Photojournalism Column 
Saving Photojournalism 

by Peter Howe


Photojournalism may not be dead, but itís in serious need of a life support system. In a recent article for Photo District News, David Walker put forth a compelling case to show that the average day rate for editorial photography hasnít changed in a decade. Itís true that this has been a period of low inflation, but not that low. In fact, he could have made a case to show that the total number of dollars available for the production of such photography has plummeted. The last ten to fifteen years have been characterized by fewer and shorter assignments, greater reliance on stock, and less pages available for the display of most photography, but especially photojournalism. Given these factors the day rate has effectively been reduced since the 1980s.

Photographers are dismayed.

Enter the World Wide Web. For the first time in the history of commerce this environment has the potential to be a truly global market. It is also a medium in which photography shines. Photographs look good on a computer screen due to their luminescence. Type, on the other hand, doesnít, as many of you reading this are realizing. Itís fragmented and difficult to read, and even worse, it comes in the form of a language. In a global market this is not an advantage.

As we all know photography is the universal language, as easily comprehensible in Beijing as it is in Birmingham Alabama or Birmingham England. The WWW offers to photographers the possibility of selling their work directly to the consumer for the first time. Imagine the possibilities. Cyber-shoppers around the world will be able to use your photography to produce their own greeting cards, calendars, wall art, screen-savers, T-shirts. They will be able to use the material to illustrate school reports, church newsletters, and small company reports and promotional material. As personal websites proliferate they may wish to use high quality photography of their trip to Italy alongside their own snapshots. They may wish to browse a database of photography just for the sheer pleasure of looking at photographs. This medium has the potential to save photojournalism.

Photographers are dismayed.

Whatís the problem here? The disconnect isnít just that this is new territory not yet explored and mapped. If this were the case there would be no problem. However scary the future looks, compared to the present itís a walk on the beach, even an unfamiliar beach. The biggest hurdle is persuading photographers to accept a new way of being paid. This evolving market will demand that photographs be priced at a much lower level. Ten to fifteen dollars for an image will be normal. In fact, it might be a little high. This will be offset by volume, eventually huge volume.

There was a recent Nielsen report about Internet usage, and they calculated that today between seventy to seventy-five million people regularly log on in the United States alone. If I could sell one of my pictures to each of these people for a dollar, dismay would not be a feeling associated with the transaction. Imagine the lack of dismay if this were extended to the untold millions who use the Web globally. It is, after all, called the World Wide Web.

For some photographers this in itself is a problem. They feel that in some way that low prices demean and devalue their work however many multiples they sell, or however much money is made. The answer lies in considering the way other creative artists earn often considerable incomes. Eric Clapton may work on a new album for six months to a year, but you can buy it in the store for $15.95. Philip Roth may take two years to finish a novel that will then be available in paperback for about the same price. Alec Guinness received no payment for his part in Star Wars, but the 2% of the profits that he did accept earned him more money than he made on any other film during his long and illustrious career. I donít know for sure, but I think itís safe to assume that none of the above feel (or in Sir Alecís case, felt) demeaned or devalued by the commercial arrangements through which their work is marketed.

Itís easy for an author or musician to accept the financial framework described above. They are, after all, selling to a mature and established market. They know how it works through the example of artists who have gone before them. This is the way that music and literature have been sold for years. Itís much more difficult to ask a photographer to accept a similar structure for the Internet sale of his or her work. The market is barely embryonic, and there are no vast amounts of money associated with it yet. But this not only will change, it is changing right now. E-commerce in all its forms is growing at a phenomenal rate. Advertising agencies all have new media departments to take advantage of the opportunities that are popping up, like mushrooms, daily. Television networks are worried about the amount of time TV viewers are spending online.

I know you think that the ďTrust MeĒ phrase is coming up any minute, but itís not. Itís been replaced by: ďWhat do you have to lose?Ē This new market wonít supplant an existing one, but will supplement the ones upon which you have relied up to now. There will still be the multi-thousand-dollar sales to advertising agencies; you will still be able to squeeze the odd three hundred dollars out of a magazine; the charitable foundations such as the Alicia Patterson and W. Eugene Smith funds will still be doing their best to fund as many worthy projects as possible. None of the above will disappear or be unavailable to you because your work is sold on the Web. But probably the most compelling argument is the fact that every day more and more people are accepting this technology into their daily lives. They catch up with the latest news, check out the weather forecast for their area, price cars and book vacations. This new medium isnít new any more. Itís going mainstream, itís here to stay, and photography is going to be a major part of it. On that you can trust me.

Peter Howe is Director of Photography and Sourcing for Corbis.

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