Categories
photography politics

The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context

 

Last week I asked Magnum Photos some questions about the Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures on their site. I had been thinking about these images after conversations with Olivier Laurent of the British Journal of Photography about general issues arising from the use of found photographs. I recalled a Guardian report from earlier in the year reporting on the Libyan archive, which included a 9 minute video providing more background.

The video has Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch recounting how he and Tim Hetherington were given still photos by a Benghazi resident (Idris) who had rescued them from a secret service building that was being ransacked, and video footage from a man called Ibrahim who had received tapes of his brother’s 1984 show trial and execution from other residents who felt free to pass them on after Benghazi’s liberation. What struck me was that although the Magnum-hosted images seemed to be the same as the ones discussed in The Guardian report and video, the text accompanying those Magnum images, and the attribution attached to them, did not reference the Bouckaert/Hetherington role or much about the wider context.

To find out more, I composed three questions about context, ethics and copyright to @magnumphotos, and an online debate ensued, the most important features of which I curated and annotated using Storify, given Twitter’s unavoidable constraints on conversation. Because I thought the questions pointed to important issues, I didn’t want the debate to be a 24 hour ‘flash in the pan’ that was soon to be forgotten. So I then wrote to Alex Majoli as President of Magnum, and Susan Meisalas, President of the Magnum Foundation (Susan being the only senior Magnum person I know personally and a photographer I have enormous respect for) making them aware of the questions, debate and concerns. Both were prompt and engaging in their replies, and I was soon told that Christopher Anderson, as Vice President in New York, would be checking the details over the weekend and making a statement. Yesterday, Christopher Anderson emailed me the official public statement, and provided it to the British Journal of Photography who published it.

This is the statement in full as provided, on which I will make some general comments at the end:

While covering the war in Libya, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch came into the possession of materials (video, photographs and other documents) that appeared to document evidence of torture carried out by the Libyan Secret Service. Bouckaert approached Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak and freelance photographer Tim Hetherington, who were also covering the conflict in Libya, to help him digitize the materials (Which, under the circumstances, meant photographing them.) The reason for this was because HRW did not wish to remove the documents from the country. The two photographers’ understanding was that they would be performing a favor of technical service to Human Rights Watch — they did not view the material as their “work”. Together, the three discussed how best to distribute and archive the material, and Bouckaert asked Dworzak if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW.

Dworzak did the initial copy work, using a small digital camera with pictures laid out on a bed — so the quality was not ideal. Bouckaert later asked Hetherington to photograph a second batch of materials, which may have included rephotographing some of the materials originally copied by Dworzak. No one was focused on this point, as both photographers were simply trying to create a digital archive for HRW under tight conditions.

Hetherinton handed his files over to Bouckaert and told him to put them with the rest of the material that Dworzak had copied. Bouckaert, Hetherington, and Dworzak understood that the files were all to be lumped together for HRW’s purposes and neither photographer ever considered being compensated for any distribution or claiming that he had authored the material. It was simply a favor to a colleague.

Shortly after Hetherington’s death, Bouckaert delivered a bunch of materials to the Magnum offices in London: The digital files that Tim had given him as well as additional, hard-copy materials. He asked Magnum to scan the new materials and include this with the files that Dworzak had created. He again asked if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW. Dworzak discussed with HRW and the Magnum London staff how best to label the material for cataloguing purposes. Some of the material (though it is not entirely clear which part of the material as it had all been lumped together at this point) had been copied by Hetherington, whom Magnum did not represent at the time. Furthermore, given the legal ambiguity of the copyright in the underlying materials, and of photographs of photographs, all parties decided that the credit would read “Collection Thomas Dworzak for Human Rights Watch.” Credit labels are necessary for the logistical reason of the searchability of the Magnum archive, but more importantly, the credit label serves an accountability and vetting purpose. The word “collection” was used to make clear that this was not a work originated by Dworzak as the author, but rather an archive of found materials, curated in some sense by him to the extent distributed by Magnum, and also for which he was responsible. The caption of each individual image provides further clarity as to the origins of the “works”. The red font credit note that appeared on magnumphotos.com, stating inartfully that credit must read “(c) T. Dworzak Collection,” was meant by Magnum staff as a reminder not to credit the work as authored work of Thomas Dworzak — but it seems to have been misinterpreted as some as the opposite, i.e., a claim of authorship. The language is being fixed.

