The only thing to fear is…

One morning you wake up, and it’s facing you; everything that you took for granted and that has made your life so comfortable is suddenly gone, probably forever.

Welcome to the economy of fear.

What used to be a cosy job, where every day brought you a new batch of interesting challenges, has now been replaced with uncertainty and doubt. From photo-editors who are not sure how long they will keep their jobs, to staff newspaper photojournalists who could be shooting their last images.

Everyone is living in fear.

In the last decade, the photo industry has switched from an economy of wealth and abundance to an economy of fear. It is not so much about talent, creativity or effectiveness anymore, as it is about who can better scare the other into submission.

Pricing, for example, is not based on usage or talent, or even levels of professionalism anymore. It is based on the fear that someone else could price it lower and thus take the sale. Whether assignment or stock, images are priced on how high it can go before losing the job to the competition. And these days, that is not high. Photo-editors negotiate with the “I can get it cheaper” stick in one hand, forcing photographers, or agencies, into fearful submission. There is little conversation about quality anymore.

It is not just about pricing, however. The fear factor enters all levels of conversation. Companies like Getty also approach and retain photographers on fear. If you do not work with Getty, they claim, your images will never be published. If you work for a competing agency, you will never work for Getty, and so on. A bit like the Wal-Mart” how to handle a supplier” handbook of “we own the market, we own you”. Some Wal-Mart suppliers, by the way, have been forced into bankruptcy, because they were forced into unsustainable low pricing.

It’s the fear of the other.

Stock shooters fear the ever growing crowd of microstockers, Photo agencies fear other photo agencies, wedding photographer fear other low cost wedding photographers, Photo-editors fear their bosses, and publishers fear the future.

On top of that, everyone (well almost) fears the passing of the Orphan Works bill, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Government, new technology and in some cases, even their car.

Recently, an image matching company released a report saying that 8 out of 10 images appearing on commercial Web sites are being used “non-legitimately”, offering their service as a solution.  Fear as a selling strategy. If I scare you enough, will you buy my product?

When the future is uncertain, like it currently is in the photo world and elsewhere, it is natural to be worried and scared. No one can seriously say today that they know for sure where will they will be in 5 years from now. However, for companies, or individuals, to capitalize on that fear, to use is as a primary bargaining tool is despicable. It is like pushing down on the head of a drowning person with the promise of saving them.

A false promise.

Photography does not live well under fear. Creativity gets lost and conformity becomes the norm. Snake charmers invade the land with their make-believe magic potions, orators take to the podiums to extract more fear and offer their security blankets (for a fee). Opportunists see opportunities to make deals that defy reason as they know how fear is a powerful logic sedative.

We are going to see a lot of decisions driven by fear this year and next, mostly creating poor results.  A lot of people jumping to the cliff in order to avoid the fire. But mostly, we will see a lot of fear smellers take advantage of the situation.

About the author

“This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians”     Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.

 Paul Melcher  has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog