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Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.

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media economy photography

The new media landscape (3): community, transactions and value

 

The disruptive power of the internet has produced a new ecology of information. As outlined in the first post of this series, this is the inescapable big picture for anyone engaged in creative practice.

This new ecology of information incorporates some hard realities for those of us seeking to support creative practice. In the second post of this series, I argued that community is now an essential concept in the new media landscape.

Throughout I have drawn inferences from what is happening to large media organisations in this revolutionary environment so that independent photographers and visual journalists can understand the challenges they face.

In this third and last post of the series, I want to discuss how some media companies are pursuing different sources of revenue. While their strategies are not easily replicable, they show how the dynamics of the new media landscape are playing out when it comes to the nitty-gritty of business models.

The end of distribution supporting scarcity

The past profitability of many media companies was based on controlling the mode of distribution so that scarcity prices could be charged. What the disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation of the media economy exposes is that this control was unique to a particular historical moment, resulting in prices that were artificially high.

As Google argued in a submission to the US Federal Trade Commission, this certainly applied to newspapers:

The large profit margins newspapers enjoyed in the past were built on an artificial scarcity: Limited choice for advertisers as well as readers. With the Internet, that scarcity has been taken away and replaced by abundance. No policy proposal will be able to restore newspaper revenues to what they were before the emergence of online news. It is not a question of analog dollars versus digital dimes, but rather a realistic assessment of how to make money in a world of abundant competitors and consumer choice.

It also applies to television, movies and music, because “the very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution” – that is, control over broadcast networks, cinema chains and record companies. Once that content has been digitised and streamed, centralised control and high prices is much harder to maintain.

The hard reality, then, is that business models have to be decoupled from modes of distribution. In a context where publication and broadcasting have become easier and cheaper, running printing presses and managing TV networks are no longer licenses to print money. No business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution can succeed in the long-term.

Of course, existing media corporations can go on for some time. Legacy industries don’t grind to an instantaneous halt just because the central principles of their operating environment unravel. But if they fail to innovate, they tend to decline slowly before becoming unsustainable.

Diverse and indirect approaches

If a business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution cannot succeed in the long-term, another casualty will be the idea of the single business model behind visual journalism. The new approach will be a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly.

As John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News declared, news organisations do not make money from news; news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism.

There is nothing new in this. Advertising has been the main source of revenue for mainstream media, with a contingent and indirect relationship to the journalism we (mistakenly) assume is the raison d’etre of media companies.

While it seems shocking to say news is a ‘brand’, that is how it has functioned. Oliviero Toscani, who was behind the controversial Benetton campaigns of the 1990s once remarked that we should understand that in a capitalist media economy “editorial was always the advertising of advertising.”

Although advertising will remain important for media companies, and new ways of garnering subscriptions might offer small revenue streams, what are these indirect approaches going to comprise?

The community that pays

That is where the idea of community comes in. Those engaged and loyal people – readers, viewers, listeners, fans – who identify with and congregate around their chosen content streams are where revenue comes from.

It’s fashionable to say nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, and there a plenty of online comment threads that can be mined for anecdotal evidence to support this rather glib generalisation. But if we think about the hundreds of millions of TV episodes, 10 billion songs and 10 billion apps sold via iTunes, or the 23 million Netflix subscribers in North America, or Spotify’s 1 million subscribers in Europe, plenty of people reach into their pocket for quality content. If providers offer availability and ease of use, direct payment for something that is not fungible is forthcoming.

If we look at indirect revenue from communities, then transactions are key. Fairfax (publishers of the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the largest media company in Australasia) has seen digital grow into its second largest revenue stream. 60% of their digital revenue comes from transactions, with readers using companies that Fairfax purchased, including a dating service called RSVP and a holiday home rental service, Stayz.com.

Transactions are one way that social networks can be leveraged for revenue, with social recommendations leading to commissions. As one Deloitte analyst predicted,

the next phase of social commerce is about extracting commissions from products which are sold directly as a result of recommendations made…So rather than selling advertising, what you’re doing is taking a commission against a product sold.

A 2011 report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on the business of digital journalism pointed to a number of indirect transactions supporting editorial content, such as The Atlantic magazine’s events business with $6 million/year in revenue. In a similar vein the Washington Post is running online courses and The Guardian is organising weekend masterclasses.

None of these constitute the holy grail that will replace the unending decline in print advertising revenue. But they are good examples of creative approaches that don’t fight the disruption of the internet and work with the contours of the new media landscape.

