151 THE DEATH OF PHOTOJOURNALISM?
June 22, 1998
As we consider the implications of the recent management changes at Sygma (Story
147 on Selling Stock online) and the battle that freelance photographers are
having with Associated Press (Story 132), a letter from Otto Pohl written in
March 1998 and entitled "The Death of Photojournalism?" is worth reading.
Otto is manager of the only professional photo lab in Russia, and consequently
comes in contact with most of the world-class photographers who go to Moscow on
Photojournalism - A view from Moscow
Time magazine sent Chris Morris to Albania last summer to get pictures of the
election there. Everything worked out fine, they had the page all set and laid
out. At the last moment, the editors pulled the article, opting instead for an
article about a restaurant opening in New Orleans.
To hear Christopher Morris and Tony Suau tell it, that's the story of the U.S.
photojournalism market. Everywhere, budgets are being cut and publications are
turning U.S.-centric and isolationist. At the same time, their profits and
circulations have never been higher.
As a manager of the only professional photo lab in Russia, I get to talk to a lot
of the world-class photographers when they have a job in Moscow. They come by
and we chat about how difficult it used to be to get film processed in Russia,
how we all stood at Sheremetyevo airport begging departing passengers to take a
bag of unprocessed film back to London or New York so we could meet some
publishing deadline, how we processed film in hotel bathrooms before reserving
time at Associated Press to wire images back on primitive fax machine-like
devices. It's nice now; we can have a coffee and I can show them output from the
latest digital devices and talk about our Q-Lab standard slide processing and
have a laugh about old times.
During the big events of the early 90's in Moscow, there were always the same crew
of photographers--Chris was pretty much the last person I spoke with before being
shot during the 1993 coup, and Tony would regularly crop up at May Day events or
for Mafia stories.
These people were my photojournalism heroes. They had the big shots from the hot
spots, and when one part of the world calmed down they flew to the next place
that was heating up. They had great stories and great pictures, and for me
represented the ideal job in the career I had embarked upon.
But the stories Chris and Tony told me in separate visits over the last few days
have really made me realize how the market for photojournalism has changed since
I quit in August 1996. Although both have contracts with Time Magazine for
something like 50 days of photography a year, they consider the U.S. market for
photojournalism dead. Tony has not had a picture in domestic Time since 1996,
and Chris, after relating the Albanian election story, ignores the U.S. market
and has only marginally good things to say about European Time, a publication he
only had a few pages in for all of 1997.
Life magazine has fired most of its staff and all of its photographers and is
becoming a wimpy human interest vehicle. Big names like Joe McNally, who was
among those fired from Life and in town this week on other assignment, are doing
just fine even with a few contracts less. But these are the absolute cream of the
business and even they are feeling the pinch.
Budgets are being cut, photo editors are being fired, and publications are making
do with wire or stock imagery. It's cheaper, news wire images are often more
timely, and no one really notices the difference anyways. The main lesson a
magazine like Time has learned in the past few years is that when Princess Diana
dies and they put her on the cover, they sell more issues than they ever have
before. And they figure that there are a hell of a lot more readers who might
get hungry in New Orleans than wonder about the Albanian elections.
One of the negative aspects of the unprecedented boom in the U.S. economy seems
to have been the growing confidence of the American public that they have all the
answers. The Soviet Union collapsed because they had the wrong ideology, Eastern
Europe got stuck on the wrong side of a losing battle, and Europe and Japan are
looking lethargic and hidebound with their high taxes and large social programs.
The reasoning appears to be, hey--if you live in the best country in the world,
with the best economy and the most opportunities, what do you need to know about
the rest of the world, other than maybe the snow conditions at a few ski resorts
Europe is little better; the publishers there wonder about the economics of
paying a potentially fallible photographer top dollar to scramble out to a story
when they can sit back and have the pick of the crop when all the photographers
start pouring their images onto the news wires and syndicating them out to the
big agencies. The editor only has to pay for the actual images they want to use.
Where a story could be sold in ten different countries five years ago it's lucky
to have any resale at all.
