Is there a future for the solo nature photographer or photojournalist?

July 29th, 2010 by Jerry Monkman
Rock climbers on Cathedral Ledge.

A couple rock climbing near the top of Cathedral Ledge. Echo Lake State Park in North Conway, New Hampshire. White Mountains.

This last April I attended the American Society of Picture Professionals’ reinvention weekend in Boston, and the major theme was finding ways for those working in the picture industry to keep working while the landscape of the industry is rapidly changing.  Both stock and assignment prices have been deteriorating for years, if not decades, challenging both stock agencies and photographers to change business tactics in order to survive.  It’s no secret what is causing the decline in prices – digital technology. To some extent, digital cameras have leveled the playing field on the content creation side of things.  More importantly, digital distribution has drastically reduced the cost of selling images.  On the stock side of the business, digital distribution (first in the form of royalty-free CDs, then with the advent of microstock) has enabled stock companies to be profitable without charging large rights-managed fees as the administrative costs of managing a large stock library have been drastically reduced due to digital image management and distribution.  Lower stock prices have also led to lower assignment fees, both on the commercial and editorial side of the business, though to a greater extent in the editorial world, as newspapers and magazines are downsizing and going out of business.

I’m not a doom and gloom kind of guy, but it’s hard to ignore the trends in the industry.  As a nature and adventure photographer and editorial shooter, my big question going into the ASPP conference was this, “Is there a future for the solo nature photographer or photojournalist?”  The romantic image of the lone wolf photographer spending weeks in the field funding his or her work through the sale of stock and assignment fees is definitely under assault.  After the conference, I got the sense that the answer to my question is “probably not,” though the experts seemed to be unsure how the marketplace will shake out. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m pretty sure the “lone wolf” approach is dying out and that the new paradigm is going to be collaboration – with other photographers and creators, with NGOs, with foundations, and so on.

I’ve collaborated with NGOs for most of my career, both for funding and for discovering the conservation stories that are relevant and newsworthy.  This collaboration has definitely kept my business afloat during the recession, but it is clear to me that I need to take this idea to a higher level by working with other photographers and other creators to create feature-rich, story-driven multimedia content.  This is a big change from how I usually work (I rarely even work with an assistant) but it is a way of working that I’m embracing and excited about.

Why am I excited that this approach can work? Simply because of the success stories that are emerging in the midst of this downturn in the industry.  At the ASPP conference, we learned that this collaborative approach is already working from speakers like Brian Storm, whose company MediaStorm is leading the way in partnering photographers with other professionals to create powerful, multi-media stories.  If you haven’t yet seen what MediaStorm is creating, then you haven’t seen the future of photojournalism.  We also learned about VII, a photo agency where some of the world’s best photojournalists work together to create equally powerful multi-media stories.  Both companies use a new model that uses multiple content creators working together to create stories that the big media companies won’t spend the money for.  My impression is that no one is getting rich, but these companies are giving photojournalists the opportunity to do what they originally set out to do in their careers – tell important stories.  These stories are getting told in new and on non-traditional ways – through print, multi-media, exhibits, etc. Funding these projects requires a new model as well.  No longer are the magazines, newspapers, and big news organizations footing the bill.  Instead, money comes from a diversity of places: NGOs, foundations, media companies, print sales, book sales, etc.  Photographers need to pay attention to this new model.  The old way of paying the bills with assignment fees and residual stock income is just getting harder and harder to do.

Conservation photographers like myself should also check out the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers.  ILCP is setting the bar very high for collaborative conservation photography projects with their Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions. These R.A.V.E.s are intense, short-term photo projects where a group of the world’s best nature photographers descend on a location and quickly create a body of work that is used to bring about environmental change.  Another collaborative conservation photo project seeing great success is Stephan Widstrand’s Wild Wonders of Europe, and the newly launched Meet Your Neighbours (led by Niall Benvie and Clay Bolt) project seems destined for similar success.

So…if you’re a photographer, are you willing and ready to change?

Until next time…

-Jerry

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