Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

Data Analysis and the Pro Photo Industry

The challenge of science is to be skeptical and always in search of truth. Indeed, this is a difficult task, because truth is more likely to be a very wide spectrum of grey than the black-and-white that people are more comfortable with. As it pertains to the internet's impact on the photo industry, "the truth" also shifts with time as the transition to digital/internet technologies continues to permeate other industries that use photographs. Regarding what the impact is of non-professional photographers on the photo industry is important, because it has a great effect on what role the photographer can play, and how to play it. If it were the case that non-pros have a more influential role than once thought, it could (and should) change how professionals do everything, from manage their own careers, to how they engage cooperatively or competitively with other pros.

This can be a difficult and painful prospect for most pros, especially those who have a vested interest in seeing things remain "as they are." As such, no one actually does data-gathering on the general population for its photo-related activities (as opposed to only photographers and agencies), because no one has a vested interest in seeing such data. Therefore, it is only possible to speculate what the consumer's impact is based on indirect data, which many of my other articles cover.

Indeed, the purpose of my blog is to present a more thorough analysis of a topic that it seems no one (in the photo industry) even considers as a possibility. Most skepticism, while understandable, is mostly based on traditional models that were indeed true for most of the history of this business. Yet, as I pointed out in another posting, such assumptions can be dangerous, especially in times when major changes are taking place. Very large companies have been brought down because of similar errors in judgement.

I wouldn't be bothered so much by skepticism if it were based on other data, rather than just a disbelief in the data I present. Note, it's not "my" data--I didn't do the data gathering. I am merely mining existing data from sources that current photo industry analysts don't look at because they don't think there is a correlation. I do see the correlation, and because of that, I can see some very interesting trends that are compelling in what they suggest. And, it seems, the more data I gather, the more it points to the same conclusions.

Yet, it seems my biggest hurdle is still within the community itself. Presenting this sort of material is the audience; it's as though I'm talking to the auto worker's union on the value of free-market enterprise. They don't want to hear it. They just want to hear how they can embolden their base to garner more concessions from management. If I were talking to a union, they'd be right. But photographers aren't a union, nor do they have the kind of clout that unions have.

To that end, you hear a lot about unionizing and forming cooperatives from photographers and industry groups. (Well, not so much about unionizing anymore--the Supreme Court put the kabash on that in the 1970s.) But the spirit remains alive. And, if photographers could ever effectively form cooperatives, there would be data that hints at such effectiveness. And, in fact, I have! For example, in 1982, the Federal Trade Commission stopped the ASMP from publishing price lists that members should charge their clients because it was deemed to be Restraint of Trade. What more compelling reason do you need to show how powerful a trade organization can be!

But that data was almost 25 years ago! Back when the industry was more insulated, when the barrier to entry (into the photography profession) was higher, the number of players was smaller, and the sources for imagery was more limited and tightly controlled. It was very clear that such groups could, in fact, act in unison and work in their collective interests. One could find all sorts of news and other data sources that supported the notion that such cooperative efforts were effective. But as the internet grew and others got more involved, such reports grew fewer and fewer, with each "win" becoming less and less advantageous to photographers.

So consider how the FTC would rule today if the ASMP tried to do the same thing. Back in 1982, 95% of all media photographers were members of either ASMP or sister organizations, and close to 100% of all newspaper and magazine photographs were obtained either through such photographers or agencies that used them. No wonder the FTC ruled as they did. Today? The FTC wouldn't even notice, let alone lift a finger to stop them. (And if the ASMP did publish their price lists, it would probably have a worse impact on photographers, because it would probably cause them to lose more business that would just be passed onto semi-pros or others who are more business-savvy.)

Sadly, the industry trade groups don't know that--they still look upon the 1982 ruling with bitter-sweet memories. The bitter part is that their claws were taken away. The sweet part was that they had claws. While there are still isolated incidents of gains here and there by their various industry-focused efforts, there are more reports of media and other sources going "outside" of the traditional photo markets for their material. To wit, there is this article about how the BBC website is going to start using reader photos:


Speaking of consumers, if there's any doubt about their ability to produce publication-quality photos en masse, consider this news report about how people are producing photos so good, that WalMart is not sure which are consumer prints, and which are professional:


At the end of the day, I am a photographer, and I care about the industry and how people perform within it. However, I am not a blind advocate that just waves the industry flag and supports whatever the conventional thinking is or has been.

In conclusion, the "facts" (I'd rather call them "data points", since all data is ephemeral at best, and subject to interpretation at worst) are already compelling: pro photographers are not in control of how their own industry operates, and there is nothing they can do as a cooperative to change it. In fact, those who try will find themselves worse off than those who use free-market strategies where competition is the path to success. The data today is even more compelling than what I had found 7-8 years ago, when I wrote my first article on the subject for EP mailing list. That was the truisms article I pointed to before:


Although I've bolstered the content of that article with more up to date and varied datapoints today, the conclusions I came to were the same. To succeed, photographers have to change their perceptions about the market, who's in it, the competition, how to market oneself, and most of all, how to price competitively. Indeed, that article generated the same controversy as my articles do here today. But to read the responses back then, you'd shake your head in disbelief. For it was in those days when I said that the web would be the new landscape for stock photography, and the then-golden-boy of the EP group literally said, "there is no future in photography on the Web--you'll lose everything because people will just steal your images."


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