The changing face of photojournalism

Via Andy at StockPhotoTalk an article published on the Register website by photojournalist Sion Touhig. Sion is a news photographer (featured in Life/Time magazine). His "How the anti-copyright lobby makes big business richer" is an interesting read however I find myself disagreeing with him on a number of points. A bit of background on Sion Touhig

“I’m a freelance professional photographer, and in recent years, the internet ‘economy’ has devastated my sector. It’s now difficult to make a viable living due to widespread copyright theft from newspapers, media groups, individuals and a glut of images freely or cheaply available on the Web.”

From his article: "The reality is there are now more copyright-free or near-free images on the web than copyright images. Most of them will be on Flickr (owned by Yahoo!), MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) or the major corporate image portals. Neither Flickr nor MySpace exist to commercially leverage images, but clients now go there trawling for free content, so they don’t have to pay a photographer for it. It has caused a crash in the unit cost of any images which aren’t given away and which are licensed for profit.

Well now this is hardly a big corporation copyright grab. One can’t simply equate "more copyright free images on the web" with a direct crash in the unit cost of any images. Thinking about the photojournalist challenges today I find myself agreeing far more with Konrad Mitchell Lawson post.

[…] "the basic system works something like. You create something—a photograph, say—and find that it, having value, can be sold, or licensed, for a certain amount to certain companies or directly to individuals. Its eventual price, if it can be sold, is determined by any number of factors, including the demand for your kind of creative work and supply of other cheaper or free content. Your copyright to this work, certainly not a divinely bestowed right, is at least nominally protected by the laws of a society which believes that the protection of a creative work will, in the end, encourage its people to create more such content in the future.

We find ourselves in a situation now where people of lesser talent, dedication, or financial means (for surely you need at least one, if not two of these three to succeed as a photojournalist) can easily share what we produce with the entire world.

and

"If the photojournalist’s photographs are not selling at the same price they used to because there is a sudden flood of cheap alternatives created by people who have no profit motive, it is hardly appropriate to chide the charitable for giving away their content. If the consumer is satisfied with the less skillfully snapped photo, the less grammatically correct article, the goofy home video, or even the factually imperfect article on OhMyNews, WikiNews, etc. it is disingenuous for an elitist photographer to lament the world’s decline in standards by criticizing the movements which make it possible for us all to easily share content."

I work in the software industry and these arguments are very close to the arguments the entire industry used to have (still has) when talking about open source software. We have all heard it and seen it in action: if a client has the option to get an open source application they won’t license a commercial one etc… However in the software industry there is room and place for both open source licensing and commercial licensing. These options can both co-exist. It is time for professional photographers to stop lamenting the changing times and start embracing change. I join Konrad in saying:

"All I can say to Touhig is that I hope he thinks through his position again and reflects on the two successful approaches that both small and big businesses (after all, things like Youtube started as a small business) have taken in response to these new developments. When they can, businesses try to co-opt these energies for its own benefit. When they can’t, they resist, with all their legal, lobbying, and coercive power any attempt to dilute their copyrighted assets. The fact that they can do the latter far better than any individual artist or professional is a matter of course.
That is why movements such as the Creative Commons and those supporting serious copyright reforms need to be organized, committed, and highly vigilant in order to prevent a stifling of the very forces of creative energy that the internet has unleashed. However, Touhig completely misses the fact that creative professionals stand a much better chance, if not an equal chance, in the former approach—competing with large corporations when it comes to making use of these new developments for their own benefit. Individuals can adapt faster than corporations. This will require a change of thinking on their part; a change of business model; a change of their whole sales philosophy. A failure to do so may indeed, as Touhig predicts, lead to the destruction of his kind. The onus, however, is on him and professionals like him to take the initiative and adapt.

If you have time, the comments on Sion’s blog post make for a great reading (conversation). Surprisingly I am very optimistic about the future of photojournalism. It may seem or feel like the changes in the industry are continuously erroding photojournalists’ markets – the situation is complex and there isn’t an easy answer but…. technologies for taking pictures have improved, cost of taking pictures have decreased, tools for an online presence and marketing have improved, technologies to allow individual photographers to track their images are entering the market and most importantly photojournalists today have an entire world market open to them and are no longer restricted (by technology or reach) to simply do business in their country.

I will get back to covering some of these points in a later post.

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