In the Summer 2004 Issue of the ASMP Bulletin, Roger Ressmeyer, photographer and former stock industry executive, voiced his opinions on the emotional state of mind required to get what you need as a stock photographer working in today’s ever-changing business environment. For the second part of this series, we were inspired by a panel discussion Roger moderated during the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Picture Archive Council of America. We asked Roger to join Betsy Reid, Executive Director of the Stock Artists Alliance, and Patrick Donehue, Director of Photography at Corbis, for a ninety-minute roundtable teleconference on October 8th. The subjects they addressed were broad and included the following: the evolution of stock photography, digital technology, the complexities of the marketplace and the importance of communication skills. This version posted on the ASMP web site is the complete discussion that took place. A shorter version excerpted from this discussion is published in the print issue of the Year End 2004 ASMP Bulletin.
Betsy Reid: I have an up front perspective before we get started. Our threesome is speaking primarily from Corbis and Getty experience and while there are certainly universal issues that are pertinent to all stock photographers, there are specific set of challenges for photographers dealing with midsize to smaller collections. For example (and I’m generalizing here) there are photographers working successfully with the major players who tend to be more commercial in focus — shooting lifestyle, business, concepts. Another group are those photographers who tend to be more specialized, the market for their images is more editorial, and those involved in stock are more likely to be represented by multiple agencies. I’m bringing this up because many ASMP members fit into this second group. In preparing remarks for the upcoming ASMP “Thinking Stock” seminars I’ve recognized that it’s really important to address the issues and challenges faced by photographers who are NOT getting their images directly into the big commercial oriented collections.
Roger Ressmeyer: Whoa, hold on. While I agree with your last statement, please don’t characterize me as “primarily coming from Corbis and Getty experience.” First and foremost I am a photographer, and have devoted my life to fighting for the rights of photographers, often to the detriment of my personal career. That was especially true during my four years as a Getty VP and three years as a Corbis executive. For thirty years I’ve been a freelance editorial photographer, and I served ten of those years as an ASMP board member. I’ve owned small archives twice — Science Faction now, and Starlight Photo Agency from 1982 to 1995, when Corbis purchased it as their first major acquisition.
Patrick Donehue: I’d like to add that while Roger and I both came from small agencies and have been photographers too, even more important than this is the fact that we’ve both been very active in the Picture Archive Council of America (PACA) for so long. Getty and Corbis are two members of PACA and there are over 100 other agents in there too. PACA spends a fair amount of time making sure that the heart of the business is being looked at very carefully and that it’s not being lead by a couple of the major players.
BR: The PACA meeting I attended was such an eye-opener and helped me look at the landscape in a completely different way. How they are interacting with their contributors is a challenge but the daunting competition they face from the market leaders is the toughest challenge for these companies to cope with.
RR: The many different perspectives that you need to make sense out of what’s going on is very interesting. And that’s one of the problems. It hasn’t been easy for photographers to experience and therefore understand the other points of view and what drives them. As you were saying, you had to experience it to get reoriented. And that’s been one of the difficult things about the discussion between photographers and archives &emdash; the inability to break through and actually understand firsthand how things really are, and why and how they differ.
BR: I agree that the heart of the issue is helping photographers gain perspective. It’s also kind of an equal responsibility and to be frank, I don’t think that the stock companies have generally done a very good job of helping the photographers (their contributors) make this transition. Getting to where we are now versus where we were ten years ago has been unnecessarily painful for the folks who are creating all those images that drive this business!
RR: I think it’s important to find a path that quickly brings photographers up an income level that’s high enough to maintain their businesses and also to provide some mental security. It takes a long time to start up a successful photography business, and most artists can’t maintain such a significant cash flow for long with their own funding. And sometimes the wealthier photographers find they aren’t motivated as intensely as some of the hungrier ones. The drive to succeed financially can bring out the best in a photographer, pushing him or her to work more efficiently and creatively. Its’ important to consider all the financial effects of being in business while staying focused on the key goal: making enough money to comfortably continue one’s art.
PD: There’s a point here that’s going to keep on coming back over and over again. Assumptions have been made that all photographers are a homogenous group and all agencies are all homogenous groups. Everyone is starting to see that photographers are anything but a homogenous group; they’ve got different business plans, different specialties, different ways of seeing the world, different likes and preferences and dislikes. Some like to be art-directed, some like to go “no thank you”. Some sell stock on their own and some don’t. Some do assignments, some don’t. I think that’s one of the biggest issues we’re facing right now as a community. When we say photographers “this” or agencies “that” we’re really not talking about the way things are in real life. When we realize this is not a homogenous group, it’s actually great, because that is what brings diversity to the industry.
The Sea Change
JW: One question that’s come to mind in hearing you talk, is related to a buzzword I heard so much in the 1990’s — this big “Sea Change”. A lot of that had to do with technology and acquisition and such. Considering that photographers are not a homogenous group and that smaller agencies and portals allow for more individuality, I wonder if “The Sea” is changing again, like a tide going in and out. My question is this: Is the current state of things opening up to allow more individual photographers to have more power in the relationship?
