Assistants – should you use their photos under your name?

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This shot confirming Michael Phlps' gold-medal victory in the 100 butterfly took a year of planning.  Photo ©Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

This shot confirming Michael Phelps victory in the 100 M butterfly took years or planning. ©Heinz Kleutmeier and Jeff Kavanaugh/Sports Illustrated

I finally got one of the issues of Sports Illustrated today from the Olympics (a good friend of mine had mailed it to me because I was “lucky” enough to make it into the Leading Off section – no – not a photo that I made, but a photo of me – in the scrum of photographers covering Phelps getting a hug from his mother after the race…) and I saw something extremely refreshing:  the credit read:  Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier and Jeff Kavanaugh.

Why is that special?  Because Jeff is Heinz’s long time assistant and it’s incredibly rare for photographers to give their assistants any credit for the images they take while on assignment with them.  I thought this was an incredibly classy move by Heinz and SI.   Jeff is also a great guy and deserves the accolade – he was one of the guys I spent more than 13 hours with waiting for the fireworks on the Great Wall and was intricately involved in getting that remote camera working.

“So you mean that even if someone else shoots a picture, as in an assistant, the main photographer generally gets to take credit for the image?” you ask.   Traditionally – yes.  More on that in a bit.

As it turns out – Jeff was instrumental in making sure the remote worked, working out how to splice the ethernet cable going from his seated position from the side of the blocks, all the way down to the remote underwater camera below.  He was able to have the same ethernet cable both trigger the camera – as well as send the images back to his laptop on his lap – LIVE.   And yes: he did actually push the button to trigger the camera.   And man was the timing perfect – sure he let the camera wail away at 9 frames per second and he and Heinz got the defining image of the Beijing Olympics in my opinion.   No other image or clip of video shows as definitively that Phelps won the race – and this is easily one of the most, if not the most – impressive Olympic records of all time.  Not too shabby.  You can read an interview with Heinz about this image here.

So where does Heinz fit into this?  Well actually – he played the key part.   I was staying at the same hotel as the SI crew – and I had breakfast with Bob Rosato, another SI staffer, the day after this shot was taken.  He told me that Heinz had stated the following to him at breakfast two days prior to the race:  if Phelps loses or wins the epic 8 gold-medal record – it will be on the 100M butterfly race – and it will be close.   And that’s why Heinz is who he is – and was one of only two people to perfectly position his camera in this position showing both lanes with the #1 and #2 finishers of the race…  MASTER.   More often than not – great photography is made by people who THINK… (at other times it’s luck, people who just “see” better, or made by people who “feel.”  There’s no golden rule or approach.. in fact Henri  Cartier-Bresson says the last thing you want to do when making pictures is to “think.”  

So it’s only fitting that Heinz gets most of the credit – as truth be told he was one of the first to ever put a remote camera in a pool at the Olympics (he might even be the first – Barcelona if I’m not mistaken – but don’t quote me on that) but I think it’s incredibly classy of him to share credit with his long time assistant.

So back to taking credit for an image that your “assistant” took.   It’s actually been pretty common practice throughout photographic history.   It’s not uncommon for a photographer to go to a big event, and shoot from one location with his/her assistant(s) shooting from another vantage point.  After all – the main photographer can only be at one place at a time – and more specifically with sports, the action is too unpredictable and moves to fast for remote cameras to be effective.   If s/he tells the assistant what lens to shoot with, at what settings, where to point the lens, how to frame the shot and when to fire off the frame – one can arguably state that is indeed his/her image… 

Legally though – unless the two have a signed contract where the assistant relinquishes all rights to those images to the photographer – that assistant technically owns the copyright btw – or so a series of NYTimes lawyers told me a few years ago.  So beware… always have your assistant sign a contract if you’re going to do this – otherwise THEY technically own the image’s copyright… doesn’t matter who’s gear their using, who told them to do what etc.

That being said – I’ve never been a big fan of the practice.  It just feels a little icky to me – and that’s just a personal preference of mine – not a judgement on others at all.  I have had others helping me at times doing the exact same thing – but I’ve had the following agreement with them:  if they are clearly shooting under my specific instructions, the image will run in the publication with my credit (and perhaps theirs if I chose) but that assistant is also free to run the image in their own portfolio with their sole credit underneath it – that feels more fair than most other agreements – and it never hurts to help someone else jump start their careers.

I’m totally expecting to have some people disagree with me on this one (from both sides of the issue)… so go ahead and share you thoughts…