On Sustainable Business Models, and Comparing Apples to Oranges

The American Society of Media Photographers’ program, “Sustainable Business Models: Issues & Trends Facing Visual Artists,” held September 27 in New York City, can be viewed online via ASMP’s video library. Speakers and panelists provided useful context and insights into the current marketplace for photography, as well as thoughts on how professional freelancers might adapt their marketing and licensing in today’s economy. A warning, however: Along with provocative insights, the afternoon panel also included the predictable, banal observation that photojournalists have no role to play now that “everyone has a cellphone,” and statistics on how many images are uploaded to Facebook or Instagram each day or each hour or each minute. If you’re like me, you find these comments irritating. Because the first comment is untrue, and the second is irrelevant to any discussion of the professional photography business.

Yes, news editors trolled Instagram to get images of the aftermath of the Empire State Building shooting, but those image sales had no impact on the market for photos by professional news photographers: If amateur cellphone users hadn’t been on the scene, we simply wouldn’t have had any images of the carnage. Yes, a zillion snapshots of cats, babies and plates of food are shared on social media every day. What bearing does that have on what a professional photographer offers to clients or their audience?

Stephen Mayes, managing director of the VII Photo Agency, notes that professional photographers have to think about what they’re really selling. Mayes says that the value that the photojournalists in VII, for example, are marketing is their credibility. Mayes and panelists like Susan White, director of photography at Vanity Fair, noted instances in which photographers could offer access to a location, or an original story, or an audience of followers on social media who can help spread the word about an ad campaign or brand. Looked at from this perspective, the only thing citizens with cellphones can market is access to a singular event.

John Edwin Mason noted recently that the “everybody’s a photographer now” anxiety has an historical precedent. The invention of roll film and the inexpensive Brownie camera lowered the barriers of entry to photography. These inventions had casualties, mostly among the studio portrait photographers our grandparents or great grandparents hired to photograph them in their best clothes. But the rise of snapshot photography was simultaneous with the advent of the picture press and the careers of the 20th century’s most renowned photographers. It’s impossible to say how much the popularity of amateur photography contributed to the popularity of photographic showcases like Life, Look and National Geographic, but it didn’t hurt.

What Mason calls “the tsunami of vernacular photography” puts more pressure on professionals to create something that will stand out. (Panelist Rob Haggart, photo editor turned photo blogger, said that when he started out as a ski photographer, the barrier for entry to the profession was “a photo that was in focus.” The standards are higher now.) But the vast and growing numbers of people avidly looking for great images on web sites and Instagram represent a huge potential audience. The question for professionals is how to turn this audience into customers for professional photographers’ expertise, their images, their crowd-funded projects—or some product or service we haven’t thought of yet.

During yesterday’s panel, Haggart noted that photographers who use social media to share the stories behind their photos aren’t just chatting; they’re promoting their authority. Photographers, and yes, the publications who champion professional photographers, can do more to educate the photo-loving public that the professional images they see do not simply spring from cameras. They are the products of thought, creativity, skill, attention, rapport with a subject, journalistic enterprise and more.

On the topic of the ubiquity of photography today and what distinguishes great imagery, I recommend Teju Cole’s essay on why he follows Gueorgiu Pinkhassov on Instagram. It’s a pleasure to read, not only because Cole, a novelist, writes so elegantly, but because he clearly loves photography. He has no trouble distinguishing the work of a master photographer who can bend the latest technology to suit his creativity from banal photos of kittens and restaurant dishes.

(Thanks to LPV magazine for alerting us to the Teju Cole article.)

—Holly Stuart Hughes

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4 Responses to “On Sustainable Business Models, and Comparing Apples to Oranges”

  1. MyNameHere Says:

    They still had a hard time explaining how to earn a living using the “new economy.” Ironically the NY Times ran an article at the same time answering this very question, using “found images” on the internet. Some of those “found images” are undoubtedly taken by pro photographers and the “finder” of the images is monetizing them, not the person who took the photo:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/technology/personaltech/internet-stars-find-an-audience-in-social-media-tool-kit.html

    “. . . Ms. Turner started killing time online by collecting found images of tattoos borrowed mostly from body modification Web sites . . .ads on the site earn her $60,000 annually, she said.”

  2. Achman Says:

    Following the “everybody has a camera” logic, seemingly everybody in America owns a gun, too, so clearly the Army has no role to play now either.

  3. WestCoastJim Says:

    Brilliant, or at least rational response, to the sky is falling (again) from photographers. My tiny place in the multiverse that is “photography” has been feast or famine for like forever.
    Nothing new here.
    I’ve survived 4 1/2 recessions on both coasts and always thought it was a challenge.
    Big whoop.
    Move along. And Rob was right. And the iPhone 5 I’m tapping on makes a paradigm shift exactly why?

  4. The Digest – October 7th, 2012 | LPV Magazine Says:

    [...] PDN has a nice wrap up article about the ASMP program “Sustainable Business Models: Issues & Trends Facing Visual Artists.” What Mason calls “the tsunami of vernacular photography” puts more pressure on professionals to create something that will stand out. (Panelist Rob Haggart, photo editor turned photo blogger, said that when he started out as a ski photographer, the barrier for entry to the profession was “a photo that was in focus.” The standards are higher now.) But the vast and growing numbers of people avidly looking for great images on web sites and Instagram represent a huge potential audience. The question for professionals is how to turn this audience into customers for professional photographers’ expertise, their images, their crowd-funded projects—or some product or service we haven’t thought of yet. [...]