BR: In one respect, yes. Ten years ago, it was quite easy to describe the typical relationship that most photographers had with their agency. Today we’ve shifted to a world where photographers can no longer characterize their relationships as one of “artist and agent”. And with the shift to either image-exclusive or non-exclusive terms, there’s more freedom and options for the photographers to develop their own business models. But there’s also far less obligation for the distributors who represent their images.
RR: I don’t look at the change as being all negative. Look at what’s happening in all the other industries out there. Because of modern technology, every industry has gone through some form of a Sea Change. It’s the very nature of the American market-driven system — the basis of capitalism. If you get hung up in an “its bad” attitude, you end up getting the bad side of the Sea Change as opposed to the good side of it. A more successful attitude goes like this: “how can I convert this shift that makes me uncomfortable into something positive?” Some photographers have gotten incredibly positive results as a result of the change, while others have just suffered like being in a horrifically bad marriage they can’t get out of.
BR: They forget that they have a choice. You can accept or reject a business model.
BR: I look at the SAA members and when we started, we had hundreds of members; there were 650 and they were all Getty contributors. They were all dealing with the same issue, which certainly was something that brought them together. What happened from there forward was a huge divergence — everyone headed off in different directions. Out of the adversity and the challenge came a call for action. You cannot continue on the way you have; things have changed. Its like the web got pulled out from under everyone, for better or worse, that’s what happens. Change happens. Today I look at our membership and — to your point, Patrick about diversity — you’re right, everyone is different. What’s happened is that this has allowed them to be different; to find their own path. Some of them never signed the contract, they walked away from big agency relationships and they’re happy about that. Others feel the big agencies are central to their business model. Others are really into the portal approach; and like the options, and the control and the independence. There are some people who just dig Alamy, and they spend all their time keywording and uploading images there. There are others who have 15 different editorially oriented companies that they’re sending their images to. That’s very exciting; and we didn’t have those options so developed 10 years ago. There’s a good way to look at the change — it allows people to express their own independence.
PD: Photographers have had for many years the option of multiple relationships. Back in the old days, what some photographers did was to specialize in developing a distribution system of 12 or 15 small or regional agencies where they would try to service those relationships and those agencies. Many photographers were very successful in that, but there’s a lot of bandwidth that’s required. The down side of this is the ability to feed a machine like that and to develop an ongoing, meaningful relationship and shoot at the same time. It used to be that photographers on their own could shoot and do stock and do assignments and do a pretty good job. Now you’re talking about having a staff to support that kind of distribution because it does take time and it takes a huge amount of effort. That’s the kind of conundrum that a lot of photographers feel right now. At least that’s what I’m hearing from the photographer community; they would like as much distribution as possible with the least amount of effort required for that distribution. This makes total sense so that photographers can get behind the camera again.
BR: You guys have a broader perspective about the history of the industry, and you mention that in the 80’s photographers had non-exclusive relationships and multiple agencies. However, would you say its generally true that the photographer exclusive contract was the dominant model at that time?
PD: It depends on how you look at it. The photographer worldwide exclusive model started with the Image Bank in 1974, when that was just kind of the deal. Some of the other agencies started to do that as well, and then midway through the 80’s agencies like Tony Stone started doing image exclusives because they were a UK based company and there were very few US photographers who felt comfortable in having an exclusive contract with essentially an international foreign company. I was with Stone, and Stone was the first company to move to a broad image exclusive contract. They started taking market share because they were very aggressive in their promotion, in their marketing and their catalogues. They also had a very, very finely edited collection.
RR: It was also the 70mm enlarged dupes. Side by side with a 35mm dupe, a Stone duplicate won almost every time.
PD: Yeah. Absolutely. They took market share, and they started taking market share away from other large agencies that insisted on worldwide exclusive contracts. As a result of this I think what happened within the photographer community was this move, as well there should’ve been, that said “you know what…we need to have options and we need to be able to have some choice.
BR: I think that you have to look at the benefit from the company perspective too. The switch to image exclusive also put them in the position of not having the contractual responsibility to support the output of the photographer.
Agents vs. Archives
RR: There’s also another issue here, which is that the companies got so big that they could no longer support every photographer’s entire output. The whole idea of being an agent requires representing a very small number of photographers. You can’t really be responsible to each photographer if you have more than 20 photographers — there will be too much overlap and conflict between the artists’ niches.
BR: But the terms of an artist-agent relationship, I mean, legally, it wasn’t about how many photographers you represented, so I’m not sure I agree with that. It had more to do with the obligation that they had to each artist they represented.