Can an indirect approach work for photography? When I reviewed the New York Times paid content scheme at the end of March, I painted a different scenario using transactions rather than subscriptions:

The Lens blog is a high profile site with some 750,000 users visiting each month. Instead of raising money by hoping some of those subscribe on their 21st visit each month, consider the monthly visitors as a community of interest around photojournalism and offer goods and services to that community. There could be Lens-sponsored master classes, special events and workshops for both professionals and the general public; print sales; discounted equipment and photographic services via business affiliates; photo tours and themed travel; equipment, medical and travel insurance for practitioners; logistics and visa services for photographers having to travel at short notice…you name it, anything that interests a broad photographic community, amateur and professional, could be offered by negotiated deals where Lens’s earns a percentage on each transaction.

This strategy would leverage the Lens blog Twitter feeds and referrals providing unlimited free access. It would be based on growing the community that comes to the site, thereby underscoring the value of having quality photojournalism distributed globally and the benefit of having it accessible to as many as possible. It could raise more revenue than subscriptions could achieve, and the revenue could go directly to photojournalism.

This is the emerging logic for media companies. Might it work for independent documentary photographers and photojournalists? Even if the scale is different, why not? This logic comes from the dynamics in the new media landscape affecting everybody.

Paul Melcher claims “photographers, photo agencies and related have no experience in building value around their images.” That has to change. Value will be created indirectly more than directly. It begins with the six steps towards building your own community.

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

 

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.17: The starving child as symbolic marker

Contemporary news photographs are chosen less for their descriptive function and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives. Although news images can illustrate the story they accompany, it is often the case that the photograph published with a story does not depict the specifics of that story.

This photograph – a stereotypical famine picture from Ethiopia – that appeared in the print version of Monday’s Guardian is a case in point (the online version of the story is here, but it is illustrated with a political portrait of Berlusconi and Sarkozy). The photo’s relationship to the critique of France, Germany and Italy’s aid performance by the charity One is tangential at best. It seems that that a chain of association – aid, Bono and Geldorf, the 2005 G8 pledge and sub-Saharan Africa – justifies the use of “a malnourished child in Ethiopia.” While Ethiopia is subject to ongoing food insecurity, the World Food Program reports that after two troublesome years the situation is currently improving.

What is even more remarkable about this photograph, and what demonstrates further the symbolic function of news imagery, is that it was used previously by the Guardian in September 2009. On that occasion it accompanied a story headlined “By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry as climate change leads to food crisis.” In that instance the caption read “A malnourished boy at a feeding centre in Ethiopia. Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia will be most vulnerable to food shortages, the IFPRI report found.”

The original photograph was taken in June 2008 by Jose Cendon of AFP, and the Getty Images caption for editorial photo number 94984780 reads: “A malnourished boy is portrayed at a feeding center 10 June 2008 in Damota Pulassa village, southern Ethiopia. Ethiopia said the number of people in need of food aid had risen to 4.5 million from 2.2 million due to failed rains, as it issued a plea for international help. IFRC/AFP PHOTO/JOSE CENDON.” The key words are: “Fly, Center, Village, Horizontal, Africa, Famine, Ethiopia, Underweight, Feeding, Drought, Poverty, Child, Weather, Boys, Malnutrition, Crisis.”

 

 

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.15: Syria, social media and photojournalism

Both the scale of the protests in Syria, and the violence of the regime’s response, is growing. Yet photojournalism is able to offer little about this vital story. While we have seen powerful coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen, there seem to be few if any photojournalists – either freelance or associated with the wires – at work in Syria. I have seen one Flickr stream from Syria, but given the nature of the regime, a larger photographic absence is perhaps unsurprising.

In the place of photojournalism, media outlets are using video footage and screen grabs taken from social media sites. For example, to illustrate its 25 April story “Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began,” Reuters has a gallery of ten images many of which come with this warning:

this still image [was] taken from amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on [date]. Editor’s note: Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of the video from which this still was taken.

Reuters Pictures is selling many of these images for clients in a package labelled “Arab States Conflict (Anti-Government Protests in Syria – 25 Apr 2011).” The Guardian used one of them at the top of its Syria live blog on 26 April, and has a related gallery of pictures from protests in Homs here. While the social media provenance of the images is explicit in the Reuters’ credits – they read “REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV” – it is interesting that a picture produced by others can by watermarked by Reuters to protect its value.

Some of the social media-derived pictures are dramatic, as in the case of the man throwing a rock at a tank in Deraa (above). Many of them show large crowds streaming through the streets of various towns, the military gathering around those protests, and the deadly consequences of live fire.

There is, I think, a curious effect of this reliance on amateur images. On the one hand, their lack of a professional aesthetic – especially their graininess, poor focus, and unsteady composition – signifies authenticity and immediacy. The image makers are more interested in the politics than the picture. And yet, on the other hand, their capacity to make us connect with the events portrayed is diminished by the way they render people as anonymous crowds in a middle distance. As a result we lack, I feel, an insight into the people, their passions and purpose.

