The Getty Monster

Last week there were two tangentially related pieces of news, first that the last NCTJ accredited press photography course was ending in Sheffield and second that Getty were extending their deal with Flickr to be open to everyone.

Responding to the BJP Andrew Cropley, principal of Norton College said:

The future of the press photography and photojournalism block release and full time courses is currently being reviewed following government funding cuts to adult courses, a fall in the number of applications to this course and changes within the media industry.

There’s a few interesting things in this, first is the cut in Government funding. This often causes colleges to go into a depressionary cycle, as the number of courses gets cut, so there are fewer students and as there are fewer students more courses get cut. The second point is a bit more interesting, as although the first would have an effect, it’s been my experience that photography courses are over-subscribed, so I’d be interested to know why applications have fallen. Is it something happening across the board? to photography courses? or just this course?

Finally there’s ‘changes within the media industry’ that probably means all manner of things which could be the subject of a thousand other articles. But one of the biggest causes is the subscription deals that the big agencies have made with publishers. More than ever the media industry has an insatiable need for images but declining circulation among traditional publications has led to cuts in Editorial budgets. Instead of investing the profits in the good times companies had been happily creaming them off and are now cutting back Editorial savagely.

This leads us to another depressionary cycle where the circulation falls so publications cut back on editorial staff, paper quality, number of pages and as the quality of the publication falls, circulation falls further.

Agencies like Getty have led the way with subscription deals for publications that give them unlimited access to their libraries for a fixed amount. This reduces the price of photography to virtually nothing. If a picture editor has an image from a freelancer and another from an agency with a subscription deal of the same subject in front of them, the pressure from the accountants is to go with the ‘free’ Getty picture every time.

Getty’s brutal ‘all you can eat’ model is an attempt to price everyone else out of the market. Last year Alamy opened up their library to unlimited subscription deals for UK newspapers, many Alamy contributors didn’t opt-in. Some of those who have, have asked not to be credited when their work appears via Alamy in newspapers, presumably out of the shame of how lowly they value their work.

We’re still waiting to see who’ll blink first, but I suspect it won’t be Getty.

The other strategy Getty employ is to simply buy up the competition. They recently acquired Rex Features, after more than 50 years as an independent agency Rex wasn’t exactly at the top end of the market either. Contributors frequently complained of low reproduction rates, late payment and picture usages missing from their sales sheets. The future of around 80 people that Rex employs doesn’t look very rosy, once Getty have hoovered up the library no doubt they will find little need for the people there anymore.

Which brings us to the second piece of news and Getty’s most recent ‘acquisition’ – Flickr. Getty has had a deal with Flickr for the last two years where Getty editors approached Flickr users to add images to their Flickr Collection. Contributors who accepted signed an exclusive contact with Getty and received 20% or 30% cut of sales for royalty-free and rights-managed respectively. It’s not known how the remaining 80%/70% is split between Getty and Flickr.

The deal with contributors remains the same, exclusive rights and a 80/20 or 70/30 split of sales to Getty, but instead of Getty editors trawling Flickr for images to add to their collection image buyers will be able to request images from any user on Flickr. Users will have to opt-in to have their images available to licence and at the moment it’s all or nothing, users can’t pick which images are available if they opt-in. In the Flickr Getty FAQ it does say however that Getty will contact users every time someone requests an image and if they don’t reply or don’t want to they won’t license the image.

It’s not mentioned if images in the Flickr collection will be available to publications with subscription deals, but as Getty has to contact the image owner every time an image is requested I doubt it’ll make much of a dent in the newspaper market.

Now Getty doesn’t have editors crawling Flickr what exactly are they doing for their 70% cut? Before digital cameras came on the scene photographers would send agencies their slides or negatives, the agency would scan or print them, touch them up and make any colour corrections before sending them on to clients as digital files or prints. They would negotiate sales with clients and at the end of the month they would send the photographer a sales sheet showing what had sold to who and for how much. For this work agencies would take a 50/50 cut of the sales, more generous agencies gave photographers a 60/40 cut.