RR: If you’re an agent you have an obligation to represent that artist fully, and you can’t allow any competition with each artist’s interests. As an agent you must do everything in your power to make that artist’s career succeed. As soon as you have photographers with overlapping areas of expertise, you’re in a position where you can’t be an agent anymore. You have a conflict. If you become big, it’s impossible to legally be an agent. You will not find a huge organization that calls itself an agent in any other business model in America where they have 2,000 people that they agent. It can’t be done, and photographers are misdirecting their precious energy by focusing on that cause — it’s a done deal, swept away by two Sea Changes — the formation of big “agencies” in the 80’s, and the consolidation of archives that began in the 1990’s. It doesn’t work because of the conflicts.
BR: Now that image-exclusive terms are the norm, it’s no longer accurate to say photographers have “agency” relationships. You could say this is simpler and more straightforward, and that acting as a distributor, an archive, or whatever terminology you want to use, the relationship is clearer. An issue that lingers though is the perceptions and misperceptions about an archives’ responsibilities to the artist in this relationship. That is the profound change — the contract that’s being offered. It’s not just words; it’s really a different relationship with fewer legal obligations to you as an artist. To an artist, all they could see — I’m just looking from their perspective — all they could see was a loss. A loss of obligation, a loss of caring… Take it to an emotional level. The point is, photographers had something, which was this higher standard on a fiduciary level, but also on a relationship level, in their minds. When those contracts changed, it changed that too. Your businesses started changing.
RR: Those contracts didn’t change it, the old contracts were simply out of date and simply didn’t represent the reality of what was now happening. It became necessary for agencies to become huge distributors in order to be profitable, in order to cover their expenses. It was no longer possible for an organization of that size to represent each photographer independently with a full interest in that photographer’s career
BR: You know what? We had a contract. It doesn’t seem fair to say that. These were the contracts that were the guiding principles for the relationships.
RR: Perhaps I’m not being clear. The relationships had already changed years earlier, long before the contracts were changed from “agent” to “archive/licensor” to represent what was already the truth.
BR: Well I understand what you’re saying, but we’re having a discussion about photographers, about expectations and dealing with change and I’m trying to lend some insight into why there would be frustrations or confusion or tension in the relationships. I think that one of the fundamental reasons for this was this gradual shift in the way you all were conducting business, while the photographer was not in the loop. I think that needs to be acknowledged.
RR: I agree 100% with that. I totally understand the impact on the emotional security of artists.
BR: I’m not fighting the change. I’m just saying let’s try to help photographers to grasp how we got to this point so we can then try to clear the air and move forward.
RR: The fact is that it became necessary to be a huge company in order to properly handle the expense of switching to digital distribution. Because of that the industry consolidated even further, and the relationship with artists changed. Big companies become full of area experts who don’t have a clue what it means to be a photographer — and that needs to be worked on — just as ASMP and SAA and PACA have been doing. And if you get hung up on whether it’s an agency contract or not you’re being hung up on whether it’s the past or the future. That’s not productive.
JW: One key word that you used, Betsy, when you described this whole situation is the word emotional, and I think this is the crux of the whole thing. It’s the interface between the emotional level and the subjective level, the creativity of the images and the idea that stock photography is a business and business decisions are generated by fact more than by an emotional response.
RR: The other emotional thing is the general loss of the 50/50 deal, which was symbolic of the old relationship as agent and photographer.
PD: I still think this goes back to the comments I made earlier about how we’re using generalities here and we’re talking about photographers as one group of solid people who are all the same; built the same way and wired the same way and they’re not. I think this is a brilliant time for photographers right now because they do have more choice than they’ve ever had. In exchange for that, they’re assuming more risk. That’s the conundrum, again. You know what a graphic equalizer is, in sound? You can slide the bars up and down to set the sound or to see how you want to run your business. If a photographer has got 3 or 4 or 5 outlets for their imagery, for their existing imagery, then they can go to their equalizer and go okay I’m going to put x amount of my efforts into this priority, y into that priority and go ahead and tune it and over time make adjustments. I think one of the things that came out of the Getty experience, the first Stone contract experience, was the fact that photographers began to realize that they simply had no choice. Particularly when there were acquisitions. When all of the sudden you wake up one day and the company you have a contract with is an entirely different company that you had never known. That act of diversification really gave photographers some strength to be able to fine tune things. If you want to go to Alamy, you go to Alamy. If you want to go to Workbook, or whatever, you do that, or Corbis, or Getty, or whatever the deal is. But again, there is some risk, because you’ve got to be making the right decisions, and the business isn’t a static business, it’s a very dynamic business and it changes over time. I think it really means that it requires more from a photographer to manage the business elements than it ever has before. And that’s really tough for a lot of photographers including some of the very best ones, because their goal still is to get behind that camera and make images, because that’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
BR: That’s what you need from them. I just want to go back to pulling these words out like emotional and make sure we don’t confuse that with say, being unprofessional or unbusinesslike. Patrick you just said “they wake up one morning”. The photographers were not on board or involved in these decisions. An emotional response and a sense of frustration seem justified to me. I think this gets to communication issues. There’s the reality of change, which is painful for everyone. There’s also the reality that the way it was handled was unnecessarily painful. When a photographer gets a non-negotiable contract of 40 pages of legalese after their last contract was brief and relatively straightforward, they’re going to have a reaction. Now we’re all here, saying there are opportunities that have come out of all these changes. That it’s been a rocky road and we’ve got to move forward, and shouldn’t dwell on the past. But we also need to learn from it and recognize that this changed attitudes. I’m saying that there is baggage and rather than burying it, we need to work through it.
