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Monday, October 2, 2000

Threatened lensmen take shot at Web

News photographers and photojournalists are increasingly turning to the Web in a bid to secure their independence amid growing uncertainty sparked by a wave of controversial takeovers by the picture industry’s largest agencies. Concerned by what they see as the beginning of an unprecedented corporate buyout, and taking advantage of the proliferation of cheap, readily available digital technology, an increasing number of photographers are turning freelance to create their own independent online picture agencies.

Last year’s acquisition of the respected Paris-based Sygma agency by Bill Gates’ giant Corbis operation kicked off a scramble among major players to scoop up smaller agencies and led to a degree of dispute between photojournalists and executives seldom seen in the world of news photography. "What we’ve been seeing is a calculated drive to buy up the picture market," says Neil Burgess, picture editor of Network, one of the UK’s few remaining independent outfits. "The big agencies — Corbis, Getty, Hachette — are each attempting to corner the market and diversify their own collections with the photographs from the smaller, specialist libraries. This way, eventually, they’ll be able to undercut on price and offer images of just about anything, all from one place."


Several well-known Sygma photographers — including Allan Tannenbaum and Andrew Lichtenstein — recently quit over what they describe as unacceptable market domination, poor contracts and representation: "When Corbis took over [Sygma] there was a feeling they would attempt to restore it to its former glory," says Tannenbaum, staff photographer with the agency for almost 20 years. "Instead they went on a search and destroy mission." He argues that far from using its size and influence to negotiate universally higher editorial rates, Corbis may have attempted to drive industry prices down in order to acquire greater market share; and in doing so it adversely affected the interests of photographers and squeezed out smaller, independent agencies. The situation was compounded earlier this month when Hachette Filipacchi Medias of France announced it was to buy the international Katz agency, "to ward off alternative approaches from US market leaders."

The defectors from Corbis claim that the big agencies’ primary aim is to sell the greatest number of single photos to the greatest number of buyers in the shortest time scale, something not in keeping with the photojournalists’ tradition of perfecting picture stories over a longer period of time. "The photographers and — more importantly — the photographs, are becoming irrelevant. It’s about profit and market share," one photojournalist "just hanging on" with Corbis-Sygma says.

"This is why photographers are taking the risk, getting wired and going it alone." "The industry is in a state of flux," says Linda Royles, executive officer of the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA). "This is partly attributable to the recent mergers and acquisitions, but also due to the wider effects of digitisation. Many of the UK’s (estimated 900) existing picture agencies are having to rethink their approach in light of the new technology, as are those setting up new agencies."

Recent BAPLA figures illustrate the perceived importance of the Web among those operating picture agencies: 70 per cent have an online presence, 30 per cent with fully searchable databases. "The number of picture agencies launched is increasing, one recent month spawning 14 new outfits," says Royles. "Many are single photographers looking to market their work so they’re planning extensive, or at least partial, Web presence."

The photographers’ bids for autonomy have been made possible by high street access to increasingly inexpensive technology. "For as little as the cost of a decent computer, digital camera, scanner and — if you’re prepared to do everything yourself — a server and basic software for a searchable database, you can be up and running as a small independent outfit," maintains Andrew Wiard, founder of his own reportphotos.com agency. "If you’ve got money to spend, however, there’s effectively no upper limit."

While many freelance photographers use established Internet service providers or Web companies — Imagenet, for example — specifically geared towards the needs of online picture libraries, others are more creative. Photojournalist Howard Davies launched his own specialist online picture agency, exile images.co.uk, in July, exploiting little more than a trusty computer and a colleague’s Web design skills to make available more than 15,000 images. "I had to commission a database which is unique to the agency, but sales have already covered the (Web) design and maintenance costs," he says.

"It was a case of utilising this newly available technology to undertake an idea that I had for years." Davies says the prime motivation for going it alone is control and being able to deal direct with clients. "I’d become a bit disillusioned with sales from the big agencies, so pulled some stock images out. Now I take 100 per cent rather than negotiate for 50 per cent or 70 per cent."

Despite the online project he still maintains distribution deals with a couple of big agencies. "I’ve not had too rough a deal — they do pay," he says but admits fears brought about by the recent string of acquisitions are becoming increasingly visible: "A young photojournalist approached me to undertake work; when I asked why he’d chosen such a small, specialist agency, he said it would be better not to have to negotiate with the bigger, more traditional outlets — 10 years ago that would have been unheard of."

Such views are echoed by Gary Trotter, founder of Images Sans Frontieres (ISF) — the UK’s first reportage agency to launch entirely via the Web:

"I’ve built up a network of about 30 freelancers who don’t wish to work for major players where the struggle to retain intellectual (property) rights and control becomes harder than obtaining decent shots."

Despite the apparent success of the ISF and Exile, staff at the (decreasing) number of established agencies are sceptical about the long-term viability of freelance projects: "There’s not enough agencies willing to take on photojournalists anyway so it’s logical they try to go it alone," says Network’s Burgess. "Unfortunately, without a glowing track record, they’re likely to disappear - retain their editorial independence certainly, but run the risk of being forced off the market."

One way round the problem, according to Andrew Wiard, is to identify a unique niche and specialise. "If you can build up a reputation for covering a particular area — Scotland, for example — then people will come to know you for that and visit your Web library before trying other ‘one-stop shops’." Another answer, he says, is more fundamental. "It’s easy to forget that even with the best technology in the world for presentation and delivery, you have to deliver quality products. You still have to be able to take a decent shot."

— By arrangement with The Guardian

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