Article: Threatening photography

Contributors to photographic publications have recently bemoaned the pressures to lifestyles as levels of fees have shrunk and employment opportunities have diminished whilst it seems quality thresholds have also reduced. This seems to be the case, whether outright commercial photography or work more in the fine art field. Media are requiring ever increasing numbers of images and work, but this apparent expansion does not seem to reflect in business models.

By way of example, the picture agency business model illustrates that the number of images held by agencies is expanding immensely but fee levels are pegged at a very low figure. As the number of images available expands so it becomes ever more competitive to the photographer who is, after all, the foundation of the business. Almost certainly images are taken from unprotected websites of periodicals as well as photographers, and reused without permission or acknowledgement, i.e. piracy of material.

It seems access to media and downloads of our media is nowadays expected to be free of charge – the recorded music business has been irrevocably damaged by the ‘free’ downloading and streaming via such sites as Spotify, and we know how Taylor Swift very publicly attacked Apple’s launch of Apple Music where artists were to receive no payment whilst Apple built its market base. We also know that films can be accessed often illegally, and I don’t believe the makers of those thousands/millions of mini movies on YouTube are contributing a royalty to the original creators of copyrighted imagery and background music.

Freedom has been hard-fought and won by generations of our forebears, but we seem to be abandoning our achievement through lack of understanding; but above all, freedom also carries responsibility and respect. As a society and consumers, we are not valuing creativity, and seem to be saying that the theft of artistic prowess is acceptable and even desirable. Creativity does not succeed in such a vacuum and ultimately all of us, all of society, will be diminished by the philistines that are secured under a cloak of what we are told is economic efficiency.

So much is often dependent not on department managers who often well understand the ethics and the true nature of the business, but on corporate heads of service who only see matters in terms of micro-percentages of profitability and not their core activity.

In the UK, prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum, teachers were responsible for the curriculum taught and its assessment. Successive governments have wanted to drive standards ever higher, but this has not been achieved by introducing league tables and closely assessing teacher performance with a tick-box mentality. The teacher has become less responsible – so the highest standards seem to be slipping whilst the formal assessments apparently seem to be improving. This a false premise.

In the education field as well as the creative industry field the result has been a dumbing down of quality and of care in favour of efficiency and a false idea of what makes people accountable. Inspection does not of itself mean greater accountability.

It is a fundamental mistake made by politicians that greater efficiency results from competition tempered by inspection. This is wrong – accountability comes from responsibility. It is perhaps a failure of industry champions that they have accepted a tick-box culture that is fundamentally lacks cohesion.

In the photographic profession, despite the economic travails of falling print circulations not being balanced by increasing digital sales, there is an ever important pressure for editors to ensure their business models seek to maintain quality and that practitioners are respected… and remunerated! It is frightening that as government restricts income to the BBC the broadcaster is using ever more donated pictures. It is not a defence to say that contributors are doing so willingly – all many enthusiasts may want is their name and picture to be flashed up as a background to the weather map – but this does not help the wider profession, and actually damages creativity that depends on sustenance.

It is true that the internet has been a vehicle for engagement and sharing of information and a force for fairness in developing world democracy. But do we really understand it? Only now we seem to be waking up to the threat of the internet – theft of personal data from financial institutions is newsworthy most weeks nowadays – but there has been a far greater threat to our creativity because of our irresponsibility towards the freedom the internet is expected to deliver. We have not learned the connection between freedom and responsibility.

Photography is suffering from the woes that the creative Arts are suffering from as a whole.

It seems we expect to access and download our media free of charge – the recorded music business has been irrevocably damaged by ‘free’ downloading and streaming via such sites as Spotify, and we know how Taylor Swift very publicly attacked Apple’s launch of Apple Music where artists were to receive no payment in order for Apple to build its market base. We also know that films can be accessed often illegally, and I don’t believe the makers of those thousands/millions of mini movies on YouTube are contributing a royalty to the original creators of copyrighted imagery and background music.

As a society we seem to have abrogated responsibility for this economic disaster – media creation contributes a gargantuan sum to the UK economy, though I would agree this is not recognised by political parties looking towards the easy soundbite.

Photography is also susceptible to the same challenges – remuneration from picture agencies is tiny because the buyers of imagery continue to drive fees downwards. The business model works against the practitioner in favour of corporate ‘efficiency’.

The business models of publications, whether print or online, should be predicated upon paying for the bulk of their editorial pages. Winning a weekly or monthly competition does offer reward to the aspiring enthusiast gratified by seeing their excellent image in print, but the business of the periodical should be remunerated without risking banality. Increasingly we accept media that does not challenge us – the increased sophistication that new technology offers is not an enduring substitute for real quality. Our culture needs challenge to our thoughts, appreciation and sensibilities so that we strive to develop our Art of imagery.

We have great publications that have endured for decades, together with colleague and competitive publications that are representing photographers and firmly uphold the values practitioners expect. But as a society we all have a responsibility to value media creators, otherwise we will have no future Ansel Adams, Don McCullin, Ernst Haas, Patrick Lichfield, et al, and we will not be stimulated beyond the perfunctory and naïve.

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