The Demotix Revolution

DemotixI got an interesting email the other day asking if Demotix is good for distributing work – the short answer: No.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, Demotix is a citizen reporting/freelance photography agency. Taking an industry standard 50% cut of image sales, they say they broker images to media buyers worldwide.

Which is great if you’re a citizen reporter (not journalists, as some call them, but more on that another time) who happens to photograph a breaking story that no-one else has got. Like Bill Carter, one of Henry Gates’ neighbours who grabbed his camera when he saw police cars outside his neighbours house. The resulting images have netted over $4,000 in sales, with half going to Carter.

This is the sort of thing Demotix thrives on. When the Iran election protests began last year images from Demotix users were featured on the frontpage of the New York Times twice in one week. But unfortunately for photographers there isn’t an uprising or other major breaking international news story every day.

I flirted with Demotix for a month or so last year, uploading a total of 12 stories, mostly of protests but also some other events, a meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority, ministers leaving a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street and the opening of Banksy’s Summer show in Bristol.

Not one of the images I uploaded has sold. One was featured in the Demotix Widget, which appears on a various newspaper websites and for which I was paid a nominal amount.

It’s quite probable that the images wouldn’t of sold even if I’d distributed them myself, at most of the events I covered there were also staff photographers from large international news agencies: Getty, AFP, AP, Reuters etc. The other events I covered obviously did not fit into the news agenda that day or week so remain unsold, which is often the reality for freelance photographers working on spec.

Slightly disheartened that none of my images had sold, I reverted back to how I had distributed my images previously, uploading a web gallery of images and emailing the link, as well as a small selection of the images directly to newspaper picture desks.

Just after I had given up on Demotix I covered a breaking news story, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons had just been elected MEPs for the British National Party and were holding a press conference outside Parliament. I found out just an hour before, grabbed my kit and jumped on the tube. I got there just in time and within minutes of the press conference starting anti-fascist protesters appeared chanting anti-fascist slogans and began throwing eggs. I and a number of photographers who were at the front of the press pack captured the moment the yolk hit Griffin as he was rushed into a car by minders.

I quickly got out my laptop and captioned and emailed the images to the newspapers, all within minutes of it happening. As I filed my images I was sat with another freelancer who was uploading his images to Demotix, he complained that the Demotix FTP upload was often slow and sometimes didn’t work at all. He also mentioned another thing I was familiar with from submitting images to Demotix, it sometimes took several hours for stories to be published on the site, as each has to be approved before appearing on the site, often longer outside office hours.

My images appeared in that days Evening Standard, the Daily Express the day after, The Telegraph website and the Sunday Telegraph that weekend. My colleagues images appeared on Demotix a few hours later and have yet to sell.

Speaking to several other Demotix contributors in London they say they have yet to make a sale through Demotix either, even those with hundreds of images and stories on the site. Most have earned the £12.50 Widget usage fee, which is paid if your work is featured on the Demotix Widget. £12.50 might cover your travel costs if you went by train or took a short car journey, it is hardly enough to make a living though. One Demotix contributor I spoke to said he’d made around £150 over a few months from widget use, which is certainly something, but he has yet to make a single sale through them.

There is no doubt that Demotix contributors have taken some excellent images, this image by Alessandro Vanucci of a Cambodian rubbish dump made the Eyewitness page of the Guardian. Other times Demotix contributors are simply the only ones there to get an image. Their coverage from Iran for example or the exclusive photograph of Ian Thomlinson lying on the pavement shortly after being assaulted by police at the G20 protests in London last summer.

But is Demotix the unique factor in these images selling? Almost certainly not. Just like other online photo agencies, Demotix is a (sometimes) convenient middleman for amateurs and semi-professionals. Images from Iran or of Ian Tomlinson lying on the pavement would of sold if they had been on Flickr, Zooomr, PhotoShelter or any of the myriad of other sites that allow users to upload their images for free.

I asked Report Digital founder John Harris his thought’s on Demotix:

Demotix is trying to make money out of low value sales of unique coverage in unusual circumstances – precisely the sort of thing that is easy to find once on the internet. It is not clear to me where they “add any value”.

As soon as photographers realise they can spend an afternoon Googling the picture desk contact details of all the media buyers (PDF) Demotix supplies they can take back the other half of their 50% cut, upload images to Flickr or wherever they want, whilst still charging a professional rate.

So is Demotix good for distributing work? Well they are, they’re just unnecessary.