In Egypt especially we saw photojournalism using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further enhance our connection.

The coverage of Syria to date offers a different lesson. It’s not an argument against ‘citizen journalism’, because in the absence of professional photojournalism the only alternative to getting pictures via social media would be total blindness. We need professionals and amateurs to combine in producing a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, when the professional are not present, something is lacking.

Top photo: A man prepares to throw a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Credit: REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.

Second photo: Syrian anti-regime protesters waving their national flag and holding a sign that reads in Arabic “Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Druze, I am Syrian” during a demonstration in the central town of Homs. Credit: YouTube/AFP/Getty Images.

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Covering Japan’s disaster: A visual journalist’s reflections

Dan Chung spent four days covering the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Based in Beijing as the Guardian’s videojournalist, Dan runs the DSLR Newshooter blog and is the video tutor for the MA in International Multimedia Journalism I contribute to. Upon returning to Beijing on Thursday Dan came into class to give an immediate, first-hand account of his experience in Japan.

Dan spoke for nearly two hours, offering a revealing and thought-provoking analysis of the aesthetic, logistical and reporting challenges he faced working in the disaster zone. He kindly allowed the talk to be recorded and made available as a podcast. I have edited the talk, taking out the sections that recorded the audio from the video reports he showed. In the recording you will hear questions from DJ Clark, and references to Adam Dean, a freelance photojournalist in Beijing, and Tania Branigan, the Guardian’s China correspondent.

You can listen to the podcast here, and I have provided the videos Dan discussed so you can follow the discussion and engage the debate about how to cover an event of this magnitude.

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Some of the key points I took away from the talk were:

  • the logistical challenges of getting to the disaster zone quickly were immense, as were the challenges then faced in moving around the disaster zone. He noted that each day only about 2-3 hours was available for shooting still or video images; the rest of the time was consumed by logistics, be that sourcing fuel, power, internet connections and food
  • although he has advised journalists not to shoot stills and video at the same time during an assignment, this was an event in which that dual function was unavoidable. (Dan’s stills galleries can be seen here and here, and he talks about them at 42:00 in the podcast). However he opted to focus on video because of the large number of highly skilled photographers working on the story
  • the fundamental question he thought journalists should ask themselves is ‘what are you doing there, and what can you add to the story’ given the blanket coverage by both the Japanese and international media
  • in assessing a visual journalist’s contribution to the story, he argued that you had to consider the overall media environment you were publishing into. In this story there is the extensive coverage of the Japanese media, the large presence of international agencies and wire services, and extensive social media networks.
  • In this context, the most dramatic footage came from user generated content (such as this video, discussed at 18:15 in the podcast), and it was very hard for international journalists to compete with that. He described a lot of the western coverage as “formulaic,” driven by conventions of reporting and the limits of what one could do in the disaster zone.
  • Dan said his function was to be a witness, providing images to take the reader somewhere they are not.
  • He wondered whether we would be seeing some “stylised photojournalism” in an effort to do something different. He felt that the drive to differentiate oneself through aesthetics was problematic. He asked, “how much thinking can you do outside the box photographically in a disaster like this? How much is down to what you come across, what you see?”

Dan discussed the videos he produced during the talk. At 15:26 he introduces the first story, which is this standard “television style” package presented by Jonathan Watts, that appeared on the Guardian site on 13 March.

[jwplayer config=”Custom Player” mediaid=”1908″]

This was contrasted (at 17:38 in the podcast) to Matt Allard’s Aljazeera English report, which Dan regarded as amongst the best of the TV reports.

In an effort to offer something different, Dan produced a piece of ‘cinematic journalism’ he felt embodied the experience of being in the disaster zone. He discusses his intentions at length in the podcast (from 20:55 to 30:00). This film, which took less than two hours to make, has generated a lot of controversy online, as the comments on Vimeo demonstrate.

 

Aftermath – The Japanese Tsunami from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

The Guardian did not like this package, largely because of the music that accompanied the shots. In London they took Dan’s footage and re-edited it with some audio of a survivor, producing this version.

Watching both versions back to back it is striking how different the visuals can feel when associated with music in the first and the voice over in the second. It demonstrates well that pictures do not speak for themselves.

The final video story Dan discussed (at 31:20 in the podcast) is that of a helicopter rescue, that begins with some of the amateur video he felt provided the strongest visuals.

Dan concluded with a reassessment of his earlier commitment to solo video journalism. He argued that being a single operator visual journalist is extremely difficult for spot news. It offers enormous advantages for a documentary approach, he said, but because the media environment is not a level playing field given the large operators’ resources and logistical support, it could not contribute as much as he had originally hoped to the coverage of event like the earthquake/tsunami.

Featured photo: Fishing boat washed up on the waterfront of Kessennuma, 13 March. Dan Chung/The Guardian