Inventing 21st Century Photojournalism

August 26th, 2009Stephen Mayes

Interview with Connor Risch for Photo District News

Funding Photojournalism

PDN: Who do you think are going to be the largest clients for photojournalism going forward?

Stephen Mayes: The most telling comment I’ve heard in recent months is that journalism in the twenty-first century is yet to be invented, and that what we’re all struggling to do is to maintain an old model in a new system, and it’s incompatible in many ways.

[The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.

PDN: There’s been a lot of talk from media executives about consumers paying for journalism online. If that does happen, do you think the editorial and newspaper markets are going to come back?

SM: I think that question is the big unknown. I’ll be delighted if they do, but I won’t be surprised if they don’t. And in the meantime I’m trying to put a strategy in place that allows VII to prosper regardless.

When you boil it down, what VII does is integrity. That issue of believability is exactly what VII does. We express it photographically, so it’s all revealed through photographs, but actually what is valuable to VII is integrity. When I look at an environment where there’s absolutely too much information, information becomes valueless. What everyone is suffering from is that a photograph is just more information. It becomes very hard to put a price on it because there are too many pictures out there, but if you suddenly start rethinking it and saying, “We’re not selling photographs, what we’re selling is believability,” then actually we have more value than we had before. VII offers a benchmark, which now has increased value because of all the information that’s out there.

PDN: That being the case, do you envision that consumers will pay for it somehow online?

SM: No, and I think that’s where the confusion is. I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion. What I’m seeing now, increasingly, is that other people will pay for consumers to have that relation, so long as it’s a shared interest. Again, that whole notion of, “Will the press re-inflate if users are charged for content?” Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But I think it’s also missing the point on some level.

We’re coming from a model where we’re all selling units of intellectual property, and we’re all struggling with that, the prices are going down, and it’s getting harder to sell that stuff. But you step back a little bit and you see the exact same problems being encountered in the music industry. They used to sell albums, that was their unit, that doesn’t happen anymore. You see it in the movies, the model is changing, you see it in literature—culture-wide there’s a shift away from that notion of a vendor selling that unit of intellectual property, and it’s moving away from the model of a buyer buying intellectual property. Because all of this stuff is available for free, so why should they start paying for it? But there is still value there, and the exercise that I’ve been engaged with for the last two years is identifying that value, and having found it, coming up with a way to monetize it.

And hence you end up with these expanded partnerships where VII works with Human Rights Watch, VII works with the International Committee of the Red Cross, VII works with Time magazine and at the same time there’s a different value that we’re applying to each of them. We each share a common interest. I’m not selling something. There’s an ethical question at VII, and it may be different for a different agency or a different photographer. But with VII it has to be about believability, it has to be about partnering with the right people and not selling photographers down the line just to make money, but actually partnering them with people they believe they can work with to fulfill the things that those photographers believe in—and finding a commercial angle to them.

As long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble. Everyone’s complaining that it’s difficult to make a decent living selling photographs. But what I see are much bigger revenue and distribution opportunities, working in a slightly different model.

PDN: Who do you think are the biggest funding sources going forward?

SM: There are still the magazines and newspapers. Obviously we’re all of us becoming less dependent on that, for good or for ill. We have had a fair degree of commercial success with NGOs, but also foundations, and there are also corporations. At this point I don’t know if I could say I am getting equal from each of those sectors, but good as equal. I’m finding all of them are really important, valid partners.

It comes back to choosing the partner for the project. I think that’s really key. I would find it hard to be in a situation where VII would affiliate with one funder for everything or for all purposes. In a traditional model we would have contracts with Time magazine for example; one photographer is attached to Time magazine and that’s the only thing they do. That’s now very rare, and I’m not sure that’s a situation I would encourage anymore. Would we want to affiliate permanently and for everything with one corporation, with one NGO, with one magazine? I’m not sure that we would. So I think that it gives us more choice and it gives our partners, clients, however we want to describe them, more choices as well.

The Importance of Partnerships

PDN: The business side of being a photojournalist must be getting more complex, because one has to diversify their partnerships to such a degree.

SM: I think quite the contrary. I think at the moment the biggest challenge we have is to take the limits off our imagination. We all have a history and a familiar way of working, and we’re tending to box ourselves in according to what we’ve known before.

The reason why I say it’s not more complicated, in fact maybe makes life easier for the photojournalist is that, if you have a simple partnership—supplier–client, photographer–magazine—you’re actually very restricted, you have to supply what that magazine needs or they’re not going to hire you again, you can’t just say, “Thanks for the assignment, I’m going to go off and cover what the hell I like.” You have to deliver to that magazine what they demand, so it’s a closed loop.

Whereas I find that if I work with a number of partners, it’s a matter of articulating to each of them what the benefits are, what they’re going to get from it, and in the course of that you very often break a project out and find that there are multiple interests and therefore the photographer has much more freedom to do more of what they want. By increasing the number of partners—the difficulty being making sure there are no conflicts of interest—it turns from the old model in which the client would say, “This is what I want and this is when I want it,” to our saying, “This is what we’re doing and this is when it will be available.” It actually puts a lot more authority in the hands of the photographer. Of course there is a problem if everyone says no. But we’ve always faced that problem; we’ve always pitched magazines.

PDN: Do you think there is going to be a shift in the number of assignments or comissions received vs. the amount a photographer has to pitch projects to potential partners?

SM: What I’ve discovered is it really depends on the photographer. There are some photographers who have been blessed with contracts and really full client lists and their phone never stops ringing, and there are other photographers who’ve always taken a different approach and who’ve always pitched and tried to drive their own agenda. I think that it’s becoming more difficult, if not impossible, to be the former. I think it’s very difficult now to just sit and wait for the phone to ring. That did used to happen, that doesn’t really happen at the moment. But there have always been photographers who are very active in pitching and promoting ideas. So I would say the balance is swinging more towards that.

Therefore the limit is our imagination—How do we as photographers and representatives of photographers keep those ideas coming? At this point the business is driven by ideas. The smarter your ideas, the more active you are in producing ideas, the more work you have. And the more control you have over your work.

Distribution: The Agency Becomes the Publisher

PDN: How do you see photojournalism being distributed?

SM: [Magazines] still have a readership, it’s just that readers aren’t paying, but they still are very effective distributors, and therefore I do want to continue working with magazines very much, I see them as being key in our practice as we move forward. At the same time, we’re looking for other distribution models. Obviously online is a big one, but looking at broadcast and different opportunities there. I’m also looking at different formats for distribution. One of the things I’m looking into at the moment is some limited form of publishing. I think there’s a role for VII as an agency to become a publisher. And I am working on a strategy at the moment which will have VII publish bodies of work. We will then partner with magazines as distributors, where VII will be the publisher and the magazines will be the distributors, which is a bit of a shift in the old ways of thinking.

PDN: How would the magazines distribute the content?

SM: I think the online opportunity is huge. What I’ve been doing is looking at successful online businesses in completely unrelated fields, and trying to figure out what makes them successful—why are they thriving when the magazines are not in the online world? And what I’ve found is that there are certain ways of operating, there are certain rules you can apply, there are certain procedures you can follow, which seem to be very transferable to photography. What I find this translates into is being a publisher. One can use the Internet in a way that is much more controllable and manageable and serves a lot more interests than working in print.

With the Web is it’s possible to partner with multiple people for different purposes at the same time. We’re used to putting pictures in print separately in the US and Germany and Spain, so we’re very familiar with this idea in print of splitting an image and repurposing it for different territories or different times—we’ll publish it one year under one context and another year under a different context. And what the Web allows us to do is to actually mix all that up at the same time. One can produce a set of pictures that have a purpose for an NGO, which are completely separate from the needs of a magazine. And the two, far from contradicting each other can actually support each other. And one of the great things about the Web is interaction, so it’s possible for the magazine to actually do more than report, they can actually effect change by directing people from their site to an NGO, and vice versa.

PDN: But if you are going to set VII up as the publisher, then, the idea is that at some point readers would be directed to your site. You would be hosting your stories, your content.

SM: That’s right. And what’s interesting about that is we all do this already. As I went through this whole process of seeing how it all works, what I realized is that we’re doing this at the moment, it’s just we’re really badly configured. Magnum, VII, you name it, we all follow a similar model, which is we show our wares online. We do publish at the moment, and anyone from China to Seattle can check in and see what’s there. But what we don’t do is present it in a way that is user friendly. We present it in a way that has one purpose, which is to speak to picture professionals and picture buyers. And what I realized is that it only takes a small amount of reconfiguration to change how we present this stuff. We’ve all been publishers for the last ten years, we’ve all had Web sites and we’ve done this stuff. Things like Magnum in Motion grabbed it and ran with it. But it’s been in a very restricted context. And so what I’ve been doing is looking around to successful Web businesses and saying, “What would be needed to not only make this a more effective communication tool, to not only reach more people or the right people, and of course then how do we monetize it?”

PDN: So you’re going to partner with magazines and newspapers to show your wares, but when people want to actually view the stories they’re going to view them on your site.

SM: That’s right. Magazines and newspapers, that’s one set of partners; also NGOs and also Facebook, all these distribution tools, and broadcast media as well.

Where Is The Revenue?