So now photographers are capturing their files digitally, making adjustments on their computer, captioning and keywording files before uploading them to Flickr. And all Getty are doing for their massive 70% cut is negotiating a price when someone asks and sending the invoice. That doesn’t sound like a fair deal for photographers who are doing more than 70% of the work.

But not only are you giving Getty 70% for the privilege of selling your work, you can’t sell it anywhere else. The Flickr FAQ says:

Getty Images has the exclusive right to license your images and images substantially similar to those in a commercial context once you’ve accepted their invitation (and signed the Getty Images Contributor Agreement). Any and all of your other non-similar photographs not in the Flickr collection can be sold freely by you, though not on Flickr itself, because that goes against our Community Guidelines. You know, like, don’t use Flickr for commercial purposes.

So once you’ve signed your deal with the devil, he not only gets your soul, but anything that looks ‘substantially similar’ and to add insult to injury you can’t sell your images on Flickr yourself, because you know, that would be unfair.

Flickr has over 40 million registered users and it’s 4 billionth image was uploaded last October dwarfing Getty’s 24.7 million and (Getty owned) iStockPhoto’s 6.9 million collections. Although Facebook still leads the pack with 2.5 billion images uploaded every month.

So now there’s potentially over 4 billion images ready to flood the market at whatever price Getty decides. Remember that they have little interest in keeping that price high, once they’ve covered the cost of their staff and infrastructure, most of which Flickr is shouldering, they’re making pure profit. And if cutting into those profits a bit means bankrupting a big competitor, they’ll have little hesitation in doing it.

This is a bad deal for just about everyone but Getty, unless Flickr is getting a substantial cut out of the 70%, but a lot of Flickr’s infrastructure costs are covered by Pro subscriptions, advertising and Yahoo! backing anyway.

Getty has just acquired, at no extra cost, over 40 million contributors with 4 billion images. All it has to do is name it’s price when a buyer comes along and take it’s nice fat 70% cut.

Can we take a step back please?

Ian Thomlinson's stepson, Paul King, weeps with his family on the 1 year anniversary of his death. Image © Jonathan Warren 2010
Ian Thomlinson's stepson, Paul King, weeps with his family on the 1 year anniversary of his fathers death. Image © Jonathan Warren 2010

Earlier today I attended a memorial for Ian Thomlinson, the paper seller who died during the G20 protests last year. There were numerous protesters there and even some of the organisers of the G20 protests. His family were also there to lay flowers at the spot where he died face-down on the pavement after being hit by a policeman.

There has been a lot of coverage of the Thomlinson case, so naturally there were a lot of photographers and broadcasters there to cover the event. But what I didn’t expect was the disgusting way that some, of what I would like to call colleagues, behaved both before and during the event.

As one of the organisers of the memorial told the assembled press pack that the family would be arriving shortly and asked that we be respectful and take a step or two back. One photographer asked how many of the family would be there, he replied that it would be ‘a few’ the photographer said that ‘two or three is all we need’.

It is our job as journalists to document events, not orchestrate them.

Shortly after the Thomlinson family arrived and a priest from the local church began to address the crowd, a broadcast presenter standing next to me interrupted him to ask if he would turn the other way to face her cameraman. He ignored her and continued to address the crowd asking for a minutes silence.

As the silence grew longer photographers around me were inching closer to the family as they stood weeping at the spot where Ian died. At one point one of the Thomlinson family had to push away a video camera that was beginning to brush against her head as the cameraman tried to get closer to Ian’s widow, Julia Thomlinson.

Then as the family left the memorial in tears they were chased down the street by a mob of photographers and cameramen, probably as they hadn’t been able to get a clear shot of the family at the memorial because they were surrounded by photographers, lenses inches away from their faces.

I can understand why there is a pressure to get these images, it’s difficult to explain to an editor that you didn’t get the shot because some idiot with a wide angle lens wanted to get in close. As soon as one person gets in close, everyone else has to get in close to get the shot.

