Letters Recently, we invited top UK photojournalist Sion Touhig to describe the grim economics facing photo journalists. His passionate essay prompted dozens of emails over the holidays.
Sion's piece described the concentration of power in the photo business over the past twenty years, but it was unusual in one important way - it broke a taboo.
When discussing "new media", and new technologies, it's easy to find eulogies to transformation and "empowerment". But it's very rare to find a discussion of the consequences - especially when the consequence means we're worse off than before. The result of all this individual empowerment, suggested Sion, is that big business ends up getting richer and more powerful.
Perhaps as many as two thirds of the emails we received strongly objected to the very idea. Many of these reflected a grim fatalism - there was nothing we could do, and photo journalists should just face it. And get another job.
(A very small subsection of these objected to points he hadn't made, or organisations he didn't refer to - which may or may not be significant).
Here's a selection, culled from a postbag that could fill a pamphlet.
Very cool article, which does highlight a massive problem with the so-called "online community". Let's forget about the public who will take anything for free given half a chance and lets have a look at the self proclaimed protectors of the internet who, it seems, have the same inability to see past black and white as any of the unwashed plebs who think installing a program is what we mean by programming.
The issue that we have with copyright isn't bad in itself, it is the blatent land grab by business. I don't mind paying £13 for a DVD but what I do mind is being told I have to pay another £19 for a UMD for my PSP and paying for a second licence.
The fault is with stupid people who are so mindlessly screaming "copyright is bad" that they are killing the little guy and destroying thier own argument in court and losing battle after battle after battle in court against the pigopolists.
Welcome to the world of globalization. Didn't you think you'd be invited? Photographers are no different than factory workers, telephone operators, or for that matter once-highly-paid software engineers. They're competing in a much bigger world suddenly, where there's plenty of content and prices and wages are falling accordingly.
How many stock photographs does the world need? If I have one million stock photos, do I need another thousand? What if I have ten million? Photographers' traditional jobs came from inefficiency; editors didn't have other choices than to send a photographer out to take pictures. Now they have choices. It's very efficient for them. Bad for you, though.
I think the internet, by its intrinsic nature and not by machinations of the multinationals, is going to be very hard on journalists and creaters of throwaway content like news and fiction. If we ever learn to read books electronically, expect authors to lose out big time too.
I remember watching all the factory jobs going to Asia in the '80s and thinking, "At least they can't export my fancy-pants engineering job." If you're old enough, you perhaps covered this news. Did you also think you were bullet proof? Well, in 2001 I went from the most employable guy I knew to chronically unemployed. It was quite a wake-up call.
We expect our cell phones and computers to get cheaper every year. We expect our cars and appliances and food to stay cheap. We all go to the warehouse stores to get a deal. Yeah the quality isn't as good as the domestically made products we used to buy, but they're *so* cheap. What right do we then have to whine when we get the sack because our work went to Calcutta or Taiwan? What right to complain about frankenfoods or low quality goods? It's what we are asking for, and what corporations will work hard to provide.
This fact won't change unless consumers change. Figure out a way to get consumers to pay more for quality, and you've got a cure for what ails your job.
If I want to stay employed, I have to find ways to be better than the software folks in Beijing or St. Petersberg. I have to be so much more productive that my fat American salary is justifiable. I suppose it's true for photographers too, if your output is really special, you can still get work. If it's just good, I doubt that's good enough anymore.
Weirdly, a small number of readers imagined Sion's piece to be an attack on the Free Software Foundation - which wasn't even mentioned, directly or indirectly. A couple also accused Sion of asking for extended, or permanent copyright periods. Which also wasn't mentioned.
I'm sorry your chosen career is experiencing a "downturn" like the buggy whip industry of yore. That is not the fault of either the Creative Commons or the FSF. Your self-serving, Luddite diatribe against those organsations won't change that. Maybe it's time you started working for an hourly wage like the rest of us and give up on your dream of money floating back to you in perpetuity for work that is over and done.
It is not people who use copyleft who have created such disregard for copyright; the main contenders seem to be the personal greed of the common person, followed shortly by the less personal greed of the media corporations who wish to stop the greed of the first and feed their own appetites.
This in itself is breeding contempt for copyright, the idea that an individual can take a piece of media and use it creatively has never been in doubt and was always allowed in law (depending on country), it's not a surprise that business seek to use works for free and that they mostly assume the copyrights don't exist that because the work in on the Internet or send via email that it is public domain.
I only hope that the creative world can find its FSF, normally a small programmer or team spread around the world does not have the power to take a company to court. but the FSF will take companies to court who violate the GPL or LGPL software licenses; this would at least help your current situation.
"Such a move dishonestly offers a false 'interactivity' between the publisher and audience, shows contempt for readers by assuming they'll accept rubbish, and adds insult to injury by encouraging them to produce the very stuff they'll be seeing - and paying for nothing."
If the readership accepts the the rubbish - and historically, all too often, people have done just that (how else can you explain the success of the Weekly World News, for example?) - then publishing quality journalism is business suicide, since quality always costs more than rubbish.
Don't misunderstand; I hate crap journalism. I also recognize that John Q. Public has an IQ of about 75 of a really good day, has no taste whatsoever, and couldn't distinguish between Paris Hilton and Betty Ford without subtitles. Who do you think buys the garbage advertised in spam?
A small amount of quality goods and services will always have a niche market, but as long as the majority of people are essentially nothing more than breeding machines with disposable incomes, the vast majority of everything sold will remain crap.
But wait, it gets grimmer...