PDN: How does compensation work, though? You’re offering a certain amount of a story to be present on a site—newspaper, magazine, broadcast, NGO, whatever it is—and that site is creating traffic for you, which is maybe feeding advertising of some sort, but you’re giving content to them for free, right?

SM: It’s going to be different. It all has to be flexible, but it may be that material is available for free as it is today, you can go to the VII Web site and you don’t have to pay for anything. People can log onto the archives and see everything at no price. Everything is already being published for free. All I’m talking about is channeling that in a more organized way, and that’s what I mean by publishing. So in a sense there’s no change, it’s available for free today, the magazines can quite easily link to these stories today without any further consultation. So it’s about using the structures that already exist.

The experimental side of this is, where is the revenue?

One of my questions is, I wonder if there’s a difference in the audience for a general magazine, and the audience that just VII would attract? The difference is that people coming to the VII Web site are going to be drawn by photography. In other words, it’s going to be a qualified audience, it’s not a general readership. Now they may be following a story, or they may be interested in a photo, but whatever it is it’s going to be a picture that brings them into VII so it’s all about photography. And I think that that type of qualified audience is very important. And it changes the equation when you think about advertising and sponsorships.

One of the key things that we’re learning is that VII is a very light, tight operation. We don’t have big corporate offices and a huge staff, we don’t have an infrastructure to support other than what we’re already doing, so what I need to generate in terms of revenue might be very significant for us, but it might not be very significant for the New York Times.

I will be interested in advertising from partners who actually share our interests. The other thing at the moment is identifying what we can bring to them and what they can bring to us that is mutually supportive. But there’s other stuff that VII can do which can generate revenue. I have to say unfortunately it’s s little early for me to disclose at this point where I want to go with that, but I know there are certain things that VII does which are of value, which we are coming out and doing now or are aspiring to do which would actually have revenue opportunities in the online environment. So this notion of becoming a publisher is really fundamental.

In addition to being suppliers in a traditional sense, we’re now in the position of becoming more self-determining. What partners can we bring in to [achieve our objectives] and how do we monetize it? And for me the key is the Internet. While I look at other people bemoaning the demise of magazines as commercial clients or frustrated at the limitations of the Internet, I think it just takes a relatively small mind shift to flip both of those situations into a positive.

PDN: I find it difficult to see is where the revenue is going to come from.

SM: Well, we’ll find out. 2009 is a year of recession, I see this as my year of mistakes. I’m trying to find out where the ground is firm and where the ground isn’t firm. By January next year I’ll know a lot more clearly. And what does work in January may not work by December. Models are moving so fast. MySpace is gone, it’s all Facebook, where is Facebook going to be next year? So in working in this new environment things are moving incredibly fast, so I’m not setting rules, I’m asking questions and I’m testing the ground. My estimate is that 50 percent of my projections are right—I don’t know which 50 percent, but in six months time I’ll have an idea of which 50 percent and then I’ll build on those, and as that changes, then I’ll respond differently and move differently. But the core here is hanging on to what is important to VII, which is the integrity.

PDN: Do you think it’s difficult to maintain integrity or the perception of integrity while also looking for alternative funding sources?

SM: It’s very interesting, already in the experiments that we’ve managed successfully with these different partnerships, we do get different responses from different publications. Some publications go, “Yes, I see your message, I believe what you’re communicating and I trust you because you are who you are and I trust the partners that you’ve been working with so let’s make a deal.” And other publications are saying, “It’s not our story, we didn’t direct the story, therefore we’re not going to participate.” It’s not my place to say that they’re wrong, they have different reasons and a different rationale for their work. But I think to say that the money comes from a special interest group doesn’t make [the work] any less believable than if [the money] comes from a magazine. Magazines have their own limitations.

PDN: What do you tell the VII Network and VII Mentor photographers that they need to do to build successful careers in this environment?

SM: A lot of them are pretty well organized, and are in some ways pushing the founding members of VII. Some of them are initiating and innovating being very energetic in their careers, so to some extent we’re learning from them as well as telling them. I think the ideas are the currency at this point. And I mean ideas in terms of the stories that you cover and also the means by which we disseminate them and can find funding for them. So really it’s about imagination, it’s about having no fear, being careful, but not being fearful. And I think it’s true that at this point there’s equal room for excitement and caution. I’m not by any means advocating doing anything and everything that might work; you have to think it through very carefully. We are all going to be surprised, there’s always an element of risk, but at this point doing nothing is more risky than trying stuff out. I think the status quo is the riskiest possible position to maintain. So I think my advice is think hard, be very careful and very structured, but most of all know what it is that you want to do and stick to it

Published by Photo District News, August 2009