Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A Photograph's Worth

Photography+talent = Money. It's a tough equation at the best of times. The value of good photography is a common theme when I'm talking to clients and often it doesn't get anywhere near the high priority that it should. It usually comes down to cost. I regularly see local adverts where the image, if I can even call it that,  for a large advert has been taken by someone with.. er.. let us say... limited skill. The irony is, of course, that after handing over a lot of cash to get the advert done in the first place, it ends up ruined because they didn't want to pay for a decent photograph.

The steady changing pace of professional photography broke the surface in a variety of ways over the last few days. The first was the tale of the Chicago Sun laying off its entire photography staff. Twenty eight photographers, some of whom had worked for the paper for decades, lost their jobs in what was described as 'a tough decision'. For a well established media organisation to get rid a key elements in communicating a story seems extremely desperate. Tragic even. All that expertise, experience and talent gone in a flash to be replaced by, at best by a freelance photographer, or worst of all, and more likely, a reporter with an iPhone.

A recent event nearer to home underlined the problem and it involved my local paper. A truck going along the nearby dual carriageway caught on fire after a tyre blew. The fire was so intense, due to the truck's extremely flammable cargo of tyres, paint and rolls of tape, that the road surface had to be replaced. For most of the day the road was closed. The story got the headlines it deserved and with the text was an small photograph of the truck ablaze shot by a local resident on a smart phone. Just ten years ago, the paper would have dispatched a photographer to capture the flames engulfing truck. Today a member of the public does it for them for free - the reward is not financial but to have your glorious name alongside the image.

You might think that this practice is just restricted to local newspapers after a cheap story, but recently The Guardian newspaper launched an iPhone app called Guardianwitness which they cheerfully describe as 'GuardianWitness: our new home for content you've created'. Well that's big of them isn't it. The benefits speak for themselves for a newspaper in an era of dropping circulation, lower revenues and changing business models. You get the public to create the content, give them a credit and NO money has to change hands. Who needs journalists or photographers when the costs can be reduced to virtually nothing.

Yesterday morning, the excellent Who Pays Photographers? Tumblr blog posted about a band offering a potential photographer access to the band for one day during their tour for $150. Yes, the photographer would have to pay the band to photograph them and not the other way around. After receiving a massive amount of flak on their Facebook page from pro photographers, the band eventually pulled the offer claiming that they meant a fan with a camera. It certainly didn't come across like that in the text.

“Are you an aspiring photographer? Come take pictures of us all day at Warped Tour! We will provide you with the access, and experience you need. We will also take your pictures and put them on our Instagram page, and give you full credit for it. This is a great package for anyone who loves taking pictures, whether its for a hobby or professionally.”

With an attitude like that, it's no wonder that they ended up feeling the wrath of pro photographers on Facebook. Sadly a few comments showed support for the band and ignored the fact that the band were potentially going to exploit someone for their own gain. Was it down to ignorance or was it knowingly going to exploit some poor photographer? The band seemed genuinely surprised by the bad response and they did quickly remove the offending offer, but only because they were exposed to a intense barrage of criticism.

The last few days has seen all sorts of accusations hit the web about the Chicago Sun decision. The internet is killing photojournalism being the over simplistic, headline grabbing war cry of some. The discussion has centred on photojournalism but the core issues around of the devaluing of photography affect the whole of the photography industry and not just certain sectors. Technology brings solutions and problems. The impact of digital cameras, the internet and software that simplifies processes will continue to have unforeseen good and bad consequences. The key issue behind the loss of jobs at the Chicago Sun comes back to money and the newspaper's lack of it. Technology provides another solution. The photographer is replaced by iPhone.

Are we really that surprised? Some people see taking a photograph as the mere pushing of a button, ignorant of the skill and talent involved. No doubt some newspaper board members think this way too. I could say that this attitude is all down to Instagram, the internet or digital cameras but it's always been there. I'd be lying if I said that people never quibbled about the cost of photography back in 2001 when I first started out. They undervalued it then and they still do undervalue and quibble about cost now. They always will.

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