PD: There’s got to be a basic acknowledgement that photographers and photography are not immune to the basic rule of business and market changes. They used to be able to coast somewhat because it was a much smaller industry, however there are a huge number of institutions of higher learning in North America that grant certificates and degrees. So now there are photographers coming into this community by the boatloads and — because of the Internet, because you can get your images distributed pretty radically — from a global point of view its’ really, really interesting. So there’s a lot of stuff out there. The thing is, when people are coming out from the different schools right now, one of the things the schools are doing is they’re teaching business courses for the first time in a very, very serious way.
BR: You’re talking about the photo schools?
PD: Yeah. All the professional programs.
BR: There may be changes in the right direction in educating students about the business side of photography. I know that Brooks has a dedicated stock photography curriculum which is great. I hope it’s true that business is being taught in a serious way. I just don’t know how pervasive that approach really is.
PD: Here’s the deal with stock. There’s been a lot of confusion in the past several years. It’s this very peculiar blend of art and commerce. But make no mistake about it, commerce leads this thing. The only successful stock photo is one that makes money: PERIOD. And that’s the deal. I’m a photographer, too. Man, I love making the pictures that I love to make; that’s why I make personal work. That’s why Roger makes personal work. That feeds us, but the deal is, those that have mortgages to pay, they better be making some really good business decisions in order to protect them from what they can’t control. The last 10 years have been very rocky. Photographers haven’t been able to control things — neither have a lot of the agencies. Neither have a lot of the employees at the agencies…I can say. You know, I think the degree of involvement that is required from a photographer is much more than it used to be. Roger is that your sense?
RR: Yes, absolutely.
PD: That’s actually quite contrary to the way a lot of photographers are wired — because they don’t like it. I understand that, because I don’t like it much, either. It demands more from them, so they either have to have a business manager, they have to have a partner, or they have to have someone who can keep an eye on the horizon to look out for their best interests so they can be putting the most of their energy into their creative efforts. That’s a HUGE deal…those that make pictures know that’s not an easy deal.
BR: That’s definitely an issue because we’re talking primarily about solo practitioners. Most are not going to be able to afford someone or easily find someone who can fit that role. The photographers who are most fortunate are those who are married or partnered with someone who’s interested in being in business with them.
RR: That’s absolutely correct.
BR: I’m in that situation and we are much more effective together. I can say that SAA has a number of members who are in this position.
RR: To run one photographer’s business it takes two 80-hours-a-week jobs. It may not be 80 hours all the time, but you’ve got to be available nights and weekends.
PD: That’s a really good point, Roger. Can you imagine doing that and still being behind the camera?
BR: Partnerships are a very good idea.
RR: The problem is, that this is a highly complex technical field, and that’s where simplification is SO important, so you can maintain the creativity and the joy of it.
BR: Over the last couple of years I’ve heard from stock photographers who say that they’ve lost that joy in creating images and so are shooting less; which they know is the most negative thing they could possibly do.
RR: It’s a collective depression. To get back to what Patrick said about how there are all different types of photographers — that’s true. Many are dealing with things very successfully. But there is a group that is my age — 40’s and 50’s — who came into their own during the last age when ASMP was King — the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s.; It was COOL, and we felt like we owned the world…these are the people who got used to that business model and became comfortable in it. We assumed we would always make good money from our stock, and it became very painful for many of my colleagues, which is why I speak passionately about this age group. I love these people; they are my colleagues and my friends, and I care about them like they’re my brothers and sisters.
PD: Well, Roger that’s what attracted you and I to this business. We both came in at the same time in the late 70’s, we both joined ASMP. It was that sort of thing, that community that attracted us — that said “hey, we can actually do okay here, if we listen to our colleagues in this business and learn from them.”
RR: What kills me now, is that I see younger photographers who missed that, and I also see some very wise people around my age, who were always apolitical or in some way detached from mentally suffering about changes…and both those groups contain many photographers who today are making $500,000 or a million dollars a year … and growing. And then I see a whole different bunch of people who aren’t shooting because they’re depressed that things have changed. I wish I could prepare a program to help people work through it, to come to understand it and to get beyond it. That’s what’s needed. Something to help transition people from a negative perspective to a sort of inspirational view of it all.
BR: Well this is good, what we’re doing. This is the kind of open dialogue that’s really needed.
RR: Roger that!
