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Photojournalism today

Phil Coomes | 09:20 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009

Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Christine Spengler / Sygma / CorbisThe world of photojournalism is in a state of flux. In recent times, two of the industry's most respected agencies have run into trouble. Last week, the financial problems at the Gamma photo agency in Paris came to light and another one-time giant of the industry, Sygma, also closed its doors to new photographers a few years ago following its acquisition by Corbis.

The Sygma collection did not die, and in May, Corbis opened the Sygma Preservation and Access Facility, the culmination of four years' work to ensure that the archive's 50 million objects from the second half of the 20th Century are preserved.

This is of course good news for the many photographers whose work is now being made available, which indeed is being archived, and which will help future generations to understand the period. But the big issue is, of course: how to make it pay? And what of photojournalism today?

I put a series of questions to a number of people in the industry. They are:
• Anil Ramchand, Director of News, Sports & Entertainment at Corbis, one of the big players in the market
• John Harris, who runs Report Digital, an independent UK-based agency that covers both breaking news and features
• multi-award winning photographer Jeff Moore, who is currently the Chairman of the British Press Photographers Association (BPPA)
Daniel Cuthbert, a freelance photographer based in South Africa who is studying for an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication (LCC)

What is the state of the photojournalism market?

Anil Ramchand (Corbis):

"The photojournalism market remains relatively healthy, particularly if you include celebrity imagery. While newspapers and magazine circulations are in decline, mass media in general are becoming increasingly visual. Photos are playing a bigger role in newspapers, magazines and particularly online, where news sites frequently feature extensive galleries of imagery.

Inside the Sygma archive"Prices for news and archival imagery are coming down in general, but volumes are increasing significantly with more photo use online.

"While prices for creative imagery - used for advertising and marketing - are declining quite a bit because of a flood in supply from semi-professionals using new digital technology, the prices for editorial imagery are more stable.

"This is because it generally requires travelling to where the news is, having special access to a location, or finding the imagery in an archive. Therefore, it's more difficult or impossible for amateurs or semi-professionals to reproduce quality editorial imagery."

John Harris (Report Digital):

"While there are still some stunning pictures being made, the business model undermines the content."

Jeff Moore (Photographer):

"I don't think there is any real market any more. If I want to shoot a project, I have to do it as a personal one and hope over time I may cover my expenses.

"Recently a good friend who is pretty well-known in the business went around to various magazines with an idea for a news story. Most of them liked it, but lost interest when they found out there weren't any celebs involved."

Daniel Cuthbert (Photographer):

"For me, it's really tough. Going out and producing work that publications want to purchase and publish is proving harder. Just yesterday, I was told that a very large newspaper here in South Africa didn't really think a story about ongoing abuses in Burma was newsworthy. The cost of going out to shoot stories, be it locally or internationally versus the remuneration from publications isn't making it any easier.

"This does affect how I choose stories. Yes, the romantic idea of going somewhere amazing and producing a story for the love of it still comes to mind, but in reality you need to look at surviving and supporting yourself and family."

What is the future of photo agencies in general?

David LynchJohn Harris (Report Digital):

"The difficulty is that the increasing monopolisation by acquisition or aggregating content [means] that the competition for market share is leading to unsustainably low prices and low earnings for the photographers who have been unable to resist, so far, the devaluation of their work.

"Looked at from a customer point of view, this will lead to a lack of choice and depth. It will also continue the trend of loss making for these mega agencies and libraries."

Anil Ramchand (Corbis):

"Photo agencies are following the rest of the world and the media industry, in particular to the web. It is at the same time coping with a massive rise in supply that is depressing prices in some segments. The future of the agencies will depend on great imagery being available quickly, simply and at the right price to customers online. Prized pictures will still be rewarded, but increasingly the focus is on volume of images that media can provide their readers simply and quickly."

Jeff Moore (Photographer):

"I think we are going to lose a lot of them over next few years as no-one pays any money anymore."

What is the future of independent photo agencies?

Anil Ramchand (Corbis):

"Large media companies are increasingly consolidating their business with photo libraries that can meet all of their image needs. This will make it more challenging for all but the most innovative independent photo agencies."

Jeff Moore (Photographer):

"It's a real shame as I think lots of small local agencies are going to go bust, and we are going to get less and less news that's not from PR handouts. I've noticed a massive upsurge in soft features: dogs dressed up, bubble blowing, all that sort of thing, and less real news or photojournalism."

How have these developments affected young, up-and-coming photojournalists breaking into the business?

Daniel Cuthbert: (Photographer):

"I think you need to have more of a business head than ever before in order to be a photojournalist today. With dwindling day rates and overall money in the business, unless you have a secure financial foundation, breaking into photojournalism is as hard as ever. Everyone I speak to, seasoned photojournalists with years of experience, are all struggling to find work. These factors play against anyone that's new, so they end up taking risks and sometimes getting into trouble doing so.

"While that might mean that times are harder, it also means you have to produce work that really sets you apart from others. Gone are the easy days, which isn't a bad thing in my mind. Picture editors are faced with dilemmas about paying a photographer X-amount-per-day-plus-expenses over using a cheaper image from the wire or agency.

"For me, studying my MA in Photojournalism and Documentary photography at the LCC has been a big help. You are surrounded by experienced people who are there to guide you in making this a career path. That information and experience is hopefully making me a better photojournalist, one that will be able to weather this current storm."

Anil Ramchand (Corbis):

"There still are a lot of young people wanting to craft a career in photojournalism. The enthusiasm is still there. It has never been easier for these individuals to remain independent and secure assignments on their own rather than rely on an agency for work. Journalism is being consumed in a variety of ways that are easily accessible to both the producer and the consumer. For the journalist, it has become pretty necessary to be aware of developments in technology, and it's useful to acquire multimedia skill sets."

Jeff Moore (Photographer):

"Photojournalism - or press photography, as I prefer to call it - is still very important and many young people are trying to break in to the industry. This tends to mean they take underpaid jobs to start with, then realise there's no way of moving up the ladder.

"Colleges are turning out hundreds of students every year for very few, or no jobs. It's very sad. I think the industry as a whole should act together right now to try and save itself before there's nothing left."

John Harris (Report Digital):

"I feel really sorry for anybody wanting to find a career as a photographer in these circumstances."

Who takes the hard news photos now?

Anil Ramchand (Corbis):

"The majority of hard news photos are now taken by breaking news agencies including Reuters, AP, and EPA. Corbis partners with Reuters and EPA to provide clients with the latest current events photos. There are several small photo agencies that are still relevant and sometimes have the freedom to develop longer lead stories."

John Harris (Report Digital):

"Much is made of the amateur input that digital technology has enabled.
While this will produce an occasional important image this is more to do with people like the BBC getting content for free - and of course there are ethical issues with that and other aspects of this use.

"We can look forward to most photojournalism being supplied as part of a subscription service by the big two or three. As this becomes increasingly unsatisfactory, opportunities will arise for independent producers and those who actually have something to say!"

Jeff Moore (Photographer):

"I think it is pretty much the same photo agencies that always have done. Of course citizen journalism now plays a big part, mainly due to the fact that the media are denied access to most big news stories and 7/7 is very good example of this. But I genuinely believe there is no better way to tell a story than a well-crafted photograph by a good news photographer.

"People do not remember TV footage, or grainy grabs off CCTV cameras, but a great photograph stays with us, and becomes part of our collective memory and helps truly define real events."

Lots to think about. I'll be exploring some of these issues in future posts and I'm keen to know your views - as ever, please use the comment box below.


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