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Staying Ahead of the Curve


Notes from ASMP’s symposium exploring the role of the visual artist in the changing marketplace

 

Panelists at 2012 Symposium
© Jenna Close

 

On September 27, 2012, ASMP hosted a symposium focused on visual artists and their roles in the evolving industry. Titled “Sustainable Business Models: Issues and Trends Facing Visual Artists” and held at The TimesCenter in New York City, this six-hour event brought together industry experts in three informative panel discussions to explore key issues facing photographers today.

 

Contributing to the discussion were Liz Miller-Gershfeld (VP and senior art producer at Energy BBDO), Stephen Mayes (CEO of VII agency), Susan White (director of photography, Vanity Fair), Rob Haggart (of APhotoEditor.com), Allen Murabayashi (chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter), ASMP members Gail Mooney (of Kelly/Mooney Productions), Andy Batt and Therese Gietler (of AndyBATTstudio) among other esteemed guests. Moderators Jay Kinghorn and Richard Kelly orchestrated lively discussions among the panelists and prompted questions from both the live audience and a Twitter feed with the handle #svms2012.

 

The event covered varying topics — from working professionals attempting to shed light on how to maintain one’s business to publishing and agency representatives speaking about how to engage in new distribution models and industry entrepreneurs discussing how to maintain and sustain compensation for one’s work. This article offers a brief, written recap of the topics covered during the event. To view archived videos of symposium panels online, visit http://new.livestream.com/asmp/sustainablebusinessmodels.

 

The Changing Industry

The inundation of imagery in popular culture, namely social media, is only one issue facing professional photographers today. While the saturated photographic market is a challenge to those who are trying to sustain their business in a traditional model, it also represents an opportunity to fundamentally change the way image makers think about clicking a shutter and telling a story.

 

Jay Kinghorn, moderator of the opening discussion with working photographers titled “A Candid Discussion with Working Pros” made an insightful observation in pointing out that none of the panelists introduced themselves as “photographers.” Contemporary image makers must learn how to wear many hats, be it marketer, videographer, writer or sound artist. Photographers must adapt to changing times and implement new tools in innovative ways.

 

“Photographer” has taken on such a broad meaning these days, says Mooney (a panelist in the first discussion). “You have to see yourself as being more than just someone who shoots with a still camera. There are all kinds of ways to present your vision.”

 

Ron Haviv, photographer and co-founder of VII agency, who also sat on the first panel, says that because the role of the photographer is changing, individuals must not take on more than they can handle.

 

“There’s a lot of merit to understanding that it’s very difficult to be really good at all the different aspects [of photography]. One of the problems we’re starting to come across is that clients are now expecting us to gather video, gather audio, do text interviews, do still photography. When you think about it, that’s like four or five jobs. It used to be four or five really great people who were amazing at that. It’s really hard for one person to be great at all these things.”

 

He suggests that the community should push back and demand that more are hired or else quality will begin to suffer.

 

The dialogue about expectations of skills continued in subsequent panels. In the second panel titled, “Current Distribution Models that Offer Compensation to Creators,” Liz Miller-Gershfeld, VP and Senior Art Producer at Energy BBDO compared photographic productions to conducting an orchestra. She explains, “If a photographer doesn’t have specific skill sets they should know someone who does. You should be a conductor who can bring in a team of people.”

 

Kevin Fitzgerald, CEO of the Copyright Licensing Agency in the U.K. and a panelist on the final panel titled, “The Challenge: Sustainable and Ongoing Creator Compensation” agrees, saying the nature of the professional photographer has changed. “Once roles were clearly defined. But now they are all merging together. Either you do most of the things yourself or you [have to] insource and outsource.”

 

According to Stephen Mayes, “the load on the individual creator is getting heavier.” He explains that the industry has to work together to come up with solutions and technologies for new licensing models and gaining legal rights for Web usage.

 

Photography in a Viral World

Since the explosion of citizen journalism that was centered on the Arab Spring movement in late 2010, the role of the photojournalist has dramatically morphed.

 

“The ubiquity of smartphones allow people to capture moments in very unexpected ways,” says Henry Oh, Principal of Transpecific Media and a participant in the final panel.

 

Mayes adds that, “ownership and distribution of intellectual property are in units. Photos are no longer instruments of memory…they are a streaming process.” In regard to intellectual property, he explains that we now license a piece of work (whether a photo, song or movie) for a period of time. Because this type of content is not a tangible item, the way we think about the image must evolve. In Mayes’s view the value of the photojournalist is based on one’s credibility.