Magnum staff was instructed to distribute the material with the “collection” credit on behalf of HRW, most notably a publication by the Guardian. Magnum acted only as the delivery and storage mechanism to distribute the material to the Guardian – including extensive scanning and retouching — but not to “sell” the material originally. To be clear, however, as a general matter Magnum does not think there is anything inappropriate about passing along to publishers scanning and other costs associated with producing high resolution images, when appropriate. It has come to my attention today that Magnum offices in London did “sell” in at least one case after distributing the materials free of charge to the Guardian and the CBC of Canada. As I understand it, some 550 British pounds were put into the account of the Tim Hetherington estate from that sale and 50 pounds were credited to Dworzak. I assume this amount to Dworzak is to recover the scanning and ingestion costs.

In good faith, Magnum, Thomas Dworzak and Tim Hetherington provided a professional courtesy to HRW and Peter Bouckaert. No parties involved sought financial gain from this material. It was the goal of Magnum, Dworzak, Hetherington and HRW to get this material before the public in an efficient and responsible way.

While this matter highlights questions about the legal ambiguity of copyright and authorship in the photographic industry (particularly when photographs, paintings, property, likenesses etc are visible in a photograph, or when working with found materials), Magnum has made every attempt to conduct this service on behalf of HRW as transparently and correctly as possible. Magnum regrets that this attempt to be of service to the public record has been misunderstood by some as an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain. Magnum has no intention to profit from this material nor to claim it as authored by one of our photographers. (And those who think there is big money on offer for such pictures deeply misunderstand the industry today.) Magnum continues to stand behind the decision to distribute this material and fully accepts responsibility for how that distribution is conducted.

Christopher Anderson

VP Magnum Photos New York

Together, The Guardian report/video and Magnum’s statement help provide the political and logistical context to these important photographs. As I noted during the debate, the fact that Magnum has worked with HRW to make these images available for public viewing is important and commendable. I have no doubt they acted in good faith, and have never claimed that their efforts were “an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain.” Nonetheless, I think that the distinction between “licensing” the images for distribution and “selling” them was lost by the pictures’ presentation with the green “HI-RES AVAILABLE” tag that appears on all Magnum photographers’ pages. Perhaps that is a function of inflexible web site structure rather than the outcome of a conscious decision, but given their content these are not images that should be sold like any other, and I hope that Magnum will clarify this ambiguity relating to how they can be obtained.

Copyright in relation to found images, as the statement observes, is a difficult issue. This morning @sourcephoto offered a link to an article by law lecturer Ronan Deazly discussing domestic “collect” photos that might have some relevant points for this larger question. I am not qualified to comment on the intricacies of copyright in this case, but I very much agree with the Magnum statement above that the “inartful” crediting of the images in terms of copyright contributed to confusion, so it’s good that this misuse of the language is being corrected.

For me, the big lesson to learn from this controversy is the importance of context. If the Magnum-hosted images had appeared at the outset with a narrative based on a combination of The Guardian report/video and the first four paragraphs of yesterday’s statement, everything would have been much clearer to everybody. Instead, the images were accompanied by this opaque text:

It reads:

Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures (ARCH155P). Many of these photos were part of a film that was labelled, in Arabic: “Celebration of distribution of farmland from …. Photographer, Mohammed Abdel Salam”. These files photos were part of a series of photos, films, video and documents that were reportedly rescued from a Secret police building in Benghazi, Libya, before the building was set on fire around Feb/Mar 2011.

That is just not adequate as the only description or explanation of these images. I think all agencies have a responsibility to provide as much context as possible for any photographs they make public online, and the helpful details in the Magnum statement and the stories in The Guardian/report video show what information was available. I know that Magnum are now considering revising that text, and I very much hope they do so.

There are lessons beyond this case. Agencies might argue that they don’t have the resources to write detailed stories to go with their archives, but especially when handling what are obviously controversial and sensitive issues, that’s not a defence. At the very least, much can be achieved by linking to other sources.

Moreover, I think agencies miss an opportunity when they don’t make an effort to provide the fullest context at the outset. The challenges of the media economy mean that its going to be increasingly difficult for agencies to be just content providers and distributors for others in the media. They need to be thinking in terms of also being publishers and broadcasters, actually creating new and substantive content on the issues their photographers are covering.

With the story of the Libyan secret service archive, Magnum had a great opportunity to compile an incredible story. With yesterday’s statement they offered some of that. It’s just a shame that story was not there when the pictures first went up.

Categories
media economy

The new media landscape (1): contours of change

Change in the media landscape is constant. Everyone involved in the production of creative content – photographers, journalists, writers, and musicians, as well as those who deal in those products – knows that nothing is as it was.

