The dictatorship of the wallet

Photography, like most industries affected by a center of gravity shift to digital, has experienced more than a migration from film to data packets. One of the most fundamental shifts, however, is how the decision process moved from quality of content to cost. Let me explain:

For a long time, the key decision in purchasing a license for any photograph had been its quality; it’s relevance to the intended usage. Sometimes, the photograph even outperformed its intended use, it was that good.  Cost, because it was perceived as a tool of value, was not an issue. Magazines had absolutely no problem in spending a lot of money to send photographers around the world and back in order to get the best images.

In fact, a lot of the magazines’ competition was done on newsstands with who had the best cover. It was a badge of honor.

As images became easier and cheaper to transport thanks to falling memory prices as well as more readily available and cheaper bandwidth, the prices also started to drop. The cameras, the lens, the post processing, the traveling certainly did not drop. Just the cost of getting an image from A to B. Somehow, however, the belief that digital was cheaper to produce took root and, like bad venom, infected the whole industry.

Getting the best photographer to the location suddenly did not become a necessity. Getting the images faster took over. The best images were replaced by the fastest. Let’s just pick a photographer that is there already and get those images in. Assignment no longer included transportation to and fro. This lasted for a while as the still high cost of technology paired with the difficult technological learning curve kept the competition to a select few. However, this did not last long. Cost of equipment as well as its ease of use quickly lowered, allowing more and more to enter the competition for the fastest image.

Since it is impossible to transmit an image before it is taken, the competition hit a wall where everyone found themselves at the same level, transmitting as fast. So what happened? Prices dropped. The competition, as well as the usage decision, shifted again, this time to the cheapest.

Today, this is where we are: Decisions are no longer made on the quality of content but on its cost. It really doesn’t matter if you’re the next Cartier-Bresson, if you are too expensive, you won’t get published. If the photo budget is already spent on two or three subscriptions to photo agencies and your images are not part of the “feed”, forget it. You might as well go fishing. They will like your images, they just won’t use them.

What magazine readership does not see, is that they are paying to read publications that do not show them the best pictures but rather the cheapest. It is a very deceptive procedure. Don’t magazines attract your attention by the promise of delivering what they consider the best?  Yet, as far as photography is concerned, they don’t. The rule has become to fit the image purchasing process within a pre-established budget. No longer do editors believe that great images can boost readership. Instead, they believe cheaper images will save them from oblivion.

How long would you continue to go to your favorite restaurant once you knew that they didn’t even try to purchase better product but just the cheapest? This reminds us of those houses build with cheap dry wall imported from China that eventually made everyone badly sick. Sure, they were cheaper, and yes, cheap photography is not bad for your health. At least, not that we know of.

Photographs have a better chance to be published these days if they are cheap, not if they are good.

It is sad. Sad because there are great images being shot everyday that will never, never be seen because of this dictatorship of the wallet. Sad, because readers are being lied to by this money censorship. Sad because it is helping no one.

As magazine or website publishers continue to think in terms of broadcasting (One to many), our world is changing to social (many to many). Consumers are quickly evolving from passive participants to active contributors. As this migration is deepening, more will search for their own sources of photography that they will in turn grab and share. They will start invading the publishing world with images that they like rather than those that are being force fed to them by penny-pincher corpocrates. They will deconstruct and break the barriers of the conglomerate publishing world in order to resubmit their own vision of the world. It is already going in the world of text journalism; it will not be long before photography gets swept in.

It is no longer a viable proposition to believe that image consumers will continue to just passively absorb cheap content. The barriers that kept the suppliers of images invisible to the readers have fallen, permitting them, for the first time in the history of photography, an unprecedented access to the source. They can now see where publications get their content from and make their own decisions. Ironically, as publications divert more and more what they use to the cheapest, the rest of the production becomes more and more visible, making their money censorship more obvious.

Obviously, this uncomfortable situation is not going to last long. Photographers and photo agencies will soon be forced into finding lucrative ways to supply their images directly to the readers, by-passing those publishers who have refused to use them for monetary reasons. Some already do.

There is another revolution lurking here and once again, the photography world will never be the same.

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

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

2 thoughts on “The dictatorship of the wallet

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  • June 1, 2010 at 10:31 am

    “No longer do editors believe that great images can boost readership. Instead, they believe cheaper images will save them from oblivion.”

    There’s a lot of truth in that comment and it still takes me aback that so many people can be so short-sighted. It has also put me in the unique position of hoping a Murdoch initiative succeeds.

    The paywall protected Times and Sunday Times websites – now launched in preview mode – seem to be bucking the trend. In order to make them both different and better than the print versions – surely the only way they will persuade people to pay real money to access them – they do seem to be seeking out quality content and are so far showing a willingness to pay properly for it.

    Quite why they feel this principle should apply to online content but not print – where News International are cutting pictures budgets as much as the next lot – reamins a mystery. But if the pay websites succeed – in the face of almost universal scepticism – it may just make a few people wake up to the fact that the quality of the content you’re putting in front of people is still the single most important factor.


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