 

Haviv says the nature of the industry requires that photographers assume authorship for their work with a distinct voice and ideas that will make the work stand out.

 

While Mooney sees that, on one hand there is a great deal of competition, on the other hand “it’s very liberating. Today photographers have the opportunity to create in all different forms,” she says. I like to look at the glass as half-full.”

 

Yet, the current landscape is not without problems. “If you work for free, you aren’t only hurting yourself, you’re hurting the community,” Mooney continues. “I can only imagine that the next five years will be cumulative of ten years of changes.” She suggests that, if you don’t know how to provide all the tools for your client’s needs, collaborate with others instead of turning a client away. She acknowledges that current business models are experiencing rapid, unprecedented development. “Everyone is rushing into everyone else’s territory and not understanding that we are making an impact on both. If that continues it will affect licensing the way we know it with still photography,” she says.

 

Rob Haggart from AphotoEditor.com, and a member of the final panel, explains that the mindset of the artist is changing too. “The days of hiding behind a camera…are gone,” he says.

 

Mayes points out that we must still consider the nature of photography and understand why we are in the business. “There’s more to photography than clicking the shutter…it is an emotional experience,” he explains.

 

Sustainable Business Models

The democratization of the camera through portable smart phones and tablets has raised the bar for those just entering the industry. While many view the prospect of photography as a valuable communication tool, and a language of its own inherent for the current generation, others fear that there is now the perception that professional imaging is worth less because images have become so ubiquitous. And classic business models are changing.

 

“We live in a world of immediate gratification. While short-term metrics are important, we must also embrace long-term connections,” says Andy Batt, photographer, director and principal of andyBATTstudio, who explained that photographers must find their voice and their vision.

 

In addition, photographers should find their audience, says Mooney. To make this happen she uses social media, yet she recommends having a focused agenda for such tasks so that they don’t suck your time. “You need to define yourself in order to create a marketing plan — identify what you offer and define your clientele, then move forward,” she says. “Think not about yourself as a photographer but more about how you consume information. Creative professionals need to be able to understand and articulate their work.” Image makers must “optimize their discoverability without cluttering the message.”

 

“People who have been successful at getting hits [with] online videos know how to tap into various marketing and social media channels,” says Allen Murabayashi, chairman and cofounder of Photoshelter a panelist in the second session.

 

Susan White, Director of Photography at Vanity Fair magazine, who joined the final panel discussion, admittedly does not use social media Web sites. “We are obsessed with numbers and everybody doing it,” she says. “The gatekeepers are becoming more important.”

 

According to Haggart, photographers should try to figure out the areas where “they can provide more value [to the industry] instead of just the picture.” “When value drops out in one place, it goes up in another,” he explains. “There is value in other parts of the chain.” One thing to pay attention to, he says, is being able to convey authority over a subject matter outside of the technical operation of the camera. This, he explains, adds value to the work and integrity to the profession.

 

Mayes agrees, recommending that photographers should have something to say and know to whom they want to say it. He sees a shift in the paradigm, which requires image makers to think outside the current business model to generate new types of revenue for work. Visual communicators must become an authority beyond just technical camera skills.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s important to note, as Mayes articulates, that “we are all at the same starting line” and we all have to figure out how new business can be conducted. Henry Oh is a proponent of understanding the new tools of the craft. And Fitzgerald recommends coming up with collective solutions within the creative industry.

 

While all panelists signaled that the path to success in the changing photographic paradigm is not easy to navigate, there were several takeaways for visual communicators of all types: Photography has always evolved, but now it’s happening at an increasingly accelerated rate; photographers should bond together as professionals to make the changes they want to see in the industry; finding one’s voice and assuming authorship for one’s work can make the work stand out; and visual communicators need to revise the way they think about the photograph — no longer is it a mechanism of clicking a shutter, it’s now a mindset, a stream of information, and a tool from which values of authenticity can be assigned.

 

Mayes reminds the audience that because the industry can be overwhelming, it is important to remember to “be real, but relax your grip.” He says that photographers should take a step back and focus on applying their strengths. White says the key to surviving is to concentrate on creativity: As it was said in ancient Greece, “Ars longa — art endures.”

 

Lindsay Comstock