Too much of the current debate about how creative practitioners can cope with these upheavals proceeds without an understanding of the big picture and historical context. There are some hard realities that have to be properly understood before new strategies can be devised.

In this series of three posts, I want to lay down an understanding of what is happening, how some are responding, and what others can learn from them. Many of the elements I discuss are well known, and many of the examples I cite show that people are already positioning themselves to prosper from these changes. But for those who are still unsure about what is happening and what to do I think it is important to take this step back in order to plan where to go.

These posts are based on a presentation I gave at the CEPIC New Media Conference 2 in Istanbul on 21 May, and I would like to thank Marco Oonk of Fast Media Magazine for the invitation. For that event I knew I could not compete visually with speakers from the stock photography industry, so I selected key words that named the main themes.

In this first post, I will cover the concepts of disintermediation, disruption, ecology, disaggregation and free, including the importance of the relationship between scarcity, abundance and fungibility in the new media landscape. In part two I will unpack the concept of community and its importance, and in part three I will review how some are thinking about business models in this context. As one of my concerns is how documentary photographers and independent photojournalists can work better, I will outline some practical steps they can take to incorporate some of the lessons from this review.

So what are the contours of change in the new media landscape?

The internet has changed everything. That is obvious, but the question is how? ‘Disintermediation’ is one ugly word, but an important handle on the change wrought by the internet. Made popular by Dave Winer, the idea comes from economics and points to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain. It highlights the way you can cut out the “middle man” and deal directly with your audience or customer.

The internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

All of this means we live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has been expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions, distributors and gatekeepers.

None of this means the internet is the single cause of all change or that we have a perfectly open world. And we have to remember that for all its potential universality, the internet currently only reaches one-third of the world’s population. But it does mean the internet is an important enabler of change that challenges or routes around many of the barriers and gates in our world.


Through disintermediation the internet is disrupting many walks of life, especially information industries. When we consider that global internet traffic is predicted to increase fourfold by 2014 its easy to see how many areas are being affected by the internet.

The disruption that follows from disintermediation can be understood as resulting in what Richard Stacey describes as “the separation of information from its means of distribution.” This means that all those modes of information distribution we have taken to be natural – the newspaper, magazine, radio station, album-length CD, television broadcaster, cinema and the like – are being challenged by new means of producing and circulating content. As one analyst remarked recently:

The very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution…Films, TV, music are all produced and distributed in a tightly controlled way. The internet blows the doors off that concept because it’s an environment where everyone can distribute with maximum efficiency to everyone else.

Netflix is showing what this means in practice. It now accounts for one-quarter of North America’s aggregate internet traffic because streaming video is so much more efficient than mailing DVDs. It costs Netflix $1 to send out a DVD, but just 5 cents to stream the same movie. As a streaming service they will eliminate the $600 million they currently spend on labour for checking discs and the postal service, with obvious negative impacts for both those sectors.

The lesson from this is clear – in Richard Stacey’s words, “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”


The web, built on top of the internet, has created a new ecology of information, both literally and figuratively. ‘Ecology’ is the study of organisms in relationship to each other and their environment. As a new ecology of information, the web exists as much more than a competitor to existing infrastructures. It is not a new market side by side with traditional markets – it is reshaping both the infrastructures and the markets for everyone.

Yet many information industries treat the web as a competitor rather than an ecosystem. For example, a recent debate about the difficulty of linking from many newspapers stories to supporting information revealed the print-centric nature of media company workflows and CMS’s, and showed how far they were from a digital-first strategy.


In this new ecology – where disruption is powered by disintermediation – we are seeing a change in the structure and process of information.

It is changing what have been called the “atomic units” of established modes of information, and unbundling traditional modes of distribution. We are seeing the disaggregation of forms and formats we have taken to be natural:

  • the disaggregation of albums to individual downloads in music
  • the disaggregation of newspapers and magazines to stories that can be circulated or linked to individually
  • the disaggregation of broadcast stations and fixed schedules to personal streams that can be consumed anywhere and anytime

The idea of the ‘stream’ is significant here. It emphasizes process rather than product, because once disaggregated, things can be updated.

Even when thinks look like fixed commodities we should think in terms of streams. iTunes downloads and Kindle ebooks are sold as though they are fixed units, yet they are parts of a stream leased for use on particular devices. With ebooks your edition can be updated or removed by the organization that controls the stream.

Disaggregation does not mean things dissolve into a formless universe. They are re-aggregated, but that is increasingly done through social networks. For example, a study for CNN found that social media was used to share nearly half of all news.

