The Year of Thinking Negatively

by Peter Howe

There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal recently that you probably missed. I make this assertion based on the fact that during my thirty plus years in this industry I don't ever remember seeing a photographer read that particular publication. Anyway the piece was about one of those books about leadership and management techniques for which there seems to be a limitless market. The difference with this one is that it was based on the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer who saved his men from a frozen death in 1914 when their ship was crushed in ice. His remarkable qualities guided them over 1200 miles of pack ice pulling what were little more than large rowboats. One of these he and a few others navigated across 800 miles of the most dangerous waters in the world to South Georgia Island to get a rescue ship that returned and saved the rest of the party. Against incredible odds not one person perished in the eighteen months that this epic saga took. When he was questioned about what it was that got him through the ordeal he said that it was his optimism. The quote that resonated most with me was: "Optimism is true moral courage."

During the turbulent year that has just passed optimism seems to have been remarkably lacking from the practice and practitioners of photography. It has almost got to the point that photographers feel more comfortable with things going wrong than things working out. To me this is the sign of a true victim. Now you may say, and perhaps rightly, that there wasn't much to be optimistic about in photography in the year 2000. On the other hand being stuck on the world's largest hockey rink without food and heat for a year and a half isn't exactly going to get people flocking to their travel agents to repeat the experience. That really is the point of the Shackleton quote. The worse things are the more optimistic you need to be in order to survive them.

One of the worst things that happened this year, and I believe the one that will have the longest lasting effect on photography, is the alienation that has occurred between photographers and agencies. This hasn't just been confined to the super-agencies and the contractual problems that both have had during this period. There seems to be a general malaise that has affected the way many photographers feel about the agency system in general. Since I left Corbis I have had any number of photographers calling me up to inquire if RightSpring's technology will be available for individuals as well as agencies. When questioned about their reasons for asking the answer nearly always centers on the photographer not wanting to work with an agency any more, any agency. The feeling is that the Internet will solve most if not all the problems of getting effective resale. The argument is that the sales may be fewer, but the photographer gets to keep the whole fee so doesn't need as many transactions.

I think that this is flawed thinking. First of all an agency should be more than just a selling machine; it should have a relationship with each contributing photographer that is supportive. The agency should help guide and develop the career of the photographer. It should be a resource for him or her, supplying information on market trends, evaluating story ideas, helping to get assignments, and providing a million and one services that alleviate the isolation that comes from being a free-lance photographer. Every great agency has had a strong and forceful personality that has led it - Eliane Laffont at Sygma, Marcel Saba at Saba, Goksin Sipahiaglou at Sipa, Robert Pledge at Contact, Larry Minden at Minden Pictures, Richard Steedman at the Stock Market, or Craig Aurness at Westlight. None of these people could ever be replaced by a web site. They bring a level of passion and dedication to the relationship with the photographer that is invaluable.

For me when I was shooting my guardian angel was Jocelyne Benzakin who at the time was running the New York office of Sipa. This was in the days when a transmission meant the Telex unless you worked for a wire service. I cannot tell you the number of times when we laughed, cried, screamed and sulked with each other. She was my news antenna, my mother, my accountant, my travel agent, my bully and, most of all, my friend. She paid my American Express bills and calmed down dates jilted by a story that had to be covered. I don't see how a piece of software called JB 1.0 would ever do all that.

One of the most appealing aspects of this difficult calling of photography was always the camaraderie amongst those who practiced it. The wonderful Olivier Rebbot and I worked together on many occasions where we were in the company of other photographers. He would look at one of them and turn to me and say: "Is he a shooter?" and I would know exactly what he meant. You could stand there with every piece of equipment Nikon ever made hanging from your neck and not be a shooter under Olivier's terms. Conversely you could have a single Leica and be accepted as a brother or sister.

I have been a photographer, editor and agent, and each of these roles has benefited from the relationships that I have with photographers. The Internet is a brilliant tool, probably the most effective yet for the marketing of photography, but it is no more than that. Although I am profoundly grateful that my ATM card means I don't have to deal with bank clerks any more the same isn't going to work in photography. If we lose the spirit that still exists in the profession, and which makes it rewarding beyond the dollars earned then the relationships will have to be preserved. If they go I'm out of here, and I suspect I won't be alone.

Have a happy and optimistic 2001.

Peter Howe

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