Volume Based Photojournalism

Posted on 9/14/2011 by Paul Melcher | Printable Version | Comments (4)

Taking a cue from the succesful microstock model here is where photojournalism is heading. It is happening under our eyes, right now and in four steps

The decline of traditional photojournalism.

Nothing really new here. Rising cost of living (travel, lodging, food) has made it almost impossible for current print and web publishers to send top talents on stories anymore. The profit margins are not there anymore. Although there is a bucket full of very talented photojournalist available, there is just no funds to make them do what they do best.

Furthermore, with the deaths of traditional photo agencies that used to pay for half of the costs, there is just not enough financial support to keep it going. It’s not photojournalism that is dying, it’s the funding that is going dry.  Furthermore, photo editors that championed the great stories have long gone, either retired or pushed out due to corporate restructuring or cost saving measures.

The rise in volume of the me-too photojournalism.

Here again, nothing we haven’t heard or seen before. Automated cameras that can nail an image in the even poorest conditions has helped introduced a new wave of photographers that can, and will snap at anything and everything and force distribute it via every channel possible. Force distribute because we really do not want to see it but thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social media, we get to see them anyway. The poor state of our economy has not helped, obviously, making this forced free lance job even more appealing to many. It also has become easier to get published, at least once, giving everyone the false impression that this is easy. Anybody can become a photojournalist these days; you just need to be where the media attention is focused upon.

The death of the photo agency.

Photo agencies used to be the gateway to the media. With trained professionals, they filtered out the bad from the good and edited the work of the talented to make it even more compelling. They would also seek out news stories and send the best photographers to cover them, not only creating the news, but partly covering the costs. It was a gamble, where talented journalists would scout newspapers worldwide for that snippet of information that could be turned into the major news of the week thanks to the talent of a brilliant photographer. Those editors are gone now. Gambling on stories is just not an acceptable business model in our corporate world. Photo agencies are not agencies anymore, they are image distributors.

Speed vs Quality.

Thanks to digital, the key decision element for an image to be published is how fast they get to a desktop. Thus a bad photographer can very well become successful if he is the fastest.  More and more, this is what we, viewers, are being served -- the first images rather than the best. Thus the key to becoming a published photojournalist is where you are and not who you are.

Where does this lead us?

Where everyone can be a shooter, with no money to be spent on travel, no editors acting as gatekeepers and speed as the key factor, the decision is easy;

Forget the photo agency as an agent of talented photojournalists. The key now is to have a lot of contributors worldwide and hope that one will be at the right place at the right time. With photographers everywhere chances you will get the right image at the right time will increase, like buying a lot of lottery tickets.

In the film age, the cost of film, processing, shipment was too prohibitive. Now, you can receive and store million of images for a buck or two.

This well known photo agency recently proudly claimed representing 40 photographers in Gaza only. For a territory 140 square mile (360 Km2), that is one photographer per 3.5 square mile.

Thus, taking a cue from the microstock model, photojournalism is now switching to the volume based model. While profitable for a photo agency, it is devastating for photojournalism and photographers themselves.

Copyright © 2011 Paul Melcher. 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


  • John Harris Posted Sep 15, 2011
    Forgive me but like much of what is said here, there is a self fulfilling prophecy to this, in that the more photographers are persuaded there is very little value to what they do, the less likely they are to stand up for sustainable prices. I don't think it is true that newspapers do not have the funds (anyway those that don't invest in content are on the way out) but they have been offered pictures at such a low rate by the "big boys" that peanuts is all they want to pay. Certainly, as a result of their acquisitions/mergers there are many newspapers - particularly in America, that are (like Getty) leveraged with high debt levels - I don't see why we should pay for their poor business plan. Nor is it at all clear that the “volume-based agency model" is actually profitable in any quarter! In the UK we watch the fate of Rex features, for example, with interest. Look at the coverage of the riots in the UK, dominated by one or two pictures from Getty but others got a look in, even with all the cameras around. Indeed some agencies, under resourced by "the model", found themselves casting wildly around, caught out.

    If as you say, "the volume model" is to be devastating for photographers, what will happen to the “difficult to do" picture–that which requires skill, time and commitment? They will just happen across it? Monkeys and typewriters? Seems a little unrealistic to me. Many editors are sick of wading through an ocean of mediocrity and the meaningless, vaguely and tediously surreal rubbish. What about trust...relationship? Furthermore, there may be a greater interest in photojournalism in the months & years ahead.–which, after all, thrives when narratives are contested.

  • Paul Melcher Posted Sep 15, 2011
    "what will happen to the “difficult to do" picture–that which requires skill, time and commitment?"
    They will continued to be created and displayed. Albeit only shown and seen in Photojournalism festival like Perpignan or Look3 or galleries and museums. If volume based photojournalism is a self fulfilling prophecy, " those that don't invest in content are on the way out" is wishful thinking. The recent successes of sites like Huffington Post is proof of the contrary. Even if "Many editors are sick of wading through an ocean of mediocrity and the meaningless, vaguely and tediously surreal rubbish", they are not the ones who make the financial decisions. I am not saying that I support and agree with what is going on, just stating the facts.

  • Mark W. Richards Posted Sep 17, 2011
    So when do get the good news
    I really sick of you telling us to give up
    How about something we can do for a change

  • Tom Zimberoff Posted Sep 17, 2011
    This isn't an article; it's a rant. Nonetheless, if its dreadfully poor grammar were any better than its content, it might have been worth paying for. Apparently, not only photo editors are disappearing. Whining doesn't help. I'd like to see some smart photographers proffering some potential solutions.

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