Disaggregation, therefore, leads to the importance of information that is social, modular and mobile. As Mathew Ingram has observed,

the future of media consumption is going to look a lot more like a smorgasbord of sources and content, personalized and recommended by friends and our social graph, and a lot less like that megaphone traditional media outlets used to have and control.


Few words rile creative producers more than the idea of free. But it is a concept that has to be confronted. We have to move beyond the competing ‘theological assumptions’ that either content should be free or that people should pay. ‘Should’ cannot be the basis for a rational response to the hard realities of the new ecology of information.

There is no escaping the fact that free is part of the intrinsic architecture of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The problem is that the web’s essential characteristic makes earning revenue hard. As Frederic Filoux notes, “the social web’s economics are paradoxical: the more it blossoms, the more it destroys value.”

Filoux’s statement renders value only as price or revenue, thereby overlooking the cultural and social value that flow from free circulation and distribution. Nonetheless, the web’s architecture of free intersects with a basic economic formula.  As Chris Anderson argues in his book Free (p. 173), “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint.”

That does not mean that everything is given away for nothing. Despite claims to the contrary – for details see my review of his book – Anderson is very clear that (a) free is not a business model and (b) that it is always linked with paid.

The ability to leverage the web’s architecture for paid content depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. Most content producers have priced their work on the assumption that it is scarce, and inefficient modes of distribution have supported that. But because the web has made many things abundant, charging scarcity prices is not easily sustainable.

Here I want to introduce one more concept – fungibility.  Something is fungible if it can be substituted by something else. A breaking news story is fungible because there are a number of credible sources that can be substituted for each other. A music track or a specific photograph is not fungible because if you are a fan who wants only a track from a particular band, or an image by a particular artist, they cannot be replaced by music or images from others.

Scare items are not fungible. Abundant items are fungible. If you produce something that is unique and not found elsewhere, you can resist the inevitable free endpoint. If you produce something that is abundant and can be replaced by something else, then you will not be able to directly charge scarcity prices for it (although, as I will argue in the third post, there will be other ways of using that content to produce revenue to support its production).

Conclusion

These are the dynamics that I think drive the changes in the new media landscape. They are the hard realities creating the new ecology we all operate in, producing a landscape marked by disaggregation in which traditional forms and formats of distribution are being unbundled, and content is increasingly social, modular and mobile. Content producers and distributors have to face up to these dynamics, and try and work with these developments in order to achieve their goals. In the second post in this series, I will argue that the concept of community is an essential part of that process.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (2)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: laihui/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy

The ongoing revolution in the media economy

The revolutions transforming the media economy continue apace. In the year since I published my five part series on these changes (beginning here and ending here) we have seen more evidence of the overall direction of change. Reviewing my notes from 2010 here are some of the standout developments to date:

1. Things remain grim for traditional newspapers

Global newspaper circulation continued its downward trend, declining by 0.8% in 2009. A survey covering 223 countries by the World Association of Newspapers and Newspaper Publishers showed that newspaper circulation significantly declined in Europe and North America, although it increased marginally in Asia.

2. Advertising revenue continues to plummet

Advertising revenue is the core of the traditional newspapers business model, and it is falling globally too. Ad spend declined in most of the regions – North America (25 per cent), Western Europe (13.7 per cent), Central and East Europe (18.7 per cent), Asia (9.6 per cent) and South America (2.9 per cent), but remained fairly stable in the Middle East and Africa. In the United States, newspaper advertising revenues are likely to dive to a 25-year low of approximately $26.5 billion, or 47% of the record $49.4 billon in sales achieved by the industry as recently as 2005.

Online advertising is becoming much more important, with the web poised to overtake newspapers as the second largest US advertising medium by revenue behind television. While there is some absolute growth – and the Guardian has reportedly seen a 100% annual increase in digital revenue – this change in relative status is also a function of the collapse of print advertising.

3. Paid content strategies show few signs of success

At the beginning of this year a US survey showed that amongst the handful of domestic newspapers that had erected paywalls, only a tiny proportion (2.4%) of print subscribers were willing to hand over money for access. In the UK, the decision of The Times to go behind a paywall has led to the loss of 90% of the site’s users and scared off advertisers – meaning that any additional revenue from the small number who sign up will easily be offset by lost advertising. The experience of the Belfast-based Irish Times, which attracted only 1,215 paid subscriptions from its 45,000 circulation, suggests the limits of paywalls are apparent in a variety of markets.

