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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Photographic Industry in Doldrums?

I was recently invited to give a talk on my work and being a professional photographer to a group of first year photography students. I thought it might be worthwhile delving into the business of photography as it often seems to be one of the subjects that is all but avoided by teaching staff at both university and technical colleges alike. Simple enough I thought. We could take a look at pricing work and getting into the industry. The talk itself went fairly well I thought. However, it opened an internal can of worms that have been wriggling around listening to the echo chamber that is the internet. Most notably is the fact that I have been reading a host of negative posts around the profession of photography. So a mini question mark erupted as to my own chosen profession.

(note: reading "The Future of The Profession" which I wrote in January 2013 makes for a good prequel to this post) 
If I were to sit down and talk to my younger self, would I suggest that being a photographer is a good move? Would I warn my younger self to stick with other career options as being safer? Should I suggest that sticking it out in the job that I hated would be the wiser decision? Looking at the industry right now, it’s hard to talk to younger photographers and not be filled with gloom about the future of  professional photography. Stock photography prices have crashed, commercial jobs are harder to find, newspapers and agencies are laying off staff, more and more life-long pros are lamenting the loss of something almost inexplicable. There has been a recent explosion of articles written about the declining state of the industry and how difficult it is to find and hold on to photographic work. Internationally recognized and awarded photographers are struggling to pay the bills. The online magazine, Petapixel highlighted the issue with the example of Zoe Strauss - a Whitney Biennial and Magnum Photos recognized photographer - who has had to put out a Facebook plea for enough cash to be able to pay for root canal surgery. In South Africa, the author of THE book on the business of photography in the country, Deryck van Steenderen, has thrown his hands up in despair at the flagrant lack of rights that photographers and other creatives have, and moved to another country where he feels he is more able to practice his craft and be paid for doing so. Is this the industry I would want my younger self to enter?

A recent image created for a logistics company. Images like these are complicated to make. Yes, a modicum of photographic knowledge is easier to obtain, but ironically as technology gets more advanced, the more difficult it becomes to master.

Increasingly photographers find themselves on the short end of the bargaining stick for a host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that if they turn up a job, there are an army of lower priced would be professional photographers standing in the wings to snap it up. Heck, forget lower priced. There’s an army of photographers prepared to do it for free! That’s for the freelancers out there, which scarily constitute the vast majority of professionals. Magazines and media houses are bleeding staffers and turning to iPhone wielding writers to paper over the holes that have been left behind. The sad irony is that we are entering a world where the photographic image is more important than it has ever been, and more contested too. So in this world where the image is all-powerful, the image maker is increasingly being sidelined and exploited. 

The move to digital is certainly part of why we have this declining industry, but it is more complex than that. The increasing consumption of images through the 80s and into the 90s led to the change in royalty free stock photography. I remember reading an article in the late 90’s bemoaning that this was the reason why photographers were being driven out of business. That a once viable income had been all but shredded thanks to the virtual racketeering of imagery courtesy of Getty and Corbus.

The thing is, the rise of the ‘every-photographer’ started long before digital and was fed on by the change to royalty free imagery. When digital emerged it took an already ballooning segment of photographers and injected it with a powerful cocktail of cocaine and steroids. The last bastion of professional photography - technical knowledge - was torn apart so that anyone with an LCD could bang away until they got the image right…sort off. Add to this the heady mix of false perception - that photography is a cool, easy and a fashionable career choice - and you can see why established photographers have been moaning about the increased competition.

The trouble is, this has led to a race to the bottom. As more photographers step up, image buyers are able to push pricing down. Desperate for work, photographers tighten their belts and accept. The status quo is achieved, but more photographers as well as amateurs who just want to play in the field appear, allowing image-buyers to drop prices again…and so we go. As the pricing drops, so too the does the implied value of the image, until imagery is worthless. Not something one should have to pay for.

Added to the above is the other false perception, increasing daily it would seem, that photography is not really a job: “Everyone takes pictures - why should I pay for yours”. Just look at the music industry and the complete and flagrant theft of photographic work by music artists. Then consider the rapid growth in ‘volunteer photography’ and photographic internships. These are those pseudo jobs where companies ‘hire’ a free photographer so that the photographer can gain experience and ‘grow their portfolio’. What it really means is that said companies don’t think imagery is worth anything, so why pay someone to shoot it. The net result is a continued free-fall in the perceived value of imagery (the moral of this particular story is: don’t work for free).

Having said don't work for free, there are times when working for free can be beneficial. Or, choose to shoot for free or as close as free can be if it something you feel like contributing towards, as I did with a TEDx shoot earlier this year. I didn't do it for the portfolio. I simply did it because I wanted to be involved.

The result is photographers lamenting a lost income. However, something I have noticed amongst my peers as well as the innumerable photographers on the internet, is this perception that we are special. We talk about our diminishing incomes and increased competition as if it was only photographers who are facing these issues in the 21st Century. My personal theory on this is that the false perception of photography as glamorous coupled to the feedback loop of social media has given rise to a peculiar kind of self-importance. We are not special. Look around. Everyone is complaining about diminishing incomes, not just photographers. Creatives in all spheres are complaining of the same. If you work in the creative industry your world is undergoing a fundamental shift in the way that it operates.

