Change Must Come

Posted on 12/21/2006 by Lewis Blackwell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



December 21, 2006

    On December 13, 2006, the British Journal of Photography published an opinion piece by Lewis Blackwell, Getty Images group creative director, under the title "Change Must Come." The following is reprinted with permission of the BJP and Getty Images.

By: Lewis Blackwell

These are amazing and alarming times for photographers. You may hold either or both views, but you are unlikely to be disinterested in what is happening if you are trying to earn a living out of making and selling images.

Technology, globalisation and changing customer behaviour is reinventing much of what it means to be successful in the business of photography. For some this adds up to a brutal lesson in basic economics.

The simple facts: there are more photographers and more images more easily available than ever before. There are also more customers using more images in more media. Clearly the laws of supply and demand come into play but just how will they influence the judge on this state of flux?

To hear many photographers speak, and to read the odd blog or forum, you can come away feeling a bit depressed. It would seem the world is simply against the traditional interests of photographers. It would seem a golden age is over and the vandals are running amok through the once glorious empire of rich pickings. Viewed from a position of commissions and royalties shrinking, you might feel beat up by change.

On the other hand, perhaps you are a more recent arrival in the industry of photography, or are in a period of rapid growth in your range and reach of clients and business models. If that is you, then there has never been a better time to get up and show the world who you are. Instead of working for years to get agencies and libraries around the world to represent you, now you can move in a matter of a few emails and a meeting or two to having global representation. You can distribute your images everywhere via the web, push direct to the client from location, and so forth.

Very few industries allow a sole operator to reach across world markets so easily. If this sounds rose-tinted, it is not. I hear both views (and often) in my role at Getty Images and I care about both views. I have a foot in each camp but I know which way we need to walk. Actually, run. I hear photographers suffering and resisting awkward changes, and I hear from photographers who are delighted with fresh opportunities. You know who will thrive - 'seize the day' is the only course of action.

The changing media and globalised marketplace will bring even more pressure around price and distribution, right cross the range of opportunities.

Cost Efficiencies

At the high end, as clients look for more communications that work across media ('campaignable' messages or products) and look to work across regions and even globally, they expect to see some efficiencies in their cost of buying the creative product. That might lead to big earnings for a few, but there is an inevitable pressure to deliver imagery with more efficiency. This suggests that whether you are the biggest superstar shooter on the planet or a student emerging from college, your opportunities will be affected. Even the largest campaign, in fact particularly the megabucks campaign, will work to deliver more for less: it pays one superstar double this year than last in order to get a campaign that runs in three times as many places.

At the other end of the commercial price-scale, we have the development of microstock. The emergence of microstock comes out of small designers, small clients, linking up to share resources. From that a whole marketplace of image use has become monetised that was once totally off the radar of photographers. Now a wide range of images are being uploaded on to sites where for a dollar or two customers download and use the picture. Often customers and image creators are one and the same - one day a photographer, the next day a designer. By no means are all the images in microstock of lower quality.

The fact is, a talented newcomer, or even a professional with some over-supply, or a hobbyist with a particular niche content or rare talent, can stud a microstock collection with some surprising gems. And they can earn a return. Microstock will cannibalise some of the higher priced sales of old, but will also bring in many new buyers to migrate through the market.

Currently we are seeing the image business move closer to the model for intellectual property (IP) distribution that is seen with words or music. In both those cases, you can go from custom writing or composition and performance right through to buying a discounted book or CD. You can go from spending thousands to spending pennies to acquire content. Photography and film are heading into the same paradigm, with pricing matched in relation to the degree of commoditization of the product.

It is true that there is much that is not great about those analogous IP areas. There is copyright theft in all areas, and there is also unequal and perhaps unfair distribution of the spoils at times. But there are also many writers and composers and musicians who continue to prosper in long careers throughout the changes, and there are many wanting to join the ranks...and so it is for photographers.

If you don't see the reason to be amazed and excited by the changes, that is perfectly understandable. But your doubts and dismay will not stop the restless creative and business community exploring new more effective models for image creation and distribution. Photographers need to be engaged in innovating in this area, not thinking it owes them a living. If photographers want to earn a better return on the investment of their talent and labour, they need to work with their clients and agents and other partners to make better business solutions for all.

Once upon a time there were no photographers; one day in the future there may well be none as we know the discipline today. There may be image-journalists and moving/still image producers, and photography-based artists, and who knows what. That is an opportunity, not a threat. And you will be allowed to wear multiple hats.

It is up to us all to invent those new roles in a future where for sure there will be many more people taking and using photography. That has to be a golden chance if we look beyond our golden pasts.

Copyright © 2006 Lewis Blackwell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


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