4. The disruptive power of the Internet continues to grow

The decline of legacy media has been underway for a very long time and predates the Internet and the web. However, the expansion of a technology that collapses the cost of distribution means industries predicated on the control of distribution are losing their base.

In June this year Cisco forecast that global Internet traffic would increase more than fourfold by 2014. This amount is the equivalent of 10 times all the traffic traversing Internet Protocol networks in 2008. Driving the growth is the expansion of online video, which will make up 91 percent of global consumer IP traffic by 2014.

For an example of what this means in practice, consider the recent observations from the online video rental firm Netflix. Founder Reed Hastings revealed the economics of digital distribution: “It costs us about a dollar, round-trip, to send DVDs by mail. It costs us less than a nickel to deliver by streaming.” That means a switch to video streaming – which is coming – would reduce distribution costs by 95%. Given that Netflix spends $600 million a year on the postal service and pays for hourly labor checking DVD quality, that is a considerable saving (except for those working in the postal service or checking the DVDs). This means, as Ken Doctor explained, that “in the new world the costs evaporate — and quality and timeliness improve. For news publishers, the switch to digital media offers huge savings, at least 60% and probably more.”

However, it’s vital to remember that the Internet is not a universal facility. The number of global users has expanded dramatically in the last decade to 2 billion, but global penetration covers only 29% of the world’s population.

5. The end of print is now conceivable

Publishers and editors of major newspapers are now speaking about a time when their publications will no longer be printed. Last month Arthur Sulzberger told a seminar that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” Both the Guardian and Times editors think their current printing facilities will be their last, and that the life-span of these is “telescoping quite dramatically,” while the Financial Times is already reducing some print output.

6. There are no game changers leading to a shiny new business model

Many responses to the revolutions in the media economy have been framed by the desire to find the ‘game changer’ that will ‘save journalism,’ with the iPad being the device that in 2010 has most often borne these hopes. As a proud new owner of said device, I can see the appeal of some the better apps. I think it opens up new possibilities for the creative presentation and distribution of information, and I’m looking forward to more and better efforts to produce compelling multimedia for this format. But a number of available studies suggest that even if the revenue from magazine apps on the iPad exceeds a billion dollars, that will not resuscitate an entire industry given that is what Time Inc. (of which Time magazine is just a small part) made in a little over one quarter.

More importantly, though, we have to see devices like the iPad as another mode of distribution among the many channels for information now available. And we need to understand how the ecology of the iPad is one of a closed economy, cut off from the open web where things are easily linked and always searchable. There is little doubt the app economy is significant, and Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff (not to mention Jeff Jarvis) are right to call attention to the way it differs from the browser-accessible web, though it is just a bit early to proclaim the death of the open web.

Those who want to place the future of their entire industry in the iPad’s basket are surely heading for a fall. To get a better return from publisher’s apps, a group of twenty US-based photo agencies recently formed an alliance to press for higher fees based on additional usage. That’s not an unreasonable notion in principle, but the logic behind their position was stunning for its ignorance of the dynamics of the contemporary media economy. One of the agency bosses behind this alliance told Press Gazette:

We all strongly believe that this platform as a walled garden could be the saviour of declining legacy print publications. A lot of the publishers think so too…we see this as a way to work with the publishers to work on a business model that works for both parties.

In a nutshell you have an example of the thinking that has perpetuated a large part of the contemporary crisis – defend declining outlets, have faith in a walled garden that limits accessibility, and think about business models is in terms of a single business model tied to an established mode of distribution. But – the disruptive power of the Internet continues to grow because of the way it has solved the problem of distribution, so no business model predicated on control over a mode of distribution can succeed.

7. The future is bright

Despite the downturn and the persistence of legacy thinking, the future for the production and distribution of compelling stories and important information is bright. The creative possibilities enabled by digital technologies, the open web and the app economy – in association with those legacy publications now looking to a future beyond print – are being continually enlarged. If we pursue multiple modes of distribution and make them serve the modes of information, then, in conjunction with new ways of thinking about business models, we are in for an exciting if bumpy ride.

Featured photo: Bsivad/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism

Photography has always been associated with death. The French painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead” after he saw his first daguerreotype. Whatever the provenance of that quote, miniature portrait painting was replaced by new photographic technologies, even though their long exposure times meant, as Geoffrey Batchen has written, “if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.” And with the rise of digital technologies in the 1980s and 1990s the discourse of photography’s death gained new life, as various commentators declared that the ease of image manipulation meant that photography’s documentary status had come to a terminal end.