For a start we are moving into a gig culture, and it isn’t just photographers. On the back of strong labour unions in the westernized world through the 80’s and 90’s, employers and clients looking for content have increasingly moved towards one-off part-time labour. You see this everywhere. Half of my friends, most of which are not photographers, are also working from contract to contract. Those who are in full-time jobs, jump and move far more readily than their parents would have. Freelance photography was never a solid bet, ever. If you are a freelancer, you are an entrepreneur of sorts. Like every entrepreneur out there, you rely on business skill, luck and the ability to read the market. This is the same market that is aggressively shedding full-time employees in favour of ‘safer-to-expel’ contractors. Which in turn means more free-lancers.

In no way am I saying that this is a good thing. The gig culture that we find ourselves in means that there is no such thing as a lucky break. Rather we have to rely on a string of mini-breaks that we feverishly pray won’t come to an end anytime soon. Exasperated, I said to my better half the other night, “I just wish that every day weren’t a hustle”. There it is. Every day is a hustle. This is not unique to photography and photographers. Right now, ask any small business owner and they will tell you, every day is a hustle. 

We may bemoan the rise of the every-photographer and the diminishing fee for photography, but there will always be clients who are prepared to pay for quality work.

Things change. The world moves on. Photography has always been intricately wound up with technology and goes through seismic shifts every few years. As technology has changed at an increasingly rapid rate, so too have those seismic shifts for photographers occurred more frequently. If you stand still, you get left behind. This isn’t fair. It is just the way of the world. Disruptive technology is always going to disrupt careers and lives that are intricately wrapped up in the preceding technology.

The rise of social media is one such disruptive technology. Images are consumed at such a breakneck speed that people can barely register them before they flick past into obscurity. Facebook and Instagram have ensured that images remain in the public consciousness for an extraordinarily limited period of time. From viral to invisible takes less than a week. As photographers we have to learn to adjust and adapt with the technology and the means of dissemination. Never has it been truer that you are only as good as your last photograph.

The last 30-40 years in photography were interesting in that they gave rise to what I called the ‘cult of photography’ in an article I wrote in January 2013. During the War Years and just thereafter photography as a career was not perceived in the same exulted light as it is today. For the most part photographers were considered technicians - hired technicians at that - and image credit was a rarity. The likes of David Bailey, Patrick Litchfield, Terence o’Donovan, Annie Leibowitz and others who came to fame through the baby boomer years essentially polished the perception that photography as a career was sexy; a far cry from the down and out photographer in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’. In some ways we are returning to the photographer as technician. The rise in new technology and new ways of visualising a scene compound this. Think drones, and the new horizon that is virtual reality (VR) or 360 degree imaging.

In all of this there is a place for photography and photographers. Skilled technicians and individuals with the ability to create new and inspiring ways of viewing the world will not only find work, but be financially successful in doing so. It is not impossible to make a good living from photography. It is just seemingly more difficult than it was twenty years ago. That said I’m willing to wager that twenty years ago photographers were saying the same things. We seem to be going through something of an industry wide self-examination. This is a good thing. Maybe we will come out of it at the end with firmer rights for image-makers. Maybe we will find some way to protect the livelihoods of creatives against the devaluation and rapacious consumption of imagery and other creative content. Maybe.

Professional art photography is at a cross-roads now that almost anyone can express themselves artistically. I find it worthwhile remembering that art photography through the decades has invariably been funded by commercial work (as this image above). As David Hurn points out in 'On Being Photographer' (I paraphrase), the concept of the fully funded financially successful art photographer is really the anomaly, not the norm.

So back to that question. Would I still say that it’s worth it to my younger self? Despite the apparent cynicism this post exudes, I love my job! I love being creative. I love the flexibility that being my own boss allows me (to realise what I mean by this without being pulled into the ‘be your own boss myth’ read this article on the myths of professional photography). For every potential client I meet who devalues imagery, I meet another who recognises that good imagery helps them set their business apart. Mundanity is the norm right now. There is a place for creatives who are able to help their client stand out. Yes, maybe you don’t need all the technical knowledge in the world anymore to be successful as a photographer (believe me, it helps though). The client is only concerned with the final product, not with who created it, or how they created it. Only other creatives/photographers care about that. The plus to all of this is that the longer I stay in the industry the more people I meet who value imagery for what it can do for them, and are prepared to pay for quality work.

Then there is the growing community of image-makers who are passionate about the image. Their love and devotion to creating images, to viewing the world through a lens and all that implies, is extraordinarily rewarding to be a part of. The rapidly changing technology around us has also meant that we are slowly dis-investing ourselves of that technology, and rather concentrating on the image again. Or so I hope. Judging by discussions that I have had with fellow photographers, we seem to be emerging from the birth of digital photography and are coming to grips with a new adolescent medium. One that holds bizarre mood and temper tantrums and then sulks from time to time before displaying some work of creative genius. During the birth we were all caught up with megapixels, lens sharpness, frames per second, focusing speed. Now, I think, we are heading back to where the image is important. That is a reason to be excited.

So yes, there is plenty to be despondent about right now. I’ll warn my younger self that it won’t be an easy road to follow. Even now, I have no idea what the future might hold, apart from it’s sort of scary. I’ll warn him that he’ll have to get used to the hustle. But yes, where that younger self was and where I am now, makes it absolutely worth it. That’s not to say that my older self won’t say something completely different. I’ll have to wait to meet him, and hopefully, with enough hard work in the coming years, he’ll say the same thing. 

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