March 17, 1997
From: Otto Pohl (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Re: The Death of Photojournalism?
Time magazine sent Chris Morris to Albania last summer to get pictures
of the election there. Everything worked out fine, they had the page
all set and laid out. At the last moment, the editors pulled the
article, opting instead for an article about a restaurant opening in New
To hear Christopher Morris and Tony Suau tell it, that's the story of
the U.S. photojournalism market. Everywhere, budgets are being cut and
publications are turning U.S.-centric and isolationist. At the same
time, their profits and circulations have never been higher.
As a manager of the only professional photo lab in Russia, I get to talk
to a lot of the world-class photographers when they have a job in
Moscow. They come by and we chat about how difficult it used to be to
get film processed in Russia, how we all stood at Sheremetyevo airport
begging departing passengers to take a bag of unprocessed film back to
London or New York so we could meet some publishing deadline, how we
processed film in hotel bathrooms before reserving time at Associated
Press to wire images back on primitive fax machine-like devices. It's
nice now; we can have a coffee and I can show them output from the
latest digital devices and talk about our Q-Lab standard slide
processing and have a laugh about old times.
During the big events of the early 90s in Moscow there were always the
same crew of photographers--Chris was pretty much the last person I
spoke with before being shot during the 1993 coup, and Tony would
regularly crop up at May Day events or for Mafia stories.
These people were my photojournalism heroes. They had the big shots
from the hot spots, and when one part of the world calmed down they flew
to the next place that was heating up. They had great stories and great
pictures, and for me represented the ideal job in the career I had
But the story Chris and Tony told me in separate visits over the last
few days have really made me realize how the market for photojournalism
has changed since I quit in August 1996. Although both have contracts
with Time Magazine for something like 50 days of photography a year,
they consider the U.S. market for photojournalism dead. Tony has not
had a picture in domestic Time since 1996, and Chris, after relating the
Albanian election story, ignores the U.S. market and has only
marginally good things to say about European Time, a publication he only
had a few pages in for all of 1997.
Life magazine has fired most of its staff and all of its photographers
and is becoming a wimpy human interest vehicle. Big names like Joe
McNally, who was among those fired from Life and in town this week on
other assignment, are doing just fine even with a few contracts less.
But these are the absolute cream of the business and even they are
feeling the pinch.
Budgets are being cut, photo editors are being fired, and publications
are making do with wire or stock imagery. It's cheaper, news wire
images are often more timely, and no one really notices the difference
anyways. The main lesson a magazine like Time has learned in the past
few years is that when Princess Diana dies and they put her on the
cover, they sell more issues than they ever have before. And they
figure that there are a hell of a lot more readers who might get hungry
in New Orleans than wonder about the Albanian elections.
One of the negative aspects of the unprecedented boom in the U.S.
economy seems to have been the growing confidence of the American public
that they have all the answers. The Soviet Union collapsed because they
had the wrong ideology, Eastern Europe got stuck on the wrong side of a
losing battle, and Europe and Japan are looking lethargic and hidebound
with their high taxes and large social programs. The reasoning appears
to be, hey--if you live in the best country in the world, with the best
economy and the
most opportunities, what do you need to know about the rest of the
world, other than maybe the snow conditions at a few ski resorts in
Europe is little better; the publishers there wonder about the economics
of paying a potentially fallible photographer top dollar to scramble out
to a story when they can sit back and have the pick of the crop when all
the photographers start pouring their images onto the news wires and
syndicating them out to the big agencies. The editor only has to pay
for the actual images they want to use. Where a story could be sold in
ten different countries five years ago it's lucky to have any resale at
Other photographers have chosen various paths out of this dilemma. Some
have gone corporate, shooting advertisements and annual reports. James
Nachtwey and David Turnley sold the rights to their pictures to Bill
Gates' Corbis photo bank for a stack of cash a year or two ago, and now
spend their time fairly unconcerned about any change in day rates.
Others have turned to making movies, or have moved out of the image
market completely. But this isn't just a story about U.S. isolationism,
or stupid editors working for greedy accountants. What I think we're seeing here is a
world dealing with images as a newly devalued currency. Until recently,
the world was a huge unknown and our only glimpses came through the eyes
of those intrepid enough to venture out and return with the goods. It
was a symbiotic relationship--the magazines had the readership and the
clout, but needed to pay for the appropriate material. Now the
readership and the clout remain scarce while the images are so plentiful
that I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of photographers would give their
work for free in exchange for the exposure.
Even when I moved here in 1992, a fresh picture out of Moscow had an
innate value just because it was a fresh picture out of Moscow. In just
the past few years, the economics of the situation has completely
changed. Images are free and bombard us from all sides; it is now your
attention that has become the commodity. It's becoming clichë to refer
to this as the emerging attention economy, but in this case it really
appears to be the case. In the market of imagery, at least, your
attention is just about the only scarce thing out there. And in a world
where you're not expected to dwell on any one picture too long anyways,
not with all those images out there that need viewing and only 24 hours
in a day, there isn't much reason from a publisher's perspective to put
too much money into creating yet another new image.
So we've got publishers convinced that readers don't really want to
know about the gritty truth about faraway lands, and whatever grit that
does make it into a magazine can be purchased from the lowest seller.
The stock photo industry (stock photos are any photos that are not shot
on specific assignment--they exist in huge photo banks waiting for
someone to develop a need for just that picture) has gone through an
interesting change recently as well, with CDs and networks facilitating
the rapid duplication and distribution of millions of images. You can
purchase an essentially infinite number of pictures of, say, the Eiffel
tower, and therefore there is no reason to either pay a lot of money for
one, nor is there a reason to hire a photographer to take yet another.
In fact, CDs full of them are on sale, royalty-free, for only a few
dollars a disk. After much hand-wringing the economics of the business
began to emerge.
The prime value of an image now lies in its exclusivity. There are
still occasions of companies paying $10,000 or more for a picture, but
now they're primarily paying that to purchase the right to the exclusive
use of the image. It's estimated that 80% of all image uses do not
require any exclusivity, and therefore 80% of the market is more or less
economically uninteresting. At least that last 20% should be immune to
any further changes in technology, because exclusivity will always be
valuable. Photojournalism is somewhat analogous. The whole news segment
of the market is like that 80% of the stock business--the pictures are
becoming, to use the bygone rallying cry of the nuclear power
industry--too cheap to meter. Feature work is somewhat the same,
largely due to the ocean of good feature work out there, except for when
exclusivity comes into play and the subject is desirable. Celebrity
paparazzi shots are good examples of extremely valuable commodities, but
again only as long as the competing tabloid can't get its hands on them.
Probably the most enduring and profitable market for images will be
photographers marketed through vehicles like Vanity Fair. They need
marquee names for their covers like Hollywood needs stars, and they've
got the budgets to make almost any shoot a huge marketable event. Annie
Leibowitz can marshal hundreds of thousands of dollars to get famous
people into huge sets and create images that impress by their sheer
bombast. The astronomically expensive movies of Hollywood not only
that they will see big stars and big special effects, but the price
also keeps would-be competitors out of the game. Anyone can make a
movie. Not a lot of people can make a $250 million movie about a boat
that sinks, and that's the one that makes the headlines.
So there I sit in my white shirt and listen to my heroes from my
photojournalism days talk about the hard times. When I quit the New
York Times I always had the feeling that I wouldn't be able to stomach
competing for free-lance assignments after the cushy life with
guaranteed assignments. Now it seems like its become a hobby only for
the well-to-do, who can self-finance their trip to the next Rwandan
massacre. And how many well-to-do are there out there that want to do
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