Archive for category Economics
This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.
You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.
It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”
So what makes now so great?
To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.
We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.
But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.
Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.
In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.
My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.
And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.
In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.
The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.
Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.
But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.
Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.
Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.
When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”
So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.
This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.
Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.
This is one of those terms you’ve heard before, but might not have ever gotten to fully understand. It is what it sounds like — thoughts out of tune. More particularly, it is the feeling we get when our thoughts, beliefs and morals clash with our actions. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we have after we buy something we really couldn’t afford, or do something we know we shouldn’t do.
As adaptable beings we dispatch that feeling with justifications. “I really need that new [insert toy name here] even though I ain’t got the cash, and here’s why…” Aesop had a good fable that fit this too. A fox sees some grapes hanging too high to reach. After trying to get them and failing, he struts off arguing to himself that they must not have been worth eating. It’s where the old “sour grapes” saying comes from. We are also prone to justify away the dissonance we would otherwise feel when we take a shortcut we know we should not take.
In journalism justifications like that pop up frequently to argue why something considered unethical should be seen as okay “under the circumstances.” You’ve heard them: “magazines are different from newspapers” or “the cover is an advertisement” to explain away a breach of journalism ethics. Our ethics should determine our actions, of course. But there seems to be an unending stream of ways journalists justify letting their actions determine their ethics. Neither market forces, ease nor style should trump ethics in the images we produce or how we use them. If we act like we are delivering truthful information, then we must follow through on that promise.
It happens among photojournalists more often than we might think. We pay a lot of attention to the egregious breaches of our ethics: major alterations, serious cases of reenactment or direction of what would appear to be a spontaneous moment. But as professionals who document reality we need to stay aware of how we might let convenience, competition, drive for a style or a wish for the approval of an editor or producer affect our work. This can come down to many of the mundane tasks we perform in our work, including — to pick only one example — things like toning an image.
There’s a difference between choosing a moment of perfect light and color that actually existed and fixing dull light to make it more dramatic in a photo. We like dramatic images. They attract reader interest, appeal to editors and feel satisfying to us. But isn’t the satisfaction and pride much stronger when we took the time and energy to seek out the light and color rather than pumping it up with software tools? And isn’t it simply more honest?
Our talent — the one that separates us from all the other flavors of photographer — is that we capture reality quickly and delicately and without influence. It is an incredible skill that takes great attention and effort to develop. We take pride in our ability to think and act quickly and to know the story as we are seeing it happen. We slice telling moments out of the unstoppable flow of time, and when we miss, we miss.
Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, is “…an immediate sketch, done with intuition, and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. Life is very fluid, and, well, sometimes the picture has disappeared and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘oh, please smile again, do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”
Having made all that effort to catch the decisive moment without any before- or after-the-fact fixing, why would we let any overrated sense of market pressure discredit that work? Look again at Cartier-Bresson’s images in which the moment and geometry are so perfect that trivial stylistics like color and contrast don’t matter at all.
I am not making an excuse to shroud dull images in a cloak of ethics. Our challenge is to find the impressive image in any circumstance — no matter how colorless or flat in light — without needing to embellish it after the fact. We do that by skillfully getting to the right place at the right time to capture true storytelling images and minimizing our influence on a scene.
If any of our actions need a justification to exempt them from our core ethical standards, then those actions need to be reconsidered. It is our ethics that must determine our actions, not the converse.
For an entertaining and disturbing look at cognitive dissonance at work in the cable TV world, have a listen to radio producer Rebecca Hertz’ piece on how process trumped ethics in the production of a reality TV show, for NPR’s Snap Judgement. In the show segment she compares the experience of the producers and participants to the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s.
I’ve long felt there are three types of photojournalist out there. Which are you? Or two? Or three?
The Photographer’s Photographer
The Photographer’s Photographer is one who makes pictures for the approval of other photographers. We strive to best each other, impress each other, intrigue each other and feel like modern Cartier-Bressons.
The pictures that result from this effort are amazing in our eyes. They are complex, layered, full of “deeper meaning” or social criticism, and great light. They may even rack up industry awards.
But these images can also be baffling to our readers.
Through my career I have probably more prone to being this photographer than the other two types. I want to excite myself with my work, and my all-time favorite personal images are puzzles of serendipity, or light, or composition that may well just look like a mess to my neighbors. I often imagine non-photo friends wondering “why the heck is that on his wall? I don’t get it.”
The Editor’s Photographer
We live in an image-glutted world. Our modern job description goes beyond the old “just the facts ma’am” idea of reporting the news to also catching reader attention among the unfathomable number of images that cross their device screens, daily papers and HD screens each day. We all strive to make interesting pictures.