BR: I want to go back to something Patrick said about the value of joining ASMP and learning from colleagues. You both have said that your involvement in a trade organization, being part of a community of peers, was very formative for you. While each photographers’ trade organization has a different focus, we all recognize that we’re really all in the same boat. Our members are image makers who want to find a way to keep making a living from it. Most are going to need to diversify their businesses.
The Learning Curve
PD: It’s so interesting, because there have been such big changes. When we got into this business you really could do very well if you were a shooter, doing assignments, and then having stock. You’d throw your pictures in a box and send them out to an agency. That was really kind of it. There was a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The requirements are just so much greater now on the back of a photographer, and if you fold in what technology has done, it’s been both a blessing and a curse in many ways because now photographers have got to spend so much of their energy in learning curve situations; learning about the business, and the industry and watching the change, but also — particularly with digital, as you all know, the requirements that are placed on a photographer right now are extraordinary compared to what they used to be. You used to know a film, you used to have a camera body, and you used to have some lenses, and you knew you could become intimate with your craft.
RR: You even had some time off when the film was at the lab.
PD: Absolutely. You really did. And now, it’s one continual learning curve with hardware and software, and one continual ongoing capital investment to make sure that you can play at state-of-the-art or close to state of the art. The requirements from a photographer who needs to be successful are a lot different than they used to be.
JW: Which is where the skills like business analysis, and taking a wider perspective on the field are really crucial.
RR: There’s one thing that Betsy said that I would like to say something about, and as a former Getty employee I can say this now as an individual: the non-negotiable contract was a complete mistake, and I’m sorry that happened. It’s not my responsibility, but I’m sorry it happened. It was a gap, and we fixed it. I helped fix it. I’m really sorry that there’s been a learning curve on all sides. Because you have people in every part of this industry who have never been in an industry like this before. It’s all brand new. You have people learning all aspects of the impact of a larger company on smaller photographers who don’t have corporate organizational experience. Nobody has ill will, there’s just a learning curve.
And for the record, once and for all, I’d like to tip my hat to Robert Rathe, former SAA vice president and once an ASMP board member. Unlike many, Robert cares more about the profession than whether or not people know him and credit him for what he’s done. It was Robert who was the “voice” of SAA to Getty Images during the last round of contract negotiations and he was brilliant. He was calm, he was confident, he was convincing, he was dogged and he was lovable. I credit the breakthrough in negotiations to his personality and his convincing style, more than to any other impact that SAA had as group. Robert gave me ammunition that could be used successfully, internally, when most of the other voices were so rancid they couldn’t be heard. Robert’s a credit to SAA and to all photographers, and there’s much that can and should be learned from his approach to a difficult negotiation.
BR: I hope that we have time to address the communication issue specifically, because I really believe that’s the core…that’s the way to sort of work through all of this.
RR: I agree with you, and I know Patrick does.
RR: It’s all about breaking down the walls.
BR: It really is. We are divided by an “us and them” mentality. As the industry has consolidated we have a world of giant corporate players and individual photographers trying to communicate. Who’s going to suffer in that equation? In my opinion there must be a commitment by the distributors to communicate more effectively with their contributors, and I know that the photographers crave clarity and clarification. They may not like what they hear in some cases, but they deserve accurate information so that they can make informed decisions.
JW: I think communication would be a good point to discuss further now. I mean, a couple of things I’m thinking about based on what you said so far is there are two different issues here. One is how to be heard as an individual, and the other is how to get the information that you need. I feel that these are two very different things, especially when related to the workings of a large organization. Who is the effective contact, and does that contact actually have the information? A lot of times, in my experience, the information would change mid-way through something, and you as an employee wouldn’t know that, sometimes until after the photographers found out about it. That’s a big dilemma. Sometimes there’s a diplomatic issue of trying to communicate the restrictions or the boundaries of knowledge, and that there are limits to the knowledge that one person might have.
RR: The communication that I think is most important these days is a new form of knowledge that didn’t really exist until Tony Stone took off, and it’s gotten much more sophisticated recently — the market research. What’s selling, and what’s in demand and what information can you impart to photographers without it being favoritism? What should photographers be shooting, and what styles work, and so on. There’s so much statistical research that there wasn’t 5 or 10 years ago. The fair distribution of that knowledge, which is the knowledge that makes you successful, is the key to almost everything.
BR: The portals have certainly set a new standard for sharing that kind of information. They have broken new ground in treating the relationship with contributors as more of a partnership, by sharing data on search results by images and prompt access to information on licenses made.
JW: That’s a really valuable insight. Another thing that comes to my mind in terms of knowing what to shoot and what’s in demand, is for photographers to look at their own abilities, access, interest and resources and build out from there. The best way for an individual to be successful and work smartest, quickest and leanest is by taking advantage of those unique resources most easily accessible to them.
