Alan Jones Opera House

Victoria’s dozen or so freelance horse racing photographers will no longer have accreditation to the state’s hundreds of racing events, after Racing Victoria told them it would no longer grant them media passes as individual photographers from Saturday. The lack of accreditation, they fear, marks the sudden end of their livelihoods.

Five weeks ago, Racing Victoria advised freelance snappers of a rule change that would mean only photographers tied to established media outlets would be allowed to cover the races. Meanwhile, the body has set up its own agency, Racing Photos, which began operation a few months ago.

For the highly specialised sole traders who have built businesses off their knowledgeable photography of the industry, this was a devastating blow. Quill award-winning snapper Sharon Lee Chapman says she and the nearly dozen other photographers who make a living off race-horses were “ambushed”.

“We weren’t given 12 months’ notice to re-evaluate our business models,” she told Crikey. Instead, the first whispers of a change arose at a meeting with Racing Victoria in June. In July, a letter told the freelancers their accreditation would not be renewed past August 26.

Chapman and others like her sell their photographs to the state’s racing media. But their client base is far broader. Only eight or nine horses win a day, but many others want their horses photographed. And freelancers do more than cover the horses — trainers and other parts of the industry are immortalised through their images. The freelancers supplement their income with individual briefs. “Freelancers are no longer considered editorial — so even if I got a pass with a media outlet, I can’t provide an image to previous clients,” Chapman said.

“So those images will probably cease to exist — they can’t possibly accommodate every single trainer. That’s what’s really frustrating as well.”

Journalism union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance is representing the snappers in discussions with Racing Victoria. A heated meeting last Friday did little to resolve the stalemate.

“These specialist photographers have been given weeks’ notice that they are no longer going to be able to earn a living. They’re absolutely passionate about it — they love racing. It’s hard to find people who love racing more,” said MEAA Victorian director Carolyn Dunbar. Racing Victoria, she says, is trying to angle in on the little income the freelancers made, to “monopolise and control all racing imagery”.

Many owners, trainers and horse racing venues have thrown their support behind the snappers, with many using the hashtag #letthemshoot. Yesterday, racing title G1X published an open letter calling on Racing Victoria to reconsider:

“Some of the freelance photographers that will be impacted here are great ambassadors for racing, some of the best the sport has. They’re great at what they do — I don’t think there can be any denying it — and above all, they’re passionate. It’s not about money. They do it because they love it. They love the animal. They love the sport …

“Obviously they don’t work for free, but if you were to put a dollar value on what they do to promote the industry, surely that outweighs what they collect in profits?”

Racing Victoria has prepared a four-page Q&A document addressing the concerns. It will be publicly released this afternoon, but was provided to Crikey when we approached the body for comment.

In the Q&A, Racing Victoria says the accreditation for freelancers was abolished after a review found that the current model “did not adequately protect the commercial exploitation of the industry’s intellectual property for the benefit of all stakeholders”.

It also says it has had to investigate “more than 30” incidents in the past two years relating to “commercial breaches, misconduct and alleged bullying between photographers”, which have cost the body. It says freelancers can still take photos if they’re attached to a media organisation — in which case it would be up to the media organisation to ensure they play by the rules.

The document points readers to the newly established, “industry-owned” Racing Photos, which, along with Getty Images, will be exclusively licensed to provide images to those outside the media. “Racing Photos are at every professional race meeting in Victoria. They boast a team of professional photographers with more than 20 years’ experience each covering racing and other professional sports. Racing Photos will have a minimum of four photographers at Group and Listed meetings, meaning a wide variety of images are captured.”

Revenues made by Racing Photos, Racing Victoria says, will be reinvested back into the industry.

In many ways, Racing Victoria’s actions mirror a broader trend in sports media: many sporting codes seek to control images and other intellectual property. There is an industry-wide benchmark agreement between several major sporting codes and media outlets guaranteeing the media’s continued rights to sporting events, but this does not cover freelancers.

Those Crikey spoke to were sceptical of the standards of the new Racing Photos outfit, which snappers say has already been caught mixing people up — a Racing Victoria spokesperson says this wasn’t the result of human error but a “technical issue” that was promptly fixed. Chapman says she and other photographers have developed their knowledge of the industry over decades, and it’s that knowledge that is being lost by attempts to centralise the operation. Racing Victoria says Racing Photos has issued an invitation to “experienced freelance photographers” to join the company as race-day contractors.

MEAA is calling on Racing Victoria to reinstate the accreditation of freelance photographers, to allow them to work “side by side with Racing Photos and photographers from media organisations for the benefit of the industry”.

Update and correction: This piece has been changed to include Racing Victoria’s response to the mixup on Racing Photos, as well as to correct two dates and to note that freelancer photographers are already not allowed to supply photography to owners.