The Cry Of The Owl In The Deep Night

I was going to write a post on how selfish people in this profession had become.

How, or so it seems, there is no such thing as a photo community or a photography brotherhood but rather masses and masses of individuals looking after their own personal lives with stubborn fierceness and dedication.

The biggest irony, was I about to write, is that most, like  news, wedding or nature photographers, are deeply committed in documenting the world for others. So how could they be so selfish?

Well, mostly by accepting jobs for so little retribution:  Doing 4 of 5 hours of shooting, including editing, captioning and transmission for $250, often leaving their right to any further license fees on the table. Or photo agencies (Can we still call them “agencies” anymore ? Doesn’t an agent represent the best interest of the people it represents ?) agreeing to monthly subscriptions fee that end up being a few dollars per image.

Isn’t the thought behind these agreements as simple as: “The hell with everyone, I will accept those prices so at least I can get some money” ?

That’s what I was going to write about. And then, I fell on an article where someone was quoting, or so they thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I paraphrase here : ” If every man acted in its own best self interest this would be Paradise on earth “.

And then I realized.

This industry is not selfish enough. If it was, if everyone was acting in its own self best interest alone, then we would never see this decrepitude of pricing.

Unlike other related industries, like music or movies, the photography world has not been challenged by disruptive technologies. It embraced, for the most part, digital much faster and better than any other industry. It was not pushed around by new distribution platforms or free file sharing of the magnitude of a Napster or  Bit Torrent. Sure, stealing has been made a little easier, but so has finding stealers. Besides commercial stock, it has not been overwhelmed by crowdsourcing and probably never will. Sure, there will always a lucky citizen journalist here and there but none will end up shooting the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

So what gives ? Why this pricing depression ?

That’s because in the process of accepting a pricing for a job or a license, each thinks not about the value of the image, the intended usage, the budget available and the consequences, but rather, they think of the Other. What  would the Other do? If I do not accept this price, will I loose the job/license to the Other that will accept it? Then shouldn’t I accept it so the Other doesn’t get it ?

The Other being, of course, the competition. As soon as the photo industry started to guessing about what the other would do, it started loosing its grip on pricing. And the sliding downhill continues. Because, like a self fulfilling prophecy, the Other did accept that price because they thought you would…So now you know they will, so you will too.

The wheel is in motion.

The buyers will not complain. They actually will play in your paranoiac game as they will tell you either : “but that’s what we always pay” or “Everyone else has accepted that price” .

This could be stopped quite easily. If everyone started publicly stating whenever they got a good price or when they refused another because it was too low. Making a clear statement : “yes, we will be undersold”. “Because pricing is not what I am/ We are about ”

You can replace less jobs/less license with more high paying ones. Quality can trump quantity. It’s a viable business model too.

But mostly, it could be stopped if everyone ceased to  think about the Other and  started to act in its own best self interest. Nothing else. If everyone priced themselves according to their value instead of what they think the Other ones value is, than this would cease.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson also said :

Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons.
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

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