BR: It would seem that the ideal relationship between an archive and a contributor would be a strong relationship between an editor or art director and the photographer. One in which they have developed the relationship to the point where they know the photographer’s skills, style, interests and strengths. One in which the information that they give the photographer is guiding them to use their particular skill set and talent to help them create the most marketable stock images they can.
JW: Exactly. I remember back when we were working with things like shoot lists. You’d look at what was requested and what was needed and broadcast that out to the group of photographers. The results that would come back were not at all what one would hope or expect to have and be able to market.
BR: I remember getting those lists and a lot of them just had a lot of strange items — every request that couldn’t be filled. That isn’t the same as the research or market data or input that’s the most valuable. It’s far more important to be aware of the market directions and trends, using this input to develop creative direction and then to disseminate that information to your contributors.
RR: Like, for example, what percentage of requests is for Hispanic people in stock shots versus what percentage of the archive is currently Hispanic?
RR: That’s information that a photographer could make very good use of, to increase the salability of their pictures.
BR: That is the kind of information that I think everyone is plenty hungry for. Shouldn’t we be working together to create the most marketable images so that we all make more money? The snag is that now we have image-exclusive relationships so you’re sharing that information with contributors who will be creating images that may or may not end up in your collection, how do you deal with that?
JW: At what point might it be helpful for the photographer to take a somewhat proactive role to identify something that they have an interest in or access to and, say put together proposal or a few images and approach the supplier to build onto that idea?
BR: I think that’s the best way to get feedback. If you go to your editor or art director and say, “Tell me what to shoot”, I don’t think you’re going to get an answer. You’re going to have to be proactive; make compelling shoot proposals, then elicit input. I think that’s the most effective approach for a contributor.
PD: One of the things that we were talking about earlier is the whole deal about how things are bi-modal in value. There are blessings and curses, pluses and minuses about having more options. I can speak on behalf of Corbis and I won’t be presumptuous enough to speak on behalf of Getty, but I would be really surprised if they disagreed with me. One of the downsides to more options, quite honestly, is that when people have moved to image-exclusive or away from a worldwide-exclusive business, the sharing of proprietary information with a photographer becomes more difficult with regard to, say, the question that Roger just asked about the Hispanic population. There’s a lot of investment that goes into that research — there are departments that do nothing but study this sort of thing. When you do give it to a photographer who’s represented by 4 or 5 or 6 or 8 or 12 other places, and you see images that reflect information you provided showing up with your competitors, that’s kind of a tough deal from a business point of view. Roger, do you feel the same way from a Getty thing?
RR: I do see exactly what you’re saying, but I do struggle with this one, because in a sense the information that is being expensively reduced to usable action items actually comes from the sale of images that are provided by the photographers. The question is, who actually, ethically owns that information? Some people say possession is 90% of the law, or if you have it, you own it, but on the other hand, is it really the distributor’s right to maintain all that information? I’m not sure. I struggle with that one. I struggled with that one when I was at Getty.
BR: I’m fascinated with what you just said Roger — about whose information it is, and where is it coming from? To add to that, here’s another issue: If you want your contributors to create the most marketable photograph how can they do that in the absence of sharing that information?
RR: Well what happens actually is the information is shared. It’s just shared very selectively. Wouldn’t you say that’s the case, Patrick?
PD: Yeah. Absolutely.
BR Selectively with photographers you want to work with on a specific project?
PD: Sure. That’s one example. It will work until it works. Then, when it doesn’t work, it usually doesn’t work, and it all kind of comes down to the relationship thing again. With trust, etc. I love the idea of being able to make things work until it doesn’t work anymore; and then when it doesn’t work, I don’t mind taking a fairly hard stand and saying, “You know what? This hasn’t worked, ya know, because we just gave you a bunch of information and it’s showing up on our competitor’s site and you’ve made exactly what we asked you to make and you didn’t do it for us.”
BR: Photographers now receive less information and are more detached, but they want to get as many images as they can into your collection, and they want to make them the most marketable images possible. Acceptance rates of images from individual RM contributors have definitely dropped. In response to this you can say, “well they can take it somewhere else”, and that’s absolutely true, but they are hoping to get these images into the collection that offers the biggest potential for return.
PD: Another thing though, and I do apologize for going back to this again, but the reality is that not all photographers are alike, and not all photographers bring the same value on a given shoot. If you’re going to rate a photographer, and a photographer is rated on a scale of 1 through 10 on a given shoot, it’s to the agency’s best advantage to be supplying that information to photographers capable of making 10 imagery, not 1 imagery. That’s the key; because that’s where you’re going to end up selling pictures, by putting the best image out there period, and the guy who lives down the street from me who’s a photographer may actually be a better photographer, and may understand the market and may have a more intuitive approach to this than I do. If the agency sees that, this is going to be the photographer who’s likely going to get that quality of information.