Other photographers have chosen various paths out of this dilemma. Some have
gone corporate, shooting advertisements and annual reports. James Nachtwey and
David Turnley sold the rights to their pictures to Bill Gates' Corbis photo bank
for a stack of cash a year or two ago, and now spend their time fairly
unconcerned about any change in day rates. Others have turned to making movies,
or have moved out of the image market completely. But this isn't just a story
about U.S. isolationism, or stupid editors working for greedy accountants. What
I think we're seeing here is a world dealing with images as a newly devalued
currency. Until recently, the world was a huge unknown and our only glimpses
came through the eyes of those intrepid enough to venture out and return with the
goods. It was a symbiotic relationship--the magazines had the readership and the
clout, but needed to pay for the appropriate material. Now the readership and
the clout remain scarce while the images are so plentiful that I wouldn't be
surprised if a lot of photographers would give their work for free in exchange
for the exposure.
Even when I moved here in 1992, a fresh picture out of Moscow had an innate value
just because it was a fresh picture out of Moscow. In just the past few years,
the economics of the situation has completely changed. Images are free and
bombard us from all sides; it is now your attention that has become the
commodity. It's becoming cliche to refer to this as the emerging attention
economy, but in this case it really appears to be the case. In the market of
imagery, at least, your attention is just about the only scarce thing out there.
And in a world where you're not expected to dwell on any one picture too long
anyways, not with all those images out there that need viewing and only 24 hours
in a day, there isn't much reason from a publisher's perspective to put too much
money into creating yet another new image.
So we've got publishers convinced that readers don't really want to know about
the gritty truth about faraway lands, and whatever grit that does make it into a
magazine can be purchased from the lowest seller.
The stock photo industry (stock photos are any photos that are not shot on
specific assignment--they exist in huge photo banks waiting for someone to
develop a need for just that picture) has gone through an interesting change
recently as well, with CDs and networks facilitating the rapid duplication and
distribution of millions of images. You can purchase an essentially infinite
number of pictures of, say, the Eiffel tower, and therefore there is no reason to
either pay a lot of money for one, nor is there a reason to hire a photographer
to take yet another. In fact, CDs full of them are on sale, royalty-free, for
only a few dollars a disk. After much hand-wringing the economics of the business
began to emerge.
The prime value of an image now lies in its exclusivity. There are still
occasions of companies paying $10,000 or more for a picture, but now they're
primarily paying that to purchase the right to the exclusive use of the image.
It's estimated that 80% of all image uses do not require any exclusivity, and
therefore 80% of the market is more or less economically uninteresting. At least
that last 20% should be immune to any further changes in technology, because
exclusivity will always be valuable. Photojournalism is somewhat analogous. The
whole news segment of the market is like that 80% of the stock business--the
pictures are becoming, to use the bygone rallying cry of the nuclear power
industry--too cheap to meter. Feature work is somewhat the same, largely due to
the ocean of good feature work out there, except for when exclusivity comes into
play and the subject is desirable. Celebrity paparazzi shots are good examples
of extremely valuable commodities, but again only as long as the competing
tabloid can't get its hands on them.
Probably the most enduring and profitable market for images will be photographers
marketed through vehicles like Vanity Fair. They need marquee names for their
covers like Hollywood needs stars, and they've got the budgets to make almost any
shoot a huge marketable event. Annie Leibowitz can marshal hundreds of thousands
of dollars to get famous people into huge sets and create images that impress by
their sheer bombast. The astronomically expensive movies of Hollywood not only
guarantee audiences that they will see big stars and big special effects, but the
price also keeps would-be competitors out of the game. Anyone can make a movie.
Not a lot of people can make a $250 million movie about a boat that sinks, and
that's the one that makes the headlines.
So there I sit in my white shirt and listen to my heroes from my photojournalism
days talk about the hard times. When I quit the New York Times I always had the
feeling that I wouldn't be able to stomach competing for free-lance assignments
after the cushy life with guaranteed assignments. Now it seems like its become a
hobby only for the well-to-do, who can self-finance their trip to the next
Rwandan massacre. And how many well-to-do are there out there that want to do
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