Friday, February 10, 2012

Death of photo-journalism is nigh

When four suicide bombers targeted London on the 7th July 2005 citizen journalism came to the fore with pictures and video taken on cellphones being posted on sites like Flickr. Media organisations snapped up these pictures, taking advantage of the 'free' images taken by people who were in the right place at the right time. But while such pictures provided an important element in reportage, it also signed the death warrant for photo-journalism.

These were the days before social networking had really taken off. Facebook had only been up and running for less than a year while Twitter was only in the ideas stage by creator Jack Dorsey. But the road being paved was clear.

Citizen journalism

Within weeks of the 7/7 terror attacks a new photo agency launched targeting citizen journalists and offering to market their mobile phone pictures. Scoopt, founded by Kyle MacRae and his wife Jill, was later bought by leading photo agency Getty in 2007 but closed in 2009.

Getty said it closed the site due to the lack of ongoing content. "If something breaks, it's an amazing way to get first-hand content, like the Underground bombs. But you really have to have a lot of events to get enough content," a Getty said at the time. Scoopt members uploaded photos received 40% of any sales made with the agency keeping a 12-month exclusivity on all photos received. The fact that many so-called citizen journalists are prepared to give away their pictures was a likely factor in Getty's closure of Scoopt.

Broadcasters and print media were increasingly asking for viewers and readers to send in their pictures. The BBC ask that those providing pictures grant the broadcaster "royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to publish and otherwise use the material in any way" and "and in any media worldwide" while allowing the creator to retain copyright.

Loss of copyright

Sky News also set out similar terms and conditions while stating the user might allow them to "pass it on to others for similar use in any media worldwide, without any payment being due" to the person supplying the pictures.

It seems evident, from the vague terms set out by some organisations, that money is being made from syndication without payment to those sending in the content.

CNN's iReport [Wikipedia] which launched in 2006 has also been criticised for similar reasons. While users are granted copyright to their contributions, they often are forced to relinquish control of who uses their work and where their images and video are shown worldwide [CNN iReport].

Advent of YouTube

With a greater number of people using YouTube to broadcast video and Twitter to post pictures, media are increasingly scouring these portals for 'free' content.

The use by the media is not entirely clear, and there is much debate over whether such organisations can use such video without paying the uploader.

In the terms set out by Google, a user grants YouTube "a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable licence (with right to sub-licence) to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform that Content in connection with the provision of the Service and otherwise in connection with the provision of the Service and YouTube's business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels". This seems to infer that they can make a user's content available, free or otherwise, to broadcasters.

It has been discussed that should a TV show broadcast a new viral video it could be argued as being for the purpose of promoting the YouTube Service, but ONLY IF the broadcaster has YouTube's permission, and as laid out in a YouTube uploader's sublicenseable licence. Of course, lawyers might also argue fair use. Since many YouTube users would be more than proud of seeing their video on the television, few are unlikely to take issue over any copyright infringement.

Facebook concerns

The re-use of pictures posted on Facebook and via Twitter has also created another grey area. For the poster the situation is far from clear, while for the large media companies the risk of breaching copyright of a Twitter user is unlikely to be of much concern. But users of Facebook might be more than a little worried.

In its terms, Facebook clearly states it has the 'right' to pass on pictures and video uploaded to the service. "For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it." Of course it should be pointed out that should your content be set to 'friends', it cannot be passed on, though a profile picture, for example, might be public since it is a way of allowing other users identify you.

As such newspapers have increasingly looked to Facebook for 'collect pictures'. Why knock at doors trying to find a great snap of a murder victim when you can type a name into a search engine, cross check it with other sources and pull a picture from a Facebook profile?

When Seydou Diarrassouba was stabbed to death in London's Oxford Street last Christmas several papers used a picture posted on Facebook [The Sun / Daily Mail / Daily Telegraph].

Reducing costs

The fundamental reason behind the decisions made by newspapers and new channels is cost. Why pay for a picture when you can get one free? Many papers already pay subscriptions to agencies and can take a daily pick of photographs at no extra charge. The choice is clear for picture editors when looking at submissions.

After recent snowfall in Britain most national papers used only picture agency photographs. With fewer staff photographers, and with the extra cost in purchasing photographs supplied by freelancers, there is little choice for papers with ever tightening budgets.

The recession has not helped and has led many papers to lay off staff. The Independent let their last staff photographer go this January [Guardian]. It is a trend that has increased over the years.

In the 1970s the Daily Express had 28 photographers on its London staff, 10 in Manchester, two in Birmingham and even one in New York. The Daily Mirror also had a large photographic department. But the glory days of Fleet Street are over.

Uncertain future

Papers now rely on agency pictures, citizen snaps, press releases, and if required might throw a few crumbs to a freelancer who is expected to be ready to jump at a moment's notice.

Even local papers are increasingly turning to cheaper options. Newspaper group Archant recently launched a user generated picture submission site called iWitness24 while photographers working for the papers faced an uncertain future [Hold the Front Page].