If our readers are glutted with images, think of our editors. They get all the same their readers do, plus the feeds of wires, agencies and pesky freelancers. They are buried in them and have a mandate to make their publication stand out on the rack or screen.
Often the most successful photographers in this business are the ones who know exactly what trend, what style, what look, what content is wanted by those editors.
These shooters make money, and we (as above) self-obsessed Bresson aficionados hate them for “selling out.”
I want to be this shooter as well. My freelance career survives because I try (not always succeeding, but I try) to make sure my editor’s needs are met. I need to make a living and I want to not be a bitter old hack when I retire.
But who should we really be serving?
The Reader’s Photographer
This post is an homage to this rare kind of photojournalist. The one who thinks only of the readers and what details and moments they need to understand and feel the story. No gimmicks. Nothing that can’t be read in three seconds of attention to the page or screen.
This kind of photographer’s images jump off the page or screen not just because of complex layers, cool trendy techniques, or moody toning. They jump out at the average person for their honesty, understanding, and ability to tell a story.
If you really want to understand what your readers want or appreciate in a photo, look at what non-photographers choose from among their own pictures or yours. It grants deep insight into what in a photo is valuable to your reader.
I know one photographer who is purely a reader’s photographer. Find his work here. And I don’t just say that because I’m related to him. He really does only care about what his readers think, and they love his images. He speaks directly to them — not around them, over their heads, or to only a select few of them.
How would you describe your purpose as a photojournalist? If you use that time-honored definition of “visual reporter,” or “visual story teller,” then aspire in this direction.
We have elements of all three of these photographers in us, and balance can add immense value to our work. I want to stay intrigued with my own work so I don’t burn out. I want to be proud of it. I also want to complete the job well, earn a living and get more calls from those editors. But if I am really a photojournalist then the readers should be the highest of my concerns.
We’ve all heard pitches like this before: If you value the media, buy it.
Columns and reports around the new and old media lately have espoused a pay-for-access model on the net that reflects how the media has functioned for a few centuries. I agree, but I’m not going to repeat that sentiment.
But how many of you — students in particular — actually buy the products for which you aspire to work?
If you’re like I was as a student, your daydreams drift to National Geographic contracts, Time covers, regular newspaper paychecks, magazine spreads, museum collections (and now) online galleries shown by major URLs. We want this work. We want recognition for seeing the world intensely and making compelling images that touch our readers. And we most certainly want to get paid for it.
We lament that budgets are tight, outlets for work are small or underpaid, and jobs are disappearing. And not that our subscriptions would make even the slightest dent in the problems of the media, but I see a hypocrisy in our actions. Wish as we might to earn money from the media for doing good work, do we actually buy those products?
I looked down at coffee-slopped, crumb-scattered pages of the papers this morning and smirked.
While we lament, we don’t subscribe. It’s expensive to have the New York Times land on my doorstep each morning, but it’s nothing compared to the money I’ve earned from them in the last 20 years. I am one of those people who saves National Geographics and grabs Time, Newsweek and US News off the grocery store rack to browse over lunch and toss in the recycle bin a half hour later.
I even pick up the local free “shopper” rag in any town I find myself because you can learn a lot about a community from what they’re selling.
Why do that when I can get most of that stuff on the Web for free?
Because I can slop breakfast or lunch all over them without having to send hardware in for repair. I can flip through copies as the Thousand Island drips from my reuben, smearing all over the latest Nachtwey essay. I scribble notes in the margins on stories I’d like to chase. I cut out and tack up images that inspire me. I roll them up and stuff them in my back pocket while I stroll. I relish that the ads don’t pop up, flash, scroll, or shout at me. And if still I had a birdcage…
But the reasons for you should be deeper than old-fashioned practicality. We need to be steeped in images to produce good work. We need to know what is being done out there. We need to have our mental libraries filled with ideas to use, alter or steal outright.
You can do that well on the Web too. It’s a magnificent at-your-fingertips resource with better volume of material presented in more interesting forms. There you have instant and unprecedented access to the entire world’s media. It’s a beautiful thing. But I know that many of you don’t really even look there, and fewer pay for content.
Spend time with the media no matter the form. Proudly pay what you can for the great work being done out there. Browse, explore, slop, spill, clip, print, pay a little. Consume what you hope to produce for yourself — from the scrappy local paper to Newsweek. And by doing so, your ideas and understanding of our craft grow. And you do your tiny part to help the media recover.
I did have a bird many years ago, and we would play “Birdcage Bingo” with my clips. I’d slip them into his cage and let him tell me what of my work he liked and what he didn’t in a game that was a simple variation on cow pasture bingo. Maybe someday I’ll try that with the Web…
In the changing landscape of journalism economics, I can promise one thing: In the short term my students who are indefatigable journalists will be freelancers. Jobs are few, far between and disappearing. Though that may turn around at some point, it’s hard to know when.
However, hunger for content should not disappear. There is now an infinite amount of space available to publish meaningful work. Some pays, some does not. But for a committed journalist of any flavor, the stories are out there and the means of publishing have never been more open or easy.
Building a freelance business is not much different than building any other business. It takes an impressive investment in time and money to really get a good start. I know a few photojournalists who have evolved into freelancers over a lengthy amount of time, but the majority did it the way I did: With sweat and credit-card equity.
What I love
I can imagine no other profession, and many of you may feel the same way. As both a staff photojournalist and a freelancer I have seen the world the way few can. I’ve been to the very last polar spits of North and South America, to Europe, South Asia, and Africa. And I’ve not just visited those places. I’ve lived them through the generous subjects who let me deeply into their lives. My days are as different as there are people and jobs in the world.
I have taken this positive risk in my career: I have lived thoroughly now, figuring I would probably sacrifice later. That’s the reverse of the typical “wise” American formula. I would not trade this life for anything.
What I would change
Having freshly paid off my student loans and with a paltry $2,000 in the bank, I quit my fair-paying job and ran off to Brazil to be a freelancer. My scheme was to live cheaply in Brazil’s struggling economy while I covered a fascinating continent. But right as I arrived they fixed that economy and suddenly Rio was as expensive as New York. I quickly built up credit card debt to communicate with editors, ship film, fund the travel to cover stories on spec, and even pay the high local rents.
I was successful in building a business that still runs. But paying that debt has limited many things for me over the years.
For those of you starting a business I have these “do as I say, not as I do” recommendations:
• Borrow as little money as possible. With stagnant freelance journalism rates you would have a more difficult time growing your way out of startup debt. If you do need to borrow, look for alternatives to credit cards to finance your work. Ask about other non-revolving loans from banks if you must. Those loans have a closed end. Borrow from family and friends only after deep reflection on what that debt may do to a valuable relationship. Nothing gets in the way of personal relationships like money.
• Analyze every expense. Photographers tend to be gadget heads. We want the latest and coolest stuff, from killer cameras to cool phones and fast, sleek laptops. They are exciting! But you need quite little to do the job — one small camera body, a couple lenses and a flash. A modest laptop will generally do the job too.
Editors very rarely care how the job is accomplished. They only want it to be done to their liking. There are many ways to light a room, shoot in the dark and tone a photo with a very polished look. As a young freelancer you’ll have more time than money, so use that time to figure out cheap working methods.
You don’t need 25 megapixels. Even the ambitious standards of high-end photo agencies can be met with 10. Newspaper and most magazine gigs can be happily met with 6 megapixels from a five-year-old digital camera. Film can easily meet all of those. There are bargains in used gear.
Though software like Adobe’s Creative Suite is the industry standard, there are more good image editing software solutions out there than I can count, and many of them are free.
Buy equipment only when you have repeated need for it and it will with certainty pay for itself with new work. You can always rent it for that odd job, and can probably be reimbursed for the rental by your client.
As you travel, find stories along the way to report and sell. Cartier-Bresson street photography will add to your portfolio but not give an immediate return on the investment. Do that and cover a story you could sell at the same time. Small stories are good. Ambitious big-idea stories are better done near home.
Think of this business the same way you would if you were opening a store, starting a consulting business or building another kind of Internet startup.
• Invest (actual money) in your future. You may be 22. You may feel 22. It may be four decades until you think you might retire on your vast laurels as a great photojournalist or documentary photographer. But take it from me, age advances faster than you think it will. Offset some of that risk you are itching to make by covering your old age with IRAs and other retirement plans now. Peel off ten percent of your earnings (that’s so little) to an untouchable account.
Running a business is more than a full-time job. You’ll have big tax bills to pay, health and life insurance to cover, equipment to maintain, marketing plans to build, archives to backup, and research to do — all over and above the maintenance of your creativity and attention on crafting valuable work. One thing often forgotten in that mix of things-I-should-have-done-yesterday is to plan a future.
Our friends and loved ones who follow a more traditional life plan — one in which you sacrifice and save now to fund travel and leisure in old age — would never be able to handle the risk we tend to take. But we need to learn from them too. Be smug about the places you’ll go while you’re young, and how deeply you may interact with the world. But while you do it, keep your debts as low as you can and squirrel away some money starting now so you can smile from your Paris apartment when you’re old.
I and my fellow inmates will applaud you.