Is there a future for the solo nature photographer or photojournalist?

A couple rock climbing near the top of Cathedral Ledge.  Echo Lake State Park in North Conway, New Hampshire.  White Mountains. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

A couple rock climbing near the top of Cathedral Ledge. Echo Lake State Park in North Conway, New Hampshire. White Mountains. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

This past weekend I attended the American Society of Picture Professionals’ reinvention weekend in Boston, and the major theme was finding ways for those working in the picture industry to keep working while the landscape of the industry is rapidly changing.  Both stock and assignment prices have been deteriorating for years, if not decades, challenging both stock agencies and photographers to change business tactics in order to survive.  It’s no secret what is causing the decline in prices – digital technology. To some extent, digital cameras have leveled the playing field on the content creation side of things.  More importantly, digital distribution has drastically reduced the cost of selling images.  On the stock side of the business, digital distribution (first in the form of royalty free cd’s, then with the advent of microstock) has enabled stock companies to be profitable without charging large rights-managed fees because the administrative costs of managing a large stock library have been drastically reduced because of digital image management and distribution.  Lower stock prices have also led to lower assignment fees, both on the commercial and editorial side of the business, though to a greater extent in the editorial world as newspapers and magazines are downsizing and going out of business because the web has made their traditional business model completely unsustainable.

I’m not a doom and gloom kind of guy, but it’s hard to ignore the trends in the industry.  As a nature and adventure photographer and editorial shooter, my big question going into the ASPP conference was this, “Is there a future for the solo nature photographer or photojournalist?”  The romantic image of the lone wolf photographer spending weeks in the field funding his or her work through the sale of stock and assignment fees is definitely under assault.  After the conference, I get the sense that the answer to my question is “probably not,” though the experts seemed to be unsure how the marketplace will shake out. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m pretty sure the “lone wolf” approach is dying out and that the new paradigm is going to be collaboration – with other photographers and creators, and with NGO’s, foundations, etc.

I’ve collaborated with NGO’s for most of my career, both for funding and for discovering the conservation stories that are relevant and newsworthy.  This collaboration has definitely kept my business afloat during the recession, but it is clear to me that I need to take this to a higher level by working with other photographers and other creators to create feature-rich, story-driven multimedia content.  This is a big change from how I usually work ( I rarely even work with an assistant,) but it is a way of working that I’m embracing and excited about.

Why am I excited that this approach can work? Simply because of the success stories that are emerging in the midst of this downturn in the industry.  At the ASPP conference we learned that this collaborative approach is already working from speakers like Brian Storm, whose company MediaStorm is leading the way in partnering photographers with other professionals to create powerful, multi-media stories.  If you haven’t yet seen what MediaStorm is creating, then you haven’t seen the future of photojournalism.  We also learned about VII, a photo agency where some of the world’s best photojournalists work together to create equally powerful multi-media stories.  Both companies use a new model that uses multiple content creators working together to create stories that the big media companies won’t spend the money on.  My impression is that no one is getting rich, but these companies are giving photojournalists the opportunity to do what they originally set out to do in their careers – tell important stories.  These stories are getting told in new and traditional ways – through print, multi-media, exhibits, etc. Funding these projects requires a new model as well.  No longer, are the magazines, newspapers, and big news organizations footing the bill.  Instead, money comes from a diversity of places: NGO’s, foundations, media companies, print sales, book sales, etc.  Photographers need to pay attention to this new model.  The old way of paying the bills with assignment fees and residual stock income is just getting harder and harder to do.

Conservation photographers like myself should also check out the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers.  ILCP is setting the bar very high for collaborative conservation photography projects with their Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions. These R.A.V.E.s are intense, short-term photo projects where a group of the world’s best nature photographers descend on a location and quickly create a body of work that is used to bring about environmental change.  Another collaborative conservation photo project seeing great success is Stephan Widstrand’s Wild Wonders of Europe, and the newly launched Meet Your Neighbours (led by Niall Benvie and Clay Bolt) project seems destined for similar success.

So…if you’re a photographer, are you willing and ready to change?

Until next time…

-Jerry

6 thoughts on “Is there a future for the solo nature photographer or photojournalist?

  1. Jerry-

    I think you hit the nail on the head for sure. The lone photographer is in for an uphill journey for sure. Clients are overwhelmed by the hoards of hungry photographers beating on the doors. The supply vastly outnumbers the demand. Marketing ones wares has always been the least popular aspect of being an outdoor photography business owner and those not paying attention will be history.

    The markets as you mention are changing meaning what is in demand will be changing as well. In my opinion we will all need to become better visual storytellers and not with the single image, but rather a series of single images and video as well. As you said, it’s multi media. I anxiously await this new market and a better understanding of just how this will work for ‘image makers’ (still and moving) as well as how we will be paid for our multi media creations.

    There are already some notbale collaborations taking place with landscape and nature photographers as well as adventure filmakers. http://www.timecatcher.com, http://www.photocascadia.com, and ww.mountaintrailphoto.com, are a collection of photographers joining forces to create a higher profile, market their workshops, prints, and books. I dont believe any have e-coomerce image sales abilities on their sites, but was told that one group plans that down the road.

    A filmaking collaborative is http://www.thecollectivefilm.com are adventure filmakers shooting films and then selling the DVD’s and the one on mountain biking I saw is breathtaking and innovative.

    The future is here and it’s time to innovate and adapt!

    Charlie Borland

    • Thanks Charlie. A challenging economic environment always spurs innovation, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the world of image making. Thanks also for adding some links to this discussion – it’s important to know what others are doing in this area.

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  3. This is a great post, and it was a pleasure to read (thanks to Jerry Greer for directing me here). Just yesterday while talking about art a friend waved his hand in the air and said “photography’s not an art anymore.” This is a wise old friend from Israel, worldly and very intelligent.

    That shook me a little so you can imagine my pleasure at reading this post. It’s great to know that photogs. are taking matters into their own hands and controlling the outcome of their changing art.

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  5. Your thoughts are not what I like to hear but I believe is the truth. I am in the southeastern US, in Mississippi, and would like to have some success with my photography. In this limping economy I as a plumbing and air conition contractor am having some success but even in this, times are somewhat tough.
    No doubt challenges grow the worker. I want to think hard work and a good product has some degree of success. Even though there are many photographers in the mix, not all of them wait to the last second for one last look or get there early before the sunrise and wait till the sunset to see what there is or will take a photo of a half bloom instead of waiting for a full bloom. Film or digital, dedication, smarts and a little luck wins enough of the race to get a first place ever so often. Point in case, still, more photos are published by that still small tenpercent of the supply of photographers becuase they are consistent, dedicated and professional. A point often overlooked. Yes there are more photographers but there are also more folks looking, buying and wanting, the population grows every time there is a snow storm, heat wave, idol moment or slow day at the factory. Need to figure out the little extra to get the foot in the door of all those folks.

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