James Foster, editorial director of Archant Norfolk, who led the project, insisted it was about getting news and pictures they wouldn't otherwise get. "Whether it's a picture from a community group activity or a fire, we know that by engaging with our audience and telling them how much we value their contributions we can add to the richness of the material that we produce."

There was once a common phrase spoken by photographers "f/8 and be there", meaning that being on the scene was more important than worrying about technical details. [The aperture of f/8 gives adequate depth of field, assuming a 35 mm or DSLR camera, minimum shutter-speed, and ISO film rating within reasonable limits subject to lighting.] But as citizen journalists with their camera phones are increasingly going to be on scene before a professional, the incentive to even head to an incident is diminishing.

Why would a freelancer continually waste time and petrol chasing after an incident if papers aren't willing to pay? Local papers often provided some steady work for freelancers, but with tightening budgets and less work, many are looking at other careers.

Even Scoopt founder MacRae has acknowledged the threat. "I wouldn't like to be a local newspaper photographer right now," he said in an interview with Black Star Rising some years back. "You're competing with your own readers."

Rates cut

The writing was on the wall some years ago as agencies and papers cut fees. The newspaper industry is one of the few areas where the buyer sets the rate. Papers don't ask how much the picture is or what they want for a commission. Instead they tell the photographer how much they are willing to pay.

In 2009 photographic agencies that supply pictures to national newspapers were said to be fuming over cuts to freelance photographers' fees sparked by the recession.

News International, owner of The Sun and The Times, wrote to contributors saying the cutbacks, which also applied to freelancers, were needed to stay competitive in the "current economic climate".

The reductions, said to be as much as 40% in some instances, angered many in the industry. One agency boss, who did not want to be named, told Amateur Photographer, "They [the newspapers] seem to have chosen to forget that they are the customer. In any normal transaction the supplier, not the customer, sets the price."

He warned that, in the age of the Internet, newspapers would be "writing their own death warrant" if they ignore the "supreme importance" of paying a fair rate for "quality content".

Rates for writing has also suffered in the age of the Internet. Brian Scott, a professional freelance writer and photographer who writes for, attributes lackluster pay rates to emerging "content farms" which demand writers provide 500-word articles for $4 [£2.50] a piece or less. Prior to the Internet, a writer could earn at least $200-$300 [£126-£189] for a 500-word article. And the change is permanent.

Freelance photographers face a much worse situation. The recession and poor economy have hit freelance photographers the hardest, compared to freelance graphic designers and freelance writers. Photographing weddings, once a lucrative and popular photography service has been cut in half. Photographers have been forced to reduce their rates significantly to stay competitive. Pay rates for other work has also dropped.

Most photographers shoot locally, within the city or county they reside. Restricted to offering services locally, instead of globally, clients are fewer and freelance photographers fiercely battle one another to gain "one-shot" non-repeat clients. Coupled with these disadvantages is the fact that photographers maintain more expensive overheads than other freelancers. Photographers have to upgrade photographic equipment, cameras, lenses, software, and computers, often adding unrealistic costs compared to what they earn. While most freelance graphic designers and writers can work comfortably from a home office, freelance photographers must drive to the client's location, dragging along their equipment, as well as spending money on out-of-pocket expenses for fuel.


"Freelance photographers are getting headlocked and kicked squarely in the butt. Low-paying clients are laughing in their faces and giving them wedgies behind their backs," Scott says. "I have a lot of empathy for freelance photographers right now. There is not much they can do to change the situation until the economy recovers."

Scott suggests freelance photographers look at other venues to earn money globally, from the comfort of a home office. "Photographers can look into contributing stock photography to agencies, and perhaps, partnering up with professional freelance writers to offer photography services for their articles." Another way, Scott suggests, is to submit photographs to reputable magazines, especially nature and wildlife magazines, which pay high rates for photography." [prlog]

Endangered species

Some photographers and journalists saw this coming many years ago and have hung up their cameras and put down their pens. Others hang on in desperation or complement their income with unrelated employment.

It is difficult to argue that citizen journalism is entirely bad since it democratises news. The video coming out of Syria, China and Libya are a particular case in point. But this of little solace to those struggling to earn a living.

One photographer writes with some sadness about the demise of photo-journalism on a comments page. "I do feel sad for myself and my fellow professionals to be so out of luck this way when we have worked so hard to do what we do and poured our heart, soul, youth and many years into newspaper photography," J Howden writes. "What shall we do now? What can we retrain as?"

He speculates that the professional photographer may go "the way of the dodo", a bleak prospect. The professional photographer may not die but their diminishing number will make them an endangered species.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered to be the father of modern photo-journalism, would no doubt be shocked to see demise of the style of photography he inspired. He was once quoted as saying, "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again". The irony is that he was referring to the scene captured by the photographer, not the photographers themselves.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: