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LAWSUIT FOCUSES ON STUDENT PHOTOS PHOTOGRAPHER: SCHOOL CONTRACTS MEAN MONOPOLIES, HIGH PRICES

LAWSUIT FOCUSES ON STUDENT PHOTOS PHOTOGRAPHER: SCHOOL CONTRACTS MEAN MONOPOLIES, HIGH PRICES

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As an eighth-grader, Craig York was recruited to take pictures for Eastern Guilford High School's yearbook and spent five years as a student photographer.

Now York, 29, has his own photo studio. But the school yearbook rejects his senior portraits.York says Eastern Guilford and other schools across the country are wedded to contract photographers who take class photos and pay the schools ``kickbacks' of up to 50 percent of the charges. The payments let contracted studios monopolize the school photo business and charge higher prices, York says.

He has filed a lawsuit against the Guilford County Board of Education and Eastern Guilford Principal Deniese Smith over the school's contract for senior portraits. Rick Campbell Photography of Burlington has the contract.

York demands to know how the school awards its photo contracts, how much money it earns from the contracts and how the money is spent.

``We've answered all the information we feel like we should,' said E. Wayne Trogdon, superintendent of the Guilford County schools. ``We are acting responsibly, legally.'

School officials say York doesn't have a contract because he won't bid for one.

``He has a captive audience when he comes into a school, yet he does not want to bid on the possibility of getting it or not getting it,' said Jeanette Pippin, chairwoman of the school board. ``He just wants to take the pictures without a reciprocal agreement.'

York says photo contracts give a studio a monopoly and steer students away from photographers who may charge less for better work. He says agreeing to pay schools for photographing students violates his professional ethics.

He doesn't want a contract.

``My ultimate goal is that there are not any contracts at all,' he said.

York is not the only photographer fighting such contracts. Ben Thomas, owner of Triangle Photography in Raleigh, has had limited success taking senior portraits in Wake County schools that contract with other photographers. He figures the contracts cost him $17,500 a year.

``I had one principal tell me flat out, 'I make too much money off my kids to work with you in any way,' ' Thomas said. ``It's a shame, because the ultimate loser is the consumer. If you really want to know the truth, the parents are the ones that are getting dragged over the coals. It's passive fund raising.'

In Forsyth County, the schools have contracts for school pictures, but students can have their yearbook picture taken elsewhere, said Roger Scott, the school system's operations manager for purchasing.

``We allow the individual students to provide studio pictures for the yearbook as they wish, provided they meet specifications,' Scott said. ``If the yearbook wants all the seniors to have a coat and tie, then they comply with whatever the yearbook asks.'

The Forsyth schools require photo contractors to pay 40 percent of their charges to the schools. Parents are told of the payments.

York began taking senior portraits in 1986 and by last year had boosted his business to about 150 students with the aid of direct-mail advertising. Most came from Eastern Guilford and Western Alamance high schools, both near York's studio on U.S. 70 in Whitsett.

Last year, York said, both schools agreed to use his senior portraits in their yearbooks, even though they had contracts with Rick Campbell Photography.

But York said Eastern Guilford changed its mind when Smith became principal that summer - as he was in the midst of photo appointments for 75 of the school's seniors. York said the yearbook accepted senior photos taken only by Rick Campbell Photography.

York said he lost business.

``We started to have kids who just didn't show up for their appointments,' he said.

York said he honored his agreement with the school by turning in senior pictures anyway. The school didn't respond.

Efforts to reach Smith last week were unsuccessful.

York's lawyer - Woodberry Bowen of Lumberton, a part-time studio photographer - appealed to the school board on York's behalf last year but got no response.

Western Alamance High used about 70 of York's senior photos in its 1990 yearbook but then said it would accept photos only from Rick Campbell Photography in the future.

``In order to make sure that the senior portraits look the same in a yearbook setting, we prefer that only one photographer do it,' Western Alamance Principal Carl Herman said. ``That way, you have the right shade and the right tint and the right appearances.'

Campbell said he did not pressure either high school to reject York's pictures: ``That's up to them. They're really particular about uniformity.'

York contends that when students are required to pose for one photographer, they usually won't go to another one.

Herman agrees that happens.

``(Students) are in a position where they will say, 'Well, I'll just stay here and use these' ... because Rick takes an excellent picture,' Herman said.

Photo companies often pay schools a substantial share of prices they charge students. Schools consider the photo contracts major fund-raisers. Campbell said he pays schools 30 percent of the price charged for senior portraits, 50 percent for underclass pictures.

Campbell calls the payments ``commissions for services rendered.'

``We've got, in essence, a captive audience there,' he said. ``Kickback - I don't agree with that. It's not anything under the table. It's in black and white. Everything is in a contract. I think the correct term would be remuneration.'

Western Alamance parents are told that a share of the picture profits goes to the school, Herman said. Class photography and a magazine drive are his school's chief fund-raisers, taking in about $9,000 a year between them. The money has paid for blinds and ceiling fans for classrooms and paving for the parking lot.

Asked whether contract photographers inflate their prices to cover for returning part of the money, Herman said, ``I wonder about that myself. All the prices and the bids that you get consider that.'

Thomas, the Raleigh photographer, argues that the contracts channel students away from other photographers.

``Essentially, if they want photographs, they're being forced to take what the school offers,' he said. ``It's restraining my trade, and that's what's kicking us in the pants.'

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