The Digital Journalist
What Goes Around Comes Around (including me)
April 2004

by Peter Howe

I'm back.

This may come as a surprise for those of you who didn't even realize that I'd gone, but nothing has come out of my computer and onto this site since last November. The reason for this is that I have been writing desperately to make a deadline on a book, the first draft of which is due on tax day, April 15th for those of you who need reminding. I finished it on March 28th, thereby depriving my editor of the pleasure of nagging me. The subject of the book is the paparazzi, and it has been an interesting experience to work with editorial photographers who are always busy and earn a good living for their efforts. That doesn't mean to say that they don't complain, they are after all photographers, but it does mean that they have less reason to than their more mainstream, news driven counterparts. The demand for their work is quite remarkable, way beyond anything that I experienced during my days as a photojournalist. You would think that there is a limit to the number of photographs of Britney Spears or Jennifer Anniston that the world needs, but there doesn't appear to be, so each days hoards of them troop off in search of the celebrity du jour, in the same way that I hauled ass after the Pope and President Carter. I just didn't get paid as much.

The other project that has been keeping me away from the profound pixels of the Digital Journalist was negotiating a sponsorship deal from Canon and subsequently curating a show of the work of the agency VII for the International Center of Photography, and if you're in New York at all you should take a look at it. It's a good show, not because of my skills as a curator, but simply because this group of photographers is so talented and dedicated. It covers our recent history from the aftermath of 9/11 through to the present situation in Iraq, and contains several images that have never been published in the pages of magazines or newspapers. It's also a good illustration of how complete the digital revolution is in the world of photojournalism. I would say that about ninety percent of the work was captured digitally, and one hundred percent was printed from digital files. Kenneth Troiano and his printers at Modernage did a remarkable job of taking ten or eleven megabyte camera files and turning them into forty by sixty prints. When you think of the progress that has been made in the last four or five years in this technology it's not surprising that Nikon are no longer going to be making film cameras.

The other area where progress is being made is more surprising, namely that of the changing attitudes towards the two hundred pound gorillas, Getty and Corbis. One of the features of life as a writer is an almost pathological need for distraction. Unfortunately this often comes in the form of food, and as a result of which I have gained about eight pounds in weight during the first draft. A friend of mine who's also an author describes the process as "First eat the refrigerator, then write the book." Don't ever challenge me to a game of computer solitaire either, especially for money; you'll lose you shirt. It also means that you tend to read in detail every word of the Spam in your email, as well as other legitimate communications to which you would normally only give a passing glance. One that caught my attention was a piece in Jim Pickerell's excellent "Selling Stock" newsletter that described the success that Corbis has been having chasing copyright infringements. The figures that Pickerell quotes are impressive: in 2003 over 1.5 million dollars retrieved from infringers by the legal department headed by one of their lawyers, Dave Green, not counting the amounts that were negotiated by the sales team for unauthorized use. The highest amount awarded to Corbis by the courts for a single infringement was $250,000.

Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie
I was digesting this good news when my phone rang. Now normally for those of us with a high need for interruptions, a phone call is a welcome diversion, except that this one was from a young photojournalist called Jonathan Alpeyrie. I am full of admiration for young photographers who have decided to embrace the insanity of being a hard-core photojournalist, and my usual advice to them, if asked for, is that the only secret to success in this field is persistence. It was advice that I never had to give to Jonathan; he was born relentless. He's 25 years old, graduated from the University of Chicago last year having specialized in Early Medieval History, already has an impressive body of work from the Congo, and is about to go off on a self financed 4 week trip to Azerbaijan. He also must have telephoned me twenty times in the last six months. In other words, he's exactly the kind of guy the profession needs. Being in a state of post first draft euphoria I told him to drop by, and he told me that he just signed with Getty. When I asked him why, he came up with a response that would have been almost unthinkable a few years ago. He said it was because they were big, and that they cared about their photographers more than any of the other options that were open to him. That's right, he said they cared about their photographers. When questioned more closely on the nature of the caring he came up with reasons that used to be the sole province of the smaller "mom and pop" agencies - you keep ownership of the photographs, they give you a 50/50 split of the revenue generated, and they always put the photographer's name in front of the agency's in the credit line. Another old-fashioned feature that appeals to him is his personal relationship with David Laidler who runs Getty's contributor branch.

Now if this were an isolated incident I would just assume that I was dealing with a delusional beginner whose lack of experience had confused him into believing that he was on to a good thing, but it was an incident that was anything but isolated. Recent visits by Ed Kashi and Chris Ranier, who can hardly be described as either delusional or beginners, confirmed that they have both signed with the mega agencies, Kashi with Corbis and Ranier with Getty. Last year Doug Kirkland renewed the contract with Corbis that I had originally negotiated with him when I was there. This may have been one of the results of Steve Davis getting rid of some upper level dead, and in a couple of cases, poisonous wood, and also the effect of Brian Storm's infectious energy and enthusiasm. Maybe it would be premature to declare Corbis and Getty the saviors of photojournalism, but at least they don't seem to be acting like the evil empires that many assume them to be.

The big agencies do have the ability to benefit this beleaguered profession, especially at a time when consolidation has put most of the outlets for the work under the control of huge media conglomerates. Big companies understand and respect other big companies much more than they do companies whose annual revenue is less than Time Inc.'s car service bill. And it's not as if the photographers are making extravagant demands. All they really want is to be able to make an income out of their work that is sufficient to enable them and their families to live in a modest amount of comfort and security and to have that work respected. If Corbis and Getty understand that, and the evidence is pointing in that direction, then there is a real possibility an alliance can be formed between them and the photojournalists that will have long-term benefits for both parties.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor