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media economy multimedia photography

Media disruption (1): The primacy of the screen and mobile

What are the key features of the media economy in 2015? And how do those features effect the work of visual storytellers?

Two years on from the publication of Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, I want to update – in a series of articles – some of the central findings of that research. That report was the summation of the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project, which was designed to review issues around, and map the global emergence of, multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism.

The research examined the transformation of the media economy so we could better understand how information is being produced, published, consumed, and funded. This is something I have been writing about since my five-part series on the revolutions in the media economy posted in 2009, and three posts on the new media landscape in 2011.

I believe understanding the nature and scale of the on-going disruption in the media economy is essential for anyone involved in documentary, news and non-fiction narratives. While I would argue the analysis in Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds, some things are now even more significant.

First, the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile.

World_media_consumption
[Source: Screen Fiends]

This year, for the first time, individuals around the world will spend more time online than with any other media platform. There are regional variations, some of this activity will take place concurrently, and given the rise of internet streaming the boundary between online and television is blurred. We have to recognise that internet access is unequally distributed (note the absence of Africa, where only one-quarter of the population use the internet, from the above data). But what is indisputable is that the screen has become the primary access point globally for information and entertainment.

Mobile-phone-screen-evolution
[Source: This Isn’t Happiness]

The primacy of the screen is closely tied to the growth in mobile devices. The 2 billion iOS and Android devices currently in use will soon grow to 3 billion, easily surpassing the 1.6 billion PC’s in existence. Mobile phone ownership has grown dramatically in all the world’s regions.

The smartphone – a touchscreen device with internet access – is becoming supreme. Smartphone ownership in the US has grown from 35% of adults in 2011 to 64% in 2014, and nearly three-quarters of American teenagers have smartphones. In the UK it is up from 30% in 2010 to 66% in 2014, and the level of smartphone penetration is similar in Western Europe. Global smartphone penetration shows wide regional variations, although growth is universal.

Times-and-screens
[Source: Paul Adams, Why ‘mobile first’ may already be outdated, Inside Intercom]

Mobile devices are not really mobile, at least in the conventional view that they are mostly glanced at when on the move. Yes, touchscreen devices – tablets and smartphones – are handheld and used outside the home, but two-thirds of people use them in both the home and beyond. In fact, they have become the way most of us regularly access the internet, accounting for nearly 60% of the time spent online in the UK.

Rather than regarding mobile devices as just a scaled down version of the internet, we should appreciate that each device is an entire internet platform that exceeds the browser version of the web available on PC’s. The smartphone is itself a social platform where apps are networked through contacts, images and notifications. And we know it has eaten the stand-alone camera, with the number of iPhones and Android devices exceeding the total of Japanese cameras ever sold.

This means “mobile” is the wrong frame of reference – it is not about the status of small devices, but the way in which information is produced, published and consumed via the screen. Indeed, the size of device is secondary. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, regards televisions as “just glass-panelled displays connected to the internet” rather than unique devices.

It has become a cultural cliche that smartphones are “ruining our lives” by making us distracted, isolated and stupid (humorously presented in these 27 cartoons). The ever growing number of US users have a different view, however, with the vast majority seeing them as “freeing, connecting, helpful.” This is part of their overwhelmingly positive view of the internet’s impact on society and their lives, with at least three-quarters saying it has been a good thing that improves their ability to learn things and be better informed. Nor do they complain of “information overload” – a majority of internet users (72%) enjoy having so much information at their fingertips, while just 26% find it overwhelming.

All this has important implications for thinking about how information is structured and stories presented. The audience is engaged, and “mobile” can no longer be a subset of digital experience. While some offerings will be for those with little time while in transit, overall the mobile experience for readers and viewers needs to be comprehensive as it might be the only touchpoint between you and your audience. This is especially so given the willingness of users to access immersive, long-form stories via their small screens – as in the case of serious 6,000 word BuzzFeed report that had half its views on mobile with people reading for 12-25 minutes.

