Insights into the Sierra Leone Photo Lab business

Photographers in Sierra Leone build their business around print sale. As the print is the final product a mutual relationship has developed between photographers and photo labs. When you walk into a Photo Lab in Freetown the pictures you see on the wall are not portfolio work to attract more customers but images of the people who have not paid their bills!

Freetown has 10 digital Photo Labs each privately owned whereas most photographers are organized in Sierra Leone Union of Photographers (hereinafter SLUP). In charge of the Lab you have the Lab owner and he and a small staff runs the daily routines.Below him there can be up to 50 freelance photographers called "agents" who democratically elects a chairman for a two year period, these elections are organised by SLUP.

 Freetown photographers waiting for customers outside a Lab in Sierra Leone.   


The chairmen from each of the 10 labs are working closely together with SLUP and they represents the photographers in issues concerning pricing and problems they could have with the Photo Lab owners. If the photographers/agents are not out doing their own assignments they are working outside the Photo Lab handling the orders from private customers coming to the lab.

An agent negotiate price and terms of deliverance with the customer and then handles the order from file to print. His profit is the difference between the special price he has negotiated with the lab owner and the official price he offers the customer, in that way it is a win win situation and both the lab and the photographers/agents benefits from this model.SLUP conducts regular meetings with the chairman's from all the Photo Labs in Freetown to discuss pricing and problems brought up by the individual photographers.

 Preparing images for printing inside Lab, surrounded by lab supplies in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

The Lab owners are organised in the sense that they meet to discuss and agree before any major changes in prices or services are implemented. This way they control the print price in a market with almost no competition between the different Labs. In december 2012 a disagreement between SLUP and the Lab owners over price issues let to a one month boycott of all the Photo Labs in Freetown. The chairmen and photographers/agents would stand outside the Labs and explain the customers the reason behind the boycott but they would still be handling peoples pictures like normal and during this one month of boycott SLUP organized for the pictures to be printed in the neighboring country Guinea. After one month a mutual agreement was signed and things returned to normal.