RR: From my perspective, it comes back to relationships, because a great photographer can have a bad relationship and therefore be viewed as a one-shooter or a great photographer can have a 10 relationship and be viewed as a 10-shooter. What I wish we could do is make it so that everybody has as good of a relationship as is humanly possible so that everybody has the best chance of succeeding … so they’re not sabotaging or being sabotaged … so they’re a success and have the ability to grow with a distributor. There are people who are communicating very well, and making lots of money. There are others who are still angry and therefore are closing the door off to two-way communications. Fortunately, the anger is rapidly being replaced by a new maturity — by an increasing awareness on the part of photographers about the inner workings of big companies, and how to work things in a positive way.
BR: On the reverse side, I think that there are certainly very talented photographers who would like to be engaged but they can’t get their phone calls returned, or find a way to connect. They’re not angry, just frustrated, looking for a way in and feeling frozen out.
RR: This raises another aspect of this transformation, this Sea Change. In the old days, let’s say, 5 years ago, you had maybe 10 or 20 major distributors that all had pretty much a lot of the same subject matter and the same images. On a given day, somebody would send out a slide page of 20 images for a request, and 10 other distributors would too, and they would all have equal chance of making the sale and depending on how good the picture editor was that day, or the researcher, one company would have a better chance than another of making the sale, and it sort of spread the wealth around. What’s going on today is there isn’t the need for so many versions of the same type of picture. So there’s a shakeout going on. There have been all these acquisitions and there are a whole lot of photographers who shoot the same stuff. As tough as it is to say — there are too many photographers. That’s what makes it hard for a lot of people, you know, running up against the numbers thing. There aren’t enough art directors and editors at the archives.
BR: Why aren’t there enough editors or art directors?
Economies of Scale
PD: It’s economics, it’s because the agencies as well as the photographers still have to play at state-of-the-art in keeping up with digital technology. That was an expense that they didn’t used to have, just like photographers. The other thing is this: I don’t believe its’ a secret in that it doesn’t take millions and millions and millions of images to be very successful. Agencies are finding that out quite to the contrary. A core group of images — and this is tough from a photographer point of view, because that really generally means very tight edits. A core group of images that’s edited properly, and that has the proper depth, breadth and diversity will make as much or more than a bucket load full of images. You can literally have 200,000 images and make the same as 10,000,000 images just depending on what the edit is.
RR: Actually, less is more. Sometimes 20,000 images will make more than 200,000 images because now you’re in a boutique where you’re viewing experience is better, so you’re more drawn to that collection.
PD: That’s right.
JW: That’s key to the change that has occurred, because it used to be that it was a numbers game and the photographers who had more images and bigger productions and more depth in the collection really cleaned up. What happened with the change, in my experience, is that those photographers were the ones who got hurt the most because more of their images were put on the back burner and the photographers who were specialists or had smaller but more focused or more stylized collections, they were okay or their returns even gained because all of a sudden their images were more easily accessible.
RR: Photographers who spent a lifetime getting an archive to take 200,000 of their images and who felt they were positioned for life suddenly had to be re-edited. Suddenly, at an older age they were being re-edited on a par with photographers in their late 20’s or 30’s who were at their peak of production. It was like being thrown back 20 years and it was really, really, really hard — I know because I helped a lot them through the transition. In the 1980’s, archives would take cartons and cartons of images from photographers just to make them feel good … that they were being cared for. But more often than not, most of the images in those cartons weren’t in the front files that were being pulled from on a daily basis. They were just stashed away and nobody would really know because you couldn’t go on the web and see if they were posted online, or not. Things are much more transparent now — more honest, too.
BR: True, but another issue photographers must cope with is that their distributors are making decisions about additional ways to acquire images rather than directly from their independent contributors — staff shooters, commissioned shoot programs, third party brands are all other approaches that appear to be growing.
This industry has changed so quickly (and continues to do so) and frankly most of the changes don’t benefit those creating the images. The smartest stock photographers are trying to figure out the best way to move forward. They are connecting more with their colleagues, joining trade organizations, looking for sources of information to help them find their way. They’ve got to understand it in order to make informed business decisions, in order to survive in it.
RR: Trade organizations are immensely valuable. When I was a beginning photographer I had no idea how to quote a big job. I went to an ASMP meeting just before bidding on a job where I had no idea what to ask for; I was thinking of asking $500 and an experienced ASMP member said “no, no, no — that’s worth $1,800.00”. So I asked for $1,800.00 (I couldn’t believe it) and the art director said “yes” immediately, without hesitating. That’s one type of value you can get from a trade association. What’s tricky these days is the impact of the internet. Trade associations have made both good use of the power of the internet and they’ve also been deeply hurt by it. When you get on these chat boards there are always a vocal few, who often tend to be the disaffected few, who can create a cult way of thinking by refusing to let a topic drop. A way of thinking that is monolithic. An “us against them” kind of thing and then it’s really hard to turn that mind set around. I’m not saying it isn’t or wasn’t “us against them” … in many ways it was! But you had to approach it from a different attitude to affect change — from an “I’m so confident, and these folks just don’t understand, and I’m going to work from a confident position with a loving, confident tone of voice and explain it to them whenever I can.”
