Napkins and Photojournalism
November 2002

by Jose Azel

Alt TextHow many dinners, lunches or encounters have you attended where someone uses a napkin to explain an idea? During the past three years these plain white pieces of paper have been the center of many discussions. They have been indispensable in my explanations on the business of photography and how photojournalist can compete in a fast changing industry.

Referring to some of my ideas, David Friend, Editor of Creative Development at Vanity Fair Magazine and long-time champion of photojournalists, wrote, “It's better discussed over drinks, or dinner, with you plodding along, taking me by the hand, and drawing little pictures on napkins. “ Those napkin discussions have won him over to the need for small agencies and photojournalists to band together in new ways. Most recently he encouraged me to write about it. “Why don't you write a piece on your concept for the Digital Journalist,” he said in an email. “You could talk about the late-night sessions & dinners & drinks, the 'go-it-alone' attitude you found at Perpignan, occasional discussions with the big boys (Corbis, if you want to even bring that up)--and just lay out the vision.”

Indeed, my latest napkin conversations where held in Perpignan, France where topics ranged from, never-give-up attitude to what-the-hell-can-we-do. Small new agencies, seasoned photojournalist and even some of the bigger independent agencies will serve their future well by sharing the load. Specifically, through cooperative efforts involving technology and marketing.

Sharing technology costs would reduce expenses and give even the lone photographer great technology. Cooperative marketing plans could pool monies to reach specific or general market segments and the traditional representation of images would be made infinitely easier since all the scans and data would be on one technology.

Then there’s the client. Independent agencies and need to respond to client needs. Photography has changed from a very personal world of connections and hand shakes to technology and contract. This doesn’t mean the personal is out. In business, the personal is never out and that’s exactly our advantage. Even though some very client-oriented employees working for large companies, it’s hard for corporations and big-ass databases to be personal by design they create structures that thrive on efficiency and mass-market decisions. Many sales at lower rates make more money than a few sales at higher rates.

We shouldn’t be fooled; Corbis and Getty want all the sales. They will be formidable competitors. They will learn to do things right, but a demand for an alternative will always be there.

Our client, the person at the other end of the telephone, or our web site needs to know that someone at Aurora is there to help them with quality photography and service. They need nurturing. We can and do give them that, but they want more.

They don’t want to go to five or six or seven web sites. Would you? Most clients have a large variety of needs, therefore the must have broad archives and relatively new material. Over French table wine while we waited for a sidewalk bistro dinner, I asked two photo editors, one from Time Magazine and one from US News, what would they like to see happen with today’s editorial photo agencies. Both of them replied, get agencies on the web under one search. We compete already, but are having a tough time. Let’s embark on cooperative competition, please the client and give them a great alternative place to search for great photography. In doing so a greater number of clients will begin to use all the agencies as a collective archive. If our honest desire is to stay small then we will not suffer since we will never be able to satisfy all the needs of all the clients.

On we get hundreds of searches each day with request such as:

ship's wheel Brasilia
Dubai Azores
Isle of jersey salt on street
spaghetteria shower curtain
overweight teens Delhi
Inca mummies lowland gorilla
Western lowland gorilla Mexico independence
Yoko Ono Betsy Bloomingdale
Yale Highway 101
Pacific Coast highway Azores

The problem is all of the above client searches have resulted in zero images. The list could easily take up pages and pages. The point is clients want images and they want to work with agencies that can fulfill most of their need.

For Aurora this problem can only be solved in one of two manners; grows into a much bigger agency. Something I do not want. Or smaller agencies, and photographers, connect their photographic archives through technology.

This second alternative rings true and makes sense. There are several monumental obstacles. But the initial wall, technology that allows this connectivity, has been surmounted. Aurora has founded the Independent Photography Network that can help make smaller companies and photographers competitive.

It’s time to take out the napkin and demonstrate a network of connected photography. The big circle represents a collective, photographer/agency databases and a technology that connects them all. The smallest circles around the database are photographer web sites using the collective database. The bigger circles around the database are agency web sites.

Clients can only enter the database through any one of the individual sites. They can search for what they want, but if the site they are searching cannot satisfy them, then the technology that runs the sites presents the client with images from the network members. The client is happy to see images that might otherwise not have been available and if there is a sale, the site serving the images gets a referral fee.

A common question is: Why not have the clients come into the collective database and search everyone’s images. Though that makes sense for the client there are two reasons independent image providers suffer. First, by default, the database becomes one giant agency with all the problems that presents and additionally, there would be no incentive for the independent providers to market their own web site and their own material.

At Perpignan, I spoke to several agencies and while there seemed to be interest, traditional reservations seem to prevent a coalescing. Photographers stand independent by nature and in general want to take photographs, not manage scanners or deal with web site administration. Yet, the rules are changing. Like it or not, analog film has to be scanned, digital cameras will prevail. Publications will cut back on assignments and photo usage. So that leaves agencies and photographers with little option but to adapt, or let corporations control the market.

The network model addresses another growing problem, the cost of cutting edge technology. With a network of photographers and smaller independent agencies the costs of providing great and evolving technology can be shared.

We must look for new markets, work smarter and broaden our photographic horizons. But first we have to begin to change our habits and take control of our images by organizing them, caption them well, make good scans, get releases and push for better sales and distribution channels.

Groups like EP have demonstrated that banding together can prove successful. Why can’t photographers and their agencies achieve similar goals through new business models? Attitudes and habits are hard to break. Some extra work might be required, but what is the alternative?

There’s much to be said about the power of being big and having the cash to market worldwide, or sustain months of losses during bad times, but there are plenty of negatives as well. As a group we can be big and stay small at the same time, but it will take a change in attitude and a willingness to tackle some difficult tasks. One fact is certain; if independent photographers and agencies must make money. Our chances will improve dramatically if we connect through cooperative competition.

Fortunately or not: I can’t afford the class of restaurant where cloth napkins cover my lap. Can you?

© Jose Azel

Until five years ago Jose Azel spent most of his time traveling the world as a photographer for magazines such as Time and National Geographic. An interest in how computers would change his visual story telling through new medium pushed him onto an alternate course. As a co-founder of Aurora & Quanta Productions his desire is to understand how photojournalism and photography can evolve and thrive for everyone’s benefit.

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist