Why Photojournalism Matters
In an Age of Institutional Memory Loss
“How might we best monetize photography in the age of platforms, social and search?”
That is your own Statement of Plan, the underlying principle for your Knight Fellowship at Stanford. As you say, you’re researching “business models with particular emphasis on platforms, news and photography.” Okay.
No one doubts your personal devotion to photojournalism. However, as the photojournalism profession extends to reporting and preserving historical truths for posterity, it is cynical to criticize “the age of platforms, social, and search” for having created problems facing photojournalism without acknowledging the fact that your own company’s founders, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, are personally responsible for first creating and then perpetuating industry dysfunction across the board.
I’ve written extensively about a plausible answer to your question, including, here, on Medium. I once met with you personally, hoping to continue a dialog. I didn’t criticize Getty Images specifically. You demurred, to put it nicely. I met with Getty’s former COO a decade earlier with the same intent, to no avail. There is no reason to believe that Getty Images will ever embrace a business model that tries to level the economic “playing field” — or level any platform — for the mutual benefit of photojournalists and those parties who represent their best interests. Tens of thousands of other photographers and photojournalists feel the same way. They have been more publicly strident in the past than I am.
The business side of photography is riven by technological indifference and operational ignorance.
Regrettably, it has always been possible, since the get go, to shape technology to enable photojournalists, rather than to upend the way they work for the sole economic benefit of Getty Images. Cameras, lenses, lights, and photo-editing software have all flourished with technological innovations — on the creative side — since the dawn of the Digital Century. But the business side of photography is riven by technological indifference and operational ignorance.
Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater
Just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized by unimaginative middlemen.
Getty Images’ founders, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, were cocksure that creating a new e-commerce channel for digital photos meant sacking all previous pricing models. It was a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They operated under the widespread mantra of the 1990s that “The Internet changes everything,” and that they would usher the “old economy” kicking and screaming into the future.
Some things certaily did change. But just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized — devalued — by unimaginative middlemen.
It is naive to think that best practices, having once supported a robust analog photography market, are mutually exclusive in an online economy. Photography has indeed changed radically in the twenty-first century. But the principles underlying the business of photography have not changed one bit.
Getty Images bought it’s market share, full stop; there was never any organic growth. Klein’s big idea was to roll up existing photo agencies into one big ball, funneling many smaller, fragmented revenue streams into one huge torrent of cash: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It was a shrewd consolidation play in the best tradition of investment banking, irrespective of the havoc it played with photographers’ careers or the cultural, commercial, and historical underpinnings that account for the value of photography to publishers in the first place.
Getty Images deserves kudos for developing a new channel for photo licensing; one that continues to serve a class of customers that had not existed before the World Wide Web: ordinary consumers and very small businesses (e.g., fewer than twenty employees) who previously had little need to publish photographs or the wherewithal to pay for them. But Klein was too short-sighted to see how that new consumer platform could coexist with an Enterprise-centric B2B platform.
Klein, with Mark Getty’s support, was a well capitalized interloper, good at reading spreadsheets but photographically illiterate. He and Getty expected pro photographers, including photojournalists, to embrace an amateur ethic without regard for undermining their own economic sustainability, let alone how they might underserve their clients.
Institutional Memory Loss
Getty’s commodified licensing fees fostered a notion amongst publishers that pictures viewed on a screen were worth less than those seen in print. Baseless as that opinion was, it stuck.
Professionals were offered shelf space inside the store, so to speak, but only if they shared it side by side with amateurs at pathetic prices, thus taking the wind out of their sales (pun intended). Consequently, low licensing fees fostered a notion amongst publishers — the corporate bean counters, not the art directors and photo editors — that pictures viewed on a screen were worth less than those seen in print. Baseless as that opinion was, it stuck. It didn’t take long for pros to disappear from the stock photo shelves, while, at the same time, they began to lose control over pricing their commissioned photo shoots too — both commercial and editorial. They had little recourse against a powerful alliance of capital and the supersonic pace of change money wrought.
I’m leaving out many historical details, witnessed firsthand. Suffice it to say, the Getty juggernaut (along with Bill Gates’s Corbis) has long cut photographers out of the value proposition. The pros, an entire class of individual business owners, including photojournalists, were treated collectively like unskilled laborers, employees in a manufacturing supply chain for an essential raw material. Today, Getty enjoys an unearned influence in the marketplace, hiring and contracting with a relatively small number of photojournalists to work for less income than they would otherwise be able to command in a marketplace allowed to evolve organically.
There is no other way to describe it. Beginning with Getty Images’ overt contempt for professional photographers and photojournalists, an adversarial relationship was spawned. A new generation of photographers has little knowledge of this acrimonious history and how it continues to adversely affects their careers.
There are no true photo agencies anymore — far fewer anyway — to competitively recruit, represent, and assure that the best talent is equitably paif for their work. By the time a new Millennial generation of photojournalists and publishers became habituated to crowd-sourcing, so-called “royalty-free” pricing, etc., along with a new generation of software product managers, designers, and engineers, an institutional memory loss was already locked in about how to maximize the economic value of photographs.
The authoritative pricing protocols and industry-accepted best practices that earlier generations of photographers and the trade groups representing them had worked hard to establish got lost in a fog of oblivion. It was practically forgotten that copyright is the yardstick used to mete out publication rights (hence copy-rights) granted to publishers for any given photo — irrespective of what medium it’s published in.
Getty should be obliged to remember that photo buyers, publishers, are the photographers’ clients, not theirs. They should— but they won’t — own up to the fact that their revenue comes from photographers because photographers own the copyrights to the photographs they distribute, the intellectual property. That distinction may not matter much to mere enthusiasts who are proud simply to make a few extra bucks with a camera; but the notion of a vendor paying out so-called “royalties” instead of getting paid sales commissions is anathema to professionals; each one of whom is a business owner running a sole proprietorship, S Corp, C Corp, LLC, or LLP. Incidentally, the issue of paying out royalties also concerns the disingenuous way Getty Images and other vendors book their gross revenue.