BR: I think you have to be sure to distinguish between a public chat group, and a moderated forum within a trade organization. There’s a world of difference and there should be a world of difference. I think what we can achieve this over the internet is phenomenal, not without its problems for sure, but it has been a revelation for this group of highly independent professionals who had been quite isolated from each other. Now we have a meeting hall, with leadership, and while it’s a minority who do most of the speaking, others are attentively listening and occasionally joining in.
RR: But what happens on the web is that people will take on a tone voice and say things that they would NEVER say in a public meeting hall.
BR: That’s why you need a strong moderator.
RR: Basically what you need is for people to begin to realize that they have a different sound on the internet if they’re being negative or whining. When I worked at Getty Images, photographers would say things on the internet in a harsh way that was easily dismissed by others in the company. They would then come up to me in person and they would say the same thing in a completely different way. Nine out of ten times, they would say it much more convincingly in person.
BR: And other people write effectively and become very shy when they have to speak publicly. I know, there’s no perfect solution, but the point is people should be allowed to have private conversations whether they’re on the phone, or in a chat group. I’m sure that people in offices all over the world have discussions that they wouldn’t feel appropriate for their contributors to hear, including discussions about photographers.
Propriety and Politics
PD: It would be extraordinarily improper for us to conduct business with individual photographers hearing internal agency conversations with regard to how other photographers are doing, proprietary information. You don’t deserve to know how much an individual photographer is making within the company. It’s the companies’ job to protect that.
BR: What if that photographer wants to share with colleagues how much they’re making?
PD: How ‘bout it?
BR: They’re not allowed to do that?
PD: Well, it depends on the contract they have.
BR: OK, but why would you assume that there’s proprietary information being shared that shouldn’t be? I mean that’s not the objective of a professional forum. These are about having responsible lively exchanges, guided by moderators.
PD: People have businesses that they’re running; photographers and agencies have businesses, and in those businesses they’ve got business plans and marketing plans and technology plans, many of which are proprietary in nature.
BR: You feel that it’s a threat that photographers are talking to each other in a forum? That contributors are communicating with each other and that they might be discussing things they shouldn’t?
RR: No, no, no. I think it’s a threat to the photographers if they allow the discordant, not face-to-face, twisting effect of an online forum make them think that the voices of a few are actually the voices of the many.
PD: I agree with that, Roger.
BR: No one should be making a decision based on a couple of voices. They need to listen, read, investigate and evaluate, and then make an informed individual decision.
JW: I’d like to end this discussion with some thoughts about insight. What should a photographer bring to the table and how can they best access the information they need for their business?
BR: SAA coined a phrase that I think describes the best way for photographers to communicate with their distributors: ‘constructive engagement’. That’s how SAA has approached contract negotiations and that’s our policy with our Ombudsman program in communicating with distributors to help our members resolve issues and make their concerns heard. We’re trying to set an example for how photographers, either individually or in groups who share the same issues, can engage professionally and most effectively.
For many photographers who have been solitary in their business approach, connecting with colleagues can be a revelation. I think artists who are involved in trade organizations have broken the ice more on that, and recognized that this is a really critical skill that’s going to help us deal with an industry that’s become big business.
PD: I know we’re running out of time, but I just wanted to respond to Jill’s comments about insight. One of the questions she asked is what should a photographer bring to the table. I think there are two things that are hugely valuable right now and Roger mentioned one of those in that beginning article: a positive sense of energy, which is absolutely vital. Number two, as corny as it may seem are great ideas. These two things are creative partners. If a photographer comes with a positive sense of energy and great ideas and is motivated to kick some serious ass all the way around, that’s going to be hugely appreciated on the agency side and I think I can speak on behalf of the industry. You need partners like that, as do the photographers, who need the same kind of behavior from their agencies.
RR: I think Rich Clarkson said it best in an ASMP White Paper from 1988: “Photographers need to be charming, intelligent and articulate. It’s a matter of individual salesmanship. A confrontation, a lawsuit, and attorneys can have the opposite effect. Sugar works better than vinegar.”
JW: That’s a great way to sum things up. Sincere thanks to Roger Ressmeyer, Patrick Donohue and Betsy Reid for their time and their thoughts in this discussion forum, both here on the web and in the consolidated printed version in the Year End 2004 issue of the ASMP Bulletin.
Roger Ressmeyer has been an award-winning magazine photographer, small archive owner, executive at both Corbis and Getty, an ASMP and PACA board member, and is now once again a photographer and the founder of Science Faction, a new small archive.
Patrick Donehue has been a photographer, an executive at Photo Researchers, Allstock, Tony Stone, Getty Images and now Corbis. He is a PACA board member.
Betsy Reid is the former Executive Director of the StockArtistsAlliance (SAA), a global trade organization dedicated to the business interests of Rights Managed stock photographers.