielle Torsello in Afghanistan, it was John who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to secure his release – knowing which strings to pull and having the experience to ensure that overt political moves came from Kash’s home country of Italy, rather than the UK.
Passionately, clearly, plainly
At last year’s NUJ Photographers Conference, I sat with some trepidation as John announced he would be giving his closing talk on union structure – a subject normally as interesting as a Finnish phone book.
But in front of 200 delegates, John set out the ways of how photographers could work with the union to better represent them and their needs, speaking passionately, clearly and plainly.
As one of the speakers that afternoon, I was sat at the front of the theatre and watched the other delegates – all of whom were working editorial photographers – as John held their attention. It’s been well over a decade since I joined the union but I have never heard – before or since – a more convincing case for grassroots activism.
It was that speech which encouraged me to stand when a Scottish vacancy arose on the Freelance Industrial Council. And it’s no coincidence that under John’s term at the Freelance Office, photographers became the fastest growing sector of the union’s membership when membership as a whole was falling. He’s earned a great deal of respect from one of the most difficult sectors of the union to please, and for good reason.
Optimism and pragmatism
By contrast, John’s main rival for the post of Deputy General Secretary is former president Michelle Stanistreet, who like any union president, has enjoyed a high profile in union publications over the past year.
But when I first heard her speak at my local branch meeting in Edinburgh, I was left largely underwhelmed: although I did learn from her that EPUK was ‘an anti-union website’ – a description that came not just as a surprise to me, but also to the seven NUJ members on EPUK’s board of moderators, including one national newspaper FoC, and the 400-odd other NUJ members on the main EPUK discussion list.
I put this down as a one-off, until I got a call from a member of the NUJ branch where she had spoken the following night. “I knew the union was facing difficulties, but I expected to be told how the union would handle them. I ended up less optimistic after she spoke than before.”
Which sums up the problem in a nutshell. The union has set itself the task of recruiting to solve its financial problems. But the next generation of members will need to be attracted by optimism and pragmatism.
Few union posts are glamorous, and the role of Deputy General Secretary hardly bucks the trend: most union members would be hard pressed to even name the outgoing incumbent. But that is not to say that the role does not bring some heavyweight responsibilities.
For example, union photographers don’t need reminding of last year’s furore over the Drogheda Independent house agreement in which the union railroaded through a decision supported by only 1.4% of photographers -but what shouldn’t be forgotten is that many of the key events of last year’s controversy happened entirely on the deputy general secretary’s watch.
The decision to have the Drogheda Independent agreement approved by just five of the 34-strong NEC; the breaking of the long-standing rule which allowed any full-time official to attend any union meeting (by then president Michelle Stanistreet); the closing of not one but two official discussion forums for members after the slightest hint of dissent was suspected: these all happened while the General Secretary’s deputy was in control.
Indeed, it was only upon the return of Jeremy Dear – never hitherto known for his technical skills in computer server administration – that the Stand Up for Journalism forum miraculously recovered from the sudden ‘hardware fault’ which had strangely crippled it for weeks after someone happened to mention the dreaded “D” word.
Opportunities to be gained
Whatever your opinion of the controversial Drogheda Independent house agreement, it’s undeniable that with more photographer-savvy official in charge the incident would never have played out so long or so destructively.
Whoever will eventually fill the number two seat at Headland House will face an onerous task. In the past two years alone, the union has made combined losses into the six figures, even without the pensions shortfall. But there are also opportunities to be gained from an inspired and well-led membership.
If union photographers treat the election with apathy and fail to make their voice heard, I cannot help feel that we’ll continue being the mangy mutt that no-one wants to stroke.
But a strong vote for John Toner will be seen as a vote for a union that supports photographers and understands their needs. Now more than ever, we need to remind the union as a whole that we are a small but well-organised sector facing unique problems, which demand and deserve to be addressed.
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