As a specific practice within the broad field of photography, photojournalism has had its death proclaimed on numerous occasions too. In the 1950s the influential curator and critic John Szarkowski declared that photojournalism’s heyday had lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. For those who didn’t accept this early cessation, the closure of Life magazine in 1972 was taken to be the moment of morbidity. Continuing signs of vitality have often been met with other declarations of death, as in The Digital Journalists’ January 2000 editorial (which was revisited in recent articles here and here). In the run-up to the 2009 Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan The New York Times weighed in with a “lament for a dying field.” Then in August this year, Neil Burgess – who has managed a number of prominent agencies and is an agent for Sebastiao Salgado and others – finally decided to call it: “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.”

How can we understand these repeated death certificates? What drives these declarations when there is abundant evidence of the continuing production of new photographic stories? I want to examine these questions by thinking through the definition of photojournalism and some important moments in its history. I then want to suggest that if we appreciate the difference between a mode of information and a mode of distribution, we can understand much better exactly what is supposed to have been killed.

What is photojournalism and when did it live?

‘Photojournalism’ is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and many – like Christopher Anderson and Martin Parr – are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice in which someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary photography, editorial photography, and the like, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

The history of photojournalism is well told in Mary Panzer’s introduction to Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955, a book published by Chris Boot for the 50th anniversary of World Press Photo. Beginning with the Illustrated London News in 1842 and the first mechanically reproduced photograph in The New York Daily Graphic in 1880, it is clear that photojournalism has been profoundly influenced by new technologies and the modes of story telling they make possible. The arrival of small 35mm cameras in the 1920s, combined with the emergence of picture magazines in Germany, France and the United States in the 1930s, meant photo stories were more easily produced and published.

It did not take long, however, for the commercial constraints of these media outlets to grate with photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith’s resignation from Life magazine in 1955 after an editorial dispute came at a time, Panzer notes, when “most of the leading photojournalists were already freelance.” In the 1960s, wanting to exercise their editorial freedom photographers who started out working for magazines took advantage of reduced printing costs and started to bypass periodicals by publishing books. This was a significant development, as Panzer notes:

In retrospect, the point when photojournalists chose to publish their work in their own books coincides with the moment when the form began to outgrow its origins. A creation of the press, the photojournalist was beginning to claim a role beyond it.

Combined with the creation of galleries specifically for photography and increased interest from museums in the practice, visual story-tellers now had multiple avenues along which their work could travel. Indeed, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, a show currently at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, makes the case that socially conscious photojournalism has flourished independently of the print media for decades.

Modes of information and modes of distribution

Central to understanding the current status and potential futures of photojournalism and documentary photography we need to always keep in mind the distinction between modes of information and modes of distribution.

Social media consultant Richard Stacy has provided what I think is the most succinct way to understand the defining characteristic of the evolving media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.

This is because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution and collapsed the cost of printing, as I discussed in my series of posts last year on the revolutions in the media economy. The web – the hyperlinked network of sites accessed via the Internet – offers a historically unparalleled opportunity to have a mode of distribution with global reach at virtually no cost (at least assuming access to computers and broadband, something that does have a price and is yet to be universal).

This repositions any debate about the ‘death of journalism’ and the ‘death of photojournalism’. We need to understand that journalism is the information and newspapers are the means of distribution. Equally, photojournalism is the information, and newspapers, magazines, books, and galleries are the means of distribution. There are profound changes underway in the modes of distribution, but this does not translate into the end for the modes of information.

So let’s come back to Neil Burgess’s recent declaration of photojournalism’s death. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, Neil was talking about the ‘death’ of a mode of distribution:

Today I look at the world of magazine and newspaper publishing and I see no photojournalism being produced. There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.

You can see how Neil ties photojournalism directly to magazine and newspaper publishing. He recognizes that visual stories are being produced, but because they are being enabled by sources other than magazines and newspapers, for him they do not count as photojournalism. He then underlines this by declaring:

We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether…there is no journalism organisation funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so called news organisations.

Even in its own terms, Neil recognizes (as he told the Foto8 Story is Born seminar in London on 1 October) that this is too bold a statement, as there is still the occasional piece commissioned by a news organization.

But even if news organisation offered no current support, Neil was wrong to suggest that as a mode of information photojournalism was no more. Photojournalism – or documentary photography, or whatever name we want to give visual story telling about the world – is not defined by its paymaster and mode of distribution. As David Walter Banks of Luceo recently observed, “It is absolutely ridiculous to say that photojournalism is dead…it’s definitely changing, but I think that’s exciting. The modes of delivery and consumption are changing, but there’s a lot of great work being done.”

If photojournalism had been left to the magazines and newspapers over the last fifty years it might very well have died. Richard Stacey knows why  – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”

That fact that as a practice, as a mode of information, photojournalism and documentary photography is very much alive is because over the last fifty years it has not tied its entire future to modes of distribution that are now undergoing revolutionary changes. That future has many challenges, but it is a future that has already moved well beyond the fortunes of newspapers and magazines.

References:

  • Geoffrey Batchen, “Ectoplasm,” Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (London: Chris Boot Ltd, in association with World Press Photo, 2005).

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
media economy photography

Thinking freely: New business models for the digital economy

Everything costs something and no body wants to work for nothing. This statement of the obvious drives those disturbed by the impact of the Internet on business models for information industries. Individuals declare that they won’t give their work away, critics claim someone has to pay for content, and insiders (like the editor of Photo District News) repeat hoary old adages such as “no one will buy the cow if your giving the milk away for free.”

Free. If there’s one word that divides people and raises hackles it’s ‘free’. Things do cost and we do want to get paid so how can free make financial sense? Like all contentious concepts, free has lost much of its meaning in its transition from economic idea to bête noir of traditional business. It is time to go back to the beginning and appreciate what ‘free’ involves and for whom it makes sense. I will be using Christopher Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price as a guide, which will take us to some unexpected places for those who think its argument is no more than its title.

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The ability to charge directly for something depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. If you are producing something that is scarce you can price your product in a way that those operating in an abundant market cannot. If your company manufactures exclusive, unique sports cars you can demand a high price. But if, like most information businesses, you operate in competition with numerous content providers, you cannot charge scarcity prices (Free, p. 127). We might think that The Times offers something unique and can therefore price itself accordingly, but its news coverage is not sufficiently different from its numerous global competitors to justify its readers paying a markedly higher price.

For an information business in the digital economy, where information is formed through bits, and the cost of distributing bits is near zero, the ability to charge scarcity prices is further diminished. It is here the virtue of the web leads to an economic conundrum. The web has collapsed the costs of production and distribution for anything made up of digital files, thereby expanding the bounds of creativity, communication and collaboration. If maximizing the reach of information is the goal then the web is an indispensable and unavoidable tool. However, the digital capacity that so enhances circulation also undercuts the capacity of content providers to charge directly for their commodities. By largely removing the barriers to entry, the web has enabled the number of content creators to expand dramatically, thereby increasing competition and ending scarcity. At the same time, the end of those entry barriers makes paid content a difficult proposition. As Anderson argues, “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint” (Free, p. 173).

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When we read that free is “the inevitable endpoint” it seems impossible to square the circle and reconcile this with of our starting point – that everything costs something and no body wants to work for nothing. But this is where we need to pay closer attention to the details of Anderson’s argument. Far from arguing that all things are given away and no one earns a penny, Anderson proposes that we stop fighting the disruptive powers of the Internet and find ways to harness its virtues so that creativity can be rewarded.

This means that free is not the business model. Aside from the fact that we are not searching for a single, universally applicable business model, Anderson makes clear that “the most interesting business models are in finding ways to make money around Free” (Free, p. 14). Throughout Anderson’s book he repeats the point that Free is not enough and cannot be pursued alone. Free always works in conjunction with Paid, has to be matched with Paid and should make Paid more profitable (Free, pp. 70, 153, 176, 240).

The close and necessary relationship between Free and Paid might surprise those who relied on reviews of Anderson’s book for their understanding of his argument. Perhaps the most prominent of Anderson’s critics – Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker – argued that “Free is essentially an extended elaboration of Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that ‘information wants to be free.’” Here we have a misreading based on a misunderstanding.

Like many, Gladwell only quotes half of this now infamous mantra. What this selective understanding always leaves out is that Brand – who founded the Whole Earth Catalogue and The WELL and was a significant figure in the early days of the web – identified the tension between the ease of distribution and its impact on value. Speaking at a 1984 hacker conference, Brand declared:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Few recall the beginning of this quote, so there is a chapter in Free exploring Brand’s statement, which Anderson says has become “probably the most important – and misunderstood – sentence of the Internet economy” (Free, p. 96). In a later conversation Brand demonstrated for Anderson what he meant:

The physical world analogy, [Brand] said is a pub. It provides a place for community and conversation, but it doesn’t charge for that. It just charges for the beer that lubricates it. ‘You find that something else to charge for…you always wind up charging for something different from the information’ (Free, p. 100)

The business models that evolve around the relationship between Free and Paid will therefore use indirect means for reward. This means that although Free looks like something novel and untested it effectively draws upon the established approach we know as cross subsidy.

What Free does do differently, however, is use the web’s ease of circulation and collaboration to create the probability that people might pay for something that is unique and considered relatively scarce. Although Free is not the business model, Anderson outlines some basic principles for any business model using Free as its starting point. These include:

  • Build a community around free advice, content or information
  • Collaborate with that community, getting feedback from them that enhances the free content or information being offered
  • Offer different or special versions of the free content or information provided and let those with money buy them
  • Build in a substantial profit margin to the limited products in order to pay for the production of both the abundant and scarce versions

This, then, is the much talked about “freemium” approach, where Free leads to payment for premium. It builds on the established idea of “versioning” whereby similar products in different versions are sold to different customers at different prices (Free, pp. 69, 165, 176). And it covers the full range of consumer psychology so that everyone from the person who wants something that is abundant for nothing, to the client prepared to pay for something similar but which is scarce, can be part of an information business’s constituency.

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Does this approach work? The experience of the music industry says yes, and Anderson cites the oft-quoted Radiohead model in his book. For their album In Rainbows, Radiohead put it on-line prior to the standard CD release and gave fans the freedom to download then pay what they wanted. Zero was an option and some got it for free while others were prepared to hand over $20. In addition the band offered a deluxe box set at $80 each, and all of the 100,000 available sold quickly. The result was that Radiohead sold three million copies of the album across all formats (online, physical, deluxe), with the money made just from digital downloads prior to physical release exceeding the total from their previous album in all formats. Even more importantly, their subsequent concert tour was the biggest ever, and with the top bands now earning four times as much from events as from selling and licensing music, Radiohead reaped the rewards of extending their reach through free, on-line access to their music.

Mike Masnick at Techdirt has distilled the experience of Radiohead and other bands such as Nine Inch Nails into a “formula” for a business model that echoes Anderson’s principles:

Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model ($$$)

Masnick’s report offers a dozen detailed examples of musicians and companies that have embraced this approach and generated handsome revenues that reward them for their creativity even though they are not being paid directly for their content.

This embrace even extends to benefiting from the file sharers who are pilloried for the revenue they supposedly steal from content producers (something that motivated the controversial Digital Economy Bill in the UK). Masnick argues that the music industry needs to give up on the pursuit of new copyright laws, licensing schemes and DRM because of the way they inhibit connections with fans. A number of studies demonstrate that the “pirates” spend much more on legal music than regular consumers, and in his book Remix, copyright specialist Lawrence Lessig argues the downturn in physical album or single sales is not attributable to illegal copying. As such, prohibitions on sharing music are designed to defend the traditional recording industry with its business models based on the control of distribution, but get in the way of expanding the overall music industry, which is thriving like never before.

Can this approach work for industries other than music? Again, the answer is yes. Evidence from the book world shows that releasing free e-book versions of titles generally leads to increased sales of physical copies. Photography is also well placed to benefit. Cory Doctorow has argued that the more copies there are in the digital era the more valuable the non-reproducible becomes. This means that as digital copies of images proliferate – making both the image and the photographer better known and creating a community of interest in the process – the more a small but significant number of people will pay for “talismanic items” like signed, limited edition prints. This was borne out by a recent remark from Ben Burdett, director of the Atlas Gallery in London: “we sell to people who fall for individual images, especially well known images people recognise. They sell most easily because when people see them, they know and love them already.”

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Getting to grips with how Free works requires strategic thinking freed from its established ways. Some of the hype around the arrival of the iPad has come from those who see it as a chance to correct “the mistakes” publishers made in the early days of the web (see the Photo District News editorial from February 2010). But imagining that there could have been world where every reader or viewer paid publishers directly for all their on-line content betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Internet means for information industries. The web is an intrinsically open system, and new ventures would have emerged to provide quality information even if all the legacy companies had retreated behind pay walls from the outset.

Content creation has to be paid for, but in the digital world of information abundance that revenue is no longer going to come principally from direct payment. Free is part of a larger business strategy that leverages the web’s virtues for circulation and collaboration in pursuit of greater rewards, while recognising that we cannot (and should not) fight the impact of the Internet on distribution systems. Free does not mean giving everything away for nothing; it means creatively pursuing indirect mechanisms and cross subsidy to reap the benefits of the new media economy


Photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³/ Flickr

This was written as a guest post for Fast Media Magazine, and appeared there on 12 May 2010.