People are consuming more media, and doing it principally through screens of various sizes connected to the internet. Other platforms like print will persist, but in new and more limited ways. This is the media infrastructure producers need to know and work with.

Next in this series…how the audience consumes news in the digital space

Categories
photography politics

Photo book as political object: Edmund Clark’s Control Order House

Clark02

Edmund Clark’s Control House Order is a book that on the surface appears to be about banality. This banality stems from the form of control or detention without trial created as a consequence of the fear of terrorist attack. Control Order House maps, through photographs, diagrams and documents, an apparently unremarkable British suburban house in which a “controlled person” suspected of terrorism is detained, and it details how this space is created and maintained through detailed, bureaucratic practices of control. Far from the exoticised, foreign spaces of terror we see one of the mundane, domestic spaces in which the war on terror is materialised.

I first wrote about Clark’s work in November 2010 when his book Guantánamo: If the light goes out was excerpted in The Guardian. I was struck by the way Clark focused on the objects of violence as a conscious strategy to avoid the dehumanising effects of conventional photojournalism.

Here is a photographer employing a deliberate aesthetic strategy — the exclusion of detainees and guards from the photos — in order to humanise the issue. He does so because the normal photographic strategy for humanistation (giving the issue a ‘face’) plays into stereotypes that drive the war on terror. For Clark, rehumanisation involves not showing people. His understanding of the aesthetic and political issues at play in this subject are I think a model example of the reflexivity that is required to make the best documentary work.

I interviewed Clark (via Skype on 31 October 2013) to discuss Control House Order, and his reflexiveness is evident throughout the recording, which is available here:

 

Clark08

We discussed a number of important issues in his work, but four stand out for me:

First, Control Order House is at one level a photo book, but a very different photo book. Because the house is, in Clark’s words, “anondyne,” the photographs and the way they are printed in the book, appear as crime scene images that offer a visual recording of the space. Because of that, Clark focuses on the process of photography, the practices of control implicated in the making of the images, rather than what the photographs show. This is aided and abetted by the publication of relevant documents in the book.

Second, the indispensability of interpretation is at the heart of Clark’s photographs. While he photographs with a particular intention, he knows he does not control the meaning of his images, because meaning is produced by their context, location and encounter with other viewers, and indeed he welcomes this openness.

Third, Clark understands his work as an artist to be political in the sense that it is about political events, experiences and issues, and has a general political motivation in the form of engaging people. However, he notes in the book that, “I’m not writing to persuade you for against these measures,” and does not see it as activist or campaign work. That is because he regards that form of political work as closing off different interpretations inherent in images by insisting on one meaning.

Finally, Control Order House is deliberately made (in collaboration with a talented designer) as a beautiful, tangible object in order to enable the process of engagement. Because Clark is dealing with mundane issues, he is conscious of the need to present them in as attractive a form as possible. Every aspect of the book’s design and production has been thought through, with different paper stocks for particular sections just one example. And as an artist, Clark doesn’t resile from having made a relatively expensive, limited edition book as a general political work, instead seeing it as the condition for engagement. This means Clark understands his book as the beginning of a process of engagement rather than its finished product.

For anyone concerned with the how and why of contemporary documentary work, and how a photo book can function politically, I think Clark’s book and interview are indispensable resources.

Clark05

Photographs courtesy of Edmund Clark. Copyright Edmund Clark. 

Categories
photography

Changing the conversation about photography

My concern has always been for photography that connects with the world to say something about the world so we can do things in the world.

That leads to me to focus mostly on the practices we know as documentary and photojournalism, but my concern has often been frustrated and limited by the terms of the conversation about photographic imagery, especially when it gets bogged down in the exhausted philosophical straight jacket of objectivity/subjectivity.

Maybe things are changing. This one minute statement from Marvin Heiferman – who edited Photography Changes Everything – is very important:

 

He says there is no simple story about photography, no tidy narrative, that we have to rethink what photographs are and do, and our conversation needs to be more sophisticated.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 15.29.01

Marcus Bleasdale follows what I think is a similar line of thought – in a short video that could not be embedded but is available here. He states, “It’s not the individual photograph, it’s what you do with it, and who you engage with it, that makes it powerful.”

Together these short statements tentatively point towards a new framing of the conversation – away from a concern with the products of photography to its process. This will be a conversation that deals first and foremost with the purpose and effect of images. And it will make transparent the processes through which the photographic image (still or moving) can be an opening or organising node in a network of intersubjective actions and possibilities.

Categories
photography politics

Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

The US presidential election began this week. Although polling day is still 18 months away, yesterdays Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire marks the start of the race.

As ever, the economy, jobs, healthcare and education will be key issues, with more people worried about these than war. In Britain, along with immigration and multiculturalism, the picture is pretty much the same, which is not surprising given we face an ideological government savaging public services.

Which got me wondering – what does photojournalism contribute to these debates? Beyond the daily campaign picture and stock political portrait, what stories are we seeing from photojournalists and documentary photographers that engage these issues? My sense is not much, and certainly not enough.

Photojournalism has long been fixated on the foreign. Check out the web sites of major agencies like Magnum, VII, Panos and Noor and you will see that in the featured stories domestic concerns are a minority interest (though LUCEO is perhaps an exception to this). I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ‘Features and essays’ in Mikko Takkunen’s excellent Photojournalism Links, and over the last month foreign stories outnumber domestic ones by a ratio of 3:1. All this confirms Stephen Mayes 2009 statement that photojournalism is now more romantic – meaning “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” – than functional, and supports Asim Rafiqui’s claim that we face a “strange silence of the conscience” whereby the “hollowing out” of our societies is under-recorded.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous (even this one). What counts as ‘home’ is linked in part to personal identity, so, given the preponderance of American and European photographers in the industry, I’m thinking of the minority world as ‘home’ and the majority world as ‘foreign’.

It is also the case that in a globalized and interdependent world, the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ is far from clear-cut. Many stories cut across borders. Even war is not something that occurs only beyond the water’s edge. When Nina Berman, Edmund Clark and Ashley Gilbertson show the impact of conflict on the home front, it is not easy to locate their work on one side or other of the international boundary.

There are also a number photographers working in domestic space on social issues. Recent examples from the UK include Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’, Liz Lock and Mishka Henner’s Borderland and Hinterland, George Georgiou’s Curry and Chips, my multimedia partner Peter Fryer’s work in South Shields, and of course Amber/Side’s long history of documenting the north east of England. On emphas.is (although still a minority) the recent US-based projects of Matt Eich, Aaron Huey and Justin Maxton would count as domestic. The ongoing projects of Anthony Suau and Matt Black (highlighted by Asim Rafiqui) are impressive, and no doubt readers can (and should) add others.

And yet so much more is needed. It’s best illustrated by one of my all-time favourite multimedia pieces, Evan Vucci’s 2009 story “Faces of the Uninsured.” It tells the story of working Americans who cannot afford health care and must travel long distances to access the services of Remote Area Medical, an NGO that once focused on aid to “the Third World” but now concentrates on the US (17 of their 21 missions in 2011 are in America). Vucci’s story is an under-stated but shocking presentation of a domestic issue.

Given that the Republicans scorn Obama’s modest health care reforms as ‘socialism’ there is ample reason for a humanist tradition of photography to engage this issue alone. Initiatives like Facing Change: Documenting America and American Poverty.org show promising signs of movement on other related concerns. I’m not suggesting people walk away from the important international stories. But surely there are more than enough visual storytellers for many lenses to be turned towards home.

Photo credit: A discarded kitchen appliances sits in one of many fields surrounding the Hattersley Estate. Copyright Liz Lock & Mishka Henner, 2006.

Categories
media economy photography

Making documentary possible: How the Internet leads to new funding opportunities

Finding the money to enable new photographic work is one of the most pressing issues practitioners currently face. Editorial paymasters have been in decline for a very long time, forcing those who want to pursue challenging and time-consuming projects to seek other means of support. Now the Internet’s disruption of the media economy has quelled any forlorn hope that there will be a single, universal business model to replace the advertising revenue that enabled – some time ago, in a limited and indirect way – photojournalism and documentary work.

This challenge requires a radical rethinking of how creative practice can be supported. One step is to recognize that because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution by bring the cost effectively to near zero, it’s highly unlikely any business model can hitch itself to a single mode of distribution and succeed. Another step is to understand that leveraging the benefit of the Internet’s capacity for distribution in all these channels requires some content to circulate for free.

In our digital present, as soon as something (like a song or photo) becomes an easily replicable file of bytes, nobody can exercise perfect control over its distribution. And if one cannot exercise this control, then being rewarded for the creative process that arranged those bytes cannot be limited to the sale of those bytes.

Of course, few concepts raise more hackles in the creative world than the idea of ‘free’. At the base of this concern is the misplaced belief that free is itself the business model. Instead, free needs to be understood as an acceptance of the dynamics of digital distribution and the first stage in finding ways to gain rewards from that largely unfettered circulation.

What does this mean in practice? As examples from the music industry (as opposed to the recording business) demonstrate, many artists, both new and established, are already pursuing these strategies. They may or may not replicable in the photographic world, so we cannot say a ‘new business model’ has been discovered and will work for all concerned. Nonetheless, I’ve come across a few examples in recent times of new ways of working that are producing the financial means to foster new creative practice.

  • Stephen Gill publishes his work through his own imprint Nobody Books, and issues both regular versions and limited editions of 100 that sell for £200 or more. This is “versioning” and is driven by the fact that in a world of infinitely reproducible digital copies a sufficient number of people want the non-reproducible in material form and are prepared to pay handsomely for it.
  • Nick Turpin of Nick Turpin Publishing told the British Journal of Photography earlier this year:

“My business model is very specific, I have to make my publications quickly and efficiently, sell them directly to the public through the internet, thereby avoiding the loss of 45 percent of my cover price to distributors and bookshops, and market them using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and my own website. I build a community around the publications allowing, for example, street photographers to submit their work for inclusion in the next Publication magazine. More than 1000 have done so. I hesitated to show too much of my first magazine online, but I actually found that the more I displayed images from it, the more people wanted to buy and own it – the opposite of what I had expected” (emphasis added)

  • Ctien, a Los Angeles-based fine art photographer, has used his web presence to solicit regular sponsorship from his community of admirers. He offers people four contributor levels, asks for monthly subscriptions, and offers various cards and prints in return depending on the amount they pledge. From just 94 fans he has obtained $15,000 per year, which amounts to one third of his living expenses.
  • This approach also works for social documentary. Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have garnered a lot of attention for their Sochi Project, which is covering the issues in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, and makes some examples of the project public on the web while retaining others for subscribers. Like the previous case, through different supporter levels and their engagement with those who sign up, they have attracted €22,000 in the first year which enabled them to undertake the first stage of the work.

There are also collective funding platforms where the web’s reach enables people to pitch for public support to support their work:

  • Kickstarter is the most notable of these. It has seen 3,000 projects funded (a little less than half those that bid for support) and you currently needs a US bank account to start a project, but anyone with a credit card can give. Projects are only funded when they reach their goal, and most projects are asking for under $10,000 but some raise many times that. The most successful projects are over-subscribed, and the total amount of money raised is available for the proposer. As in the above cases, higher rate pledges are encouraged through versioning. While used for all sorts of proposals other than photography, documentary projects have done well too. A recent example is Amira Al Sharif’s proposal for “Unveiling Misconceptions: A Muslim Woman Documents Lives of American Women Project.” Currently with 208 backers it has raised $8017, and will likely double its goal by the November deadline. Amira was aided in her efforts by the support of Ed Kashi who effectively used Twitter to distribute her plans through various networks (mine amongst them).
  • Starting early next year, emphas.is will take the crowd-sourcing model of Kickstarter and partly apply it to photojournalism. An introduction to the project is online now, and is preceded by screens that declare “what if you were on Robert Capa’s email list in 1944?…what if Don McCullin was blogging live from Vietnam?…Now imagine if you had sent them there yourself.” Its invitation for supporters to engage with photographers directly is enticing, and given that 3,500 people have already registered their interest, substantial support seems likely. While the funding is open and crowd sourced, the projects on offer are limited and “carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.” Although emphas.is depends on the new thinking demanded by social media, and the supporting blog titled its first post “never mind the gatekeepers,” the project does unfortunately turn to some old ideas to introduce its purpose, not least when they claim to have “partly” found “the silver bullet that will cure all that ails the media industry.” Likewise, casting contributors as people “willing to pay a small fee for the privilege of being included” is to potentially rely on an outmoded idea of subscription and diminish the necessary community building aspect of crowd sourced funding. I hope they recast their thinking to more accurately reflect current realities as they go forward with this important initiative, and I hope the gatekeepers on their board of reviewers would be open to a project like Amira Al Sharifs.

These examples pursue a variety of different approaches, but all use the power of the web to connect with supporters and offer them both engagement and reward for their support, often for projects that are yet to be undertaken. Even when material products like books are being produced, all these examples depend on having a web presence and being active in social networks to build a community of supporters. In all of these cases free does not mean giving everything away for nothing; it means creatively using the new media economy for new works.

None of these examples lead to a single, replicable, one-size fits-all business model. Each has its own business model. It’s never been easy funding the good work in photojournalism and documentary. It will continue to be as difficult as it’s ever been. But if we think beyond the confines of the past its possible to see a wider range of tools that can both create and access a larger community to make it possible.

This post is drawn from a lecture I gave at the International Orange Festival, Changsha, China on 23 October 2010.

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

 

Categories
photography politics

‘Crossfire’ censored: the power of documentary photography

If we wanted a clear pointer to the political power of documentary photography, and a stark lesson in how pictures that pose difficult questions can provoke authorities, we need look no further than the vital work of Shahidul Alam and the Drik Gallery in Bangladesh.

Photo credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik

Shahidul’s new exhibition “Crossfire” examines extra judicial killings and torture allegedly carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh. According to the exhibition,

“Human rights groups maintain that over 1000 people have been killed by RAB since its inception. All such deaths have been attributed to gunfights between RAB and criminals where the people in RAB custody were caught in crossfire. No member of RAB has yet been killed in crossfire.”

The New York Times Lens blog reviewed the exhibition’s photographs noting that,

“Instead of a literal document of the killings, Mr. Alam created a series of large images that are evocative of the places where the victims were murdered or discovered — a still-life film noir in Technicolor. With the help of researchers, he examined cases to point out inconsistent details in the official accounts…A field [see above] that was supposedly the scene of a shootout is portrayed undisturbed, suggesting the corpse had only been dumped there.”

When Rob Godden of The Rights Exposure Project wrote about “Crossfire” a couple of weeks ago he concluded with the prescient observation that we should “spread the word, [because] this one may get shut down before it even opens.”

So it came to pass. On Monday of this week police cordoned off the gallery just prior to its opening, leading to a siege of the exhibition (see the New York Times coverage here). This has led to protests outside the gallery, and condemnation from some newspapers in Dhaka and Amnesty International in London.

It is insufficient, but from a distance we can do little more than applaud Shahidul and the Drik community for their commitment, and let both them and the Bangladeshi authorities that we are vigilantly watching their actions. Drik has a long record of photographic activism drawing official censure (evident earlier this year in the Chinese opposition to their Tibet show), and we can learn a lot from their work.

UPDATES IN THE COMMENTS BELOW…