As photographers we should be self-policing at these sorts of events, otherwise either we won’t be invited again or someone else will start policing them. A number of other photographers and myself repeatedly asked for people to take a step back but our requests fell on deaf ears.

Point 5 of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice states that:

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.

So all I’m asking is, next time, can we all take a step back please?

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.

NUJ London Photographers Branch Meeting

Photographers are under attack – job losses in local and national media, picture rate cuts and police repression on the streets. It’s time for photographers to come together and plan and build the best way to defend our profession. London photographers are meeting on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 6.30pm at Headland House to start the process of setting up a London Photographers Branch. If you live or work in London – freelance, agency or staffer – and an NUJ member this is the meeting for you.

If you are a photographer and not yet an NUJ member we would like you join us and be part of this new branch.

More Info: facebook.com

Update: The meeting voted overwhelmingly to form a London Photographers Branch (LPB) The branch must now be approved by the NEC and the next meeting will be in early September to elect a interim committee.

The meeting moved a motion with 26 votes for, 1 against and 1 abstention:

This meeting calls for a London Photographers’ Branch to be established. The branch will be open to NUJ members whose work as photographers or as other lens based journalists is carried out in London.

The new branch will be active in campaigning against job cuts, rate cuts, restrictions on photography, attacks on media workers across the world and a strong force in recruiting new members to the union.

We seek the NECs approval of a new branch.

The BBC Viewfinder

Earlier this month the BBC News Picture Editor Phil Coomes joined the ever growing ranks of BBC bloggers with his own: Viewfinder

The blog sets out to discuss photography on the BBC News website and more widely on the subject of photojournalism and photography. Coomes himself is a photographer, studying at the BA Photography course at the University of Westminster under Tom Ang, who you may remember from the BBC TV series A digital picture of Britain

The BBC has, in my opinion, long shunned away from news photography which is understandable given it’s long history geared towards television and radio. However as one of the most trafficked news websites in the world and as more news is consumed online the BBC has lagged behind by miles with it’s use of press photography.bbcnewsgrab2Granted it has improved in recent years with it’s new larger image and headline when a big story is splashed on the front page (see above) and more recently it’s much improved galleries, which broke the ancient constraints of  the old 465 x 300 px slideshows.

There are still some problems with the new galleries, captions over photographs may be a pretty and efficient use of space if you are a web developer, but not much good if you want to look at a photograph and read the caption at the same time without ruining the aesthetics of both.

Another bugbear of mine is the lack of credits on images, usually it’s an AP, PA or Getty credit over the image, again something that irks the photography purist in me. But is it really that hard to properly credit a photographer? If they can credit every member of the production team on TV and occasionally the journalist who wrote the story online surely they can find the space for a credit for the photographer. Even the ‘Have Your Say’ comments get proper attribution.

A shining example of news photography online is the New York Times, whose stories have images over the full width of the article and often additional images for the story which can be viewed larger. Most importantly they are fully credited, even when they are from the wire agencies.

Closer to home the Guardian also plays photographs over the full width of the column and credits them properly. The Daily Mail uses images and graphics so heavily on it’s articles that if there were any more there would be nothing left but the headline. And of course there is the Boston Globe Big Picture blog, which plays images at a screen-busting 990px across.

Clearly little value is held for the still image at BBC News, apart from it’s frequent celebration of meaningless mediocrity with it’s ‘Your Pictures’ galleries which serve little other than free-content filler and a fulfilment of equally meaningless audience participation.

BBC News has an annual budget of £350 million, but from the look of it’s shockingly sparse local news sites you wouldn’t know it (a subject worthy of a blog post of it’s own). I know of one professional photojournalist who was offered a meagre £15 for a photo, he declined their offer.

Until the BBC starts paying properly for news photography it will remain full of bland audience contributed and wire agency photographs. I lay the gauntlet down to Phil Coomes and others on the BBC News Picture Desk to raise the quality of photography and to pay a decent rate for it. Here’s hoping anyway.