The photography industry suffered a seismic shift with the advent of digital cameras, yet it may be the ubiquitous camera phone that sounds the death knell of the industry as we know it. Everywhere in every hand is instant access to high-quality image-making technology that has forever altered the landscape of photography from what it means to be a photographer to how the viewing public perceives the value of images and image creation. Are professional photographers aboard a sinking ship, or is it simply time for us to learn to swim on our own?
The collective blood of photographers the world over begins to boil at the mere mention of exposure. Articles, tweets, blog posts, and Instagram stories about potential clients trying to exchange exposure for goods and services are released daily. We gather in Facebook groups to rail against the temerity of anyone entitled enough to ask us to trade our hard work for something as nebulous as “exposure.” The memes abound.
I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now, and I’ve come to suspect that we, as photographers, are missing the point entirely. While we are busy taking offense, we’re missing the flashing red sign that’s warning us of a curve in the road ahead. Rather than taking such requests, which are not only made by private clients but major news outlets and big-name brands as a personal offense, we might want to see these requests as a symptom of an alteration in the way society views and values photography.
We are inundated with imagery. Once a high-quality camera reached the fingertips of everyone with a cell phone and social media allowed us to instantaneously share images of our everyday lives, the inherent value of photography was bound to change. Of course, the basic concept of supply and demand tells us that overabundance drives down price. Competition of this level also forces business to compete based on price, which leads to a downward spiral and desperation to get work in front of more eyes by any means necessary. Articles are being written and statuses shared about the value of photography, which are aimed at other photographers in an effort to convince them to stop devaluing the industry by working for free. To my mind, this is as futile as tilting at windmills. Even if such advice reached every photographer on the planet, there would still be hobbyists and non-photographers who have no compunctions sharing their photos with news outlets and brands on Instagram. In addition, the shift toward potential clients offering exposure as a form of payment has to be understood in context.
Outside of the hyper-availability of quality (read: technically sound) imagery, I think it’s incumbent upon us to recognize that social capital has become a true currency. In an economy where people are freer than ever to curate their information intake, mass marketing is slowly losing ground to niche interests who can gain and keep that most valued commodity: attention. Attention is the reason companies pay millions of dollars to run ads during the Super Bowl. A captive audience is potential income waiting to be leveraged. Even huge corporations are diversifying their advertising to appeal to individual markets. This means that being able to speak to a network comprised of potential clients has actual value. The caveat to this is that not all exposure is created equal, and no one is ever compelled to accept exposure in exchange for work, but ignoring this shift in the economy of image-making and the changes making this shift possible is turning a blind eye to the warning signs.
Since the change wasn’t in image production but the market itself, the effect has been much more insidious. Photographers are seeing the symptoms and missing the diagnosis. How many photographers will be left without an income because they tried to apply their tried and true approach to a market that changed under their feet? No one wants to be the last holdout in a dying market, but what if the market isn’t dying? What if it’s only changing in ways for which we have not yet adapted?
Portrait photographers have been sounding the warning for years now as the bar to entry into the industry has become all but invisible, changing clients’ expectation of pricing. Now, we see rights grabs in the commercial realm by large corporations looking to populate their Instagram feeds, websites devoted entirely to free stock images, and well-respected news companies approaching photojournalists for free images usage. Platforms like Unsplash provide images free for even commercial use without requiring so much as attribution. The landscape is changing.
In a sea of technically sound images, amid a rising tide of exposure and reposts with credit, how do photographers stay afloat? Better yet, how do photographers learn to swim? It is becoming clear that the photographers who will not only survive but thrive in this shifting market are those who:
- cultivated a unique and recognizable voice
- are strong businesspeople
- diversify their income with supplementary revenue streams such as teaching
- add additional specialties such as video and retouching
- add value to their client's lives and businesses beyond simple imagery
Of course, these qualities would (hopefully) make someone successful in any market, but when supply grows to the highest it has ever been with no sign of slowing down and price drops all the way down to free, new paths have to be forged and new skills built, else professionals disappear entirely. In a recent Dedpxl interview with Mikael Cho, the founder of Unsplash, Zack Arias said something that is incredibly apropos to this situation. He asked the founder, "how do you monetize free?" The fact is that industries, entrepreneurs, and other business people have been monetizing free for a long time: free e-books or guides provided to clients for the exchange of their email address, free quotes, buy one get one free, a free download with signing up for a membership, free Kindle books to drive up visibility, a free trial period, and the list goes on. In every case, the point of offering something for free is to generate buzz and convince the client that the business is providing value. Free images are highly shareable; witness the success of the meme and every "see what Disney princesses would look like with___" series shared by Buzzfeed. So, what does that mean for photographers? Is there a way photographers can adapt to monetize free in a market so saturated with imagery that photographs are devalued before the shutter is pressed?
It's truly unfortunate, but industries never change based solely on the good of those who run it; otherwise, the Teamsters Union would still include teamsters driving wagons. Industries change on the back of what the market demands. Photographers must adapt to suit those demands or face going under. This situation is not without hope. More often than not, those who can adapt to seismic changes in the economy are those who profit and pioneer new ideas in their industries. The best thing to do now is not pine for the past where technical skill was all it took to survive, but to look at these changes as a challenge to our collective creativity that will bring about new avenues, build new skills, strengthen artistic voices, and reward those who ferociously apply themselves.
What changes have you seen in the market and how are you adapting to this shifting economy?
Models: Tessa Hooper, Jennifer Wilde, and Karl Brevik | MUHA: Nina Marie Diaz | Designer: Allison Nicole Designs | Assistants: Nehemiah Urban and Kevin Davis