This post also appeared on Pro Photo Daily
SXSW Interactive is one big photo op. In fact, the event turns Austin, Texas, into a playground of image making every March. There are the Instagram meet-ups and street-style portrait studios, and of course lots of brands with a big presence on the streets, urging passersby to post a photo of their products to Twitter.
Inside the convention center where the event is held, the lineup of panels related to content and audience engagement gave promise that the conversation would turn toward the economics of being a content creator. But unlike the SXSW music conference, which has a large panel on enforcing copyright, this year’s Interactive conference did not really touch on the business of being a photographer.
One exception was Getty Images, which had a large presence to coincide with the recent controversial announcement about the company’s new embed tool, which will make most of its archive available to blogs for free. The massive crowds of content-hungry bloggers and brands at the conference were the perfect audience for Getty, which conveniently did not have to address the many photographers who are unhappy with the move.
One of the ideas floating around the conference came from the ZERO Paid Media presentation, where Joseph Jaffe and Maarten Albarda were quick to point out that the advertising market could soon reach a saturation point that is unsustainable—which of course would have a huge impact of the photography industry and other businesses, since monetizing content (online and off) now depends almost exclusively on advertising.
Jaffe and Albarda are the authors of a book (crowdfunded at Kickstarter) called Z.E.R.O: Zero Paid Media as the New Marketing Model. ZERO stands for Zealots (advocacy), Entrepreneurship (innovation), Retention (customer-centricity) and Owned Assets (direct to consumer channels), and, simply put, they think the future for content creators lies in cutting out distribution channels and paid advertising and instead promoting and delivering products directly to customers. Jaffe touted Beyoncé as the “queen of ZERO paid marketing,” for instance.
In light of Getty’s move to generate revenue (through ad sales and data collection) on the backs of photographers’ content, the idea of photographers distributing their content directly sounds promising. Photographers are the “O” in ZERO (they own the assets), but they lack a product that the general public will pay for. People will pay to listen to Beyoncé’s albums—even if vast numbers of them still illegally download them.
“If you have a great product, and you have fans, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy” said Jaffe. Sounds like an easy formula, but for most photographers, I don’t see how it works out. Photographers have in fact been trying to reach customers directly, through crowdfunding, self-publishing, and print sales, but it’s a hard battle to wage when you are a freelancer responsible for all aspects of your business.
The idea of monetizing content came up, briefly, at the Instagramming the News panel, which drew large lines to an almost packed 800-seat ballroom. Panelists included Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder (@dguttenfelder), Time magazine (@time) Director of Photography Kira Pollack, and Instagram Community Manager Dan Toffey (@dantoffey).
It was Toffey who mentioned people selling prints of their Instagram photos directly to fans through Instacanvas (now Twenty20) and similar sites. But beyond that, most of the talk centered around the work that Time, Guttenfelder, and a handful of other photographers with compelling Instagram accounts are doing.
Guttenfelder talked about his roots in photojournalism as a staff photographer for the Associated Press, and why he joined Instagram. “The photographers who I admire the most were not participating in this space when I started. I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation,” he said.
When AP opened an office in North Korea in 2012, he became the only western photographer with regular access to the country. “I’m able to get beyond the scripted, guarded version of the country,” he said. “I use my phone when I want to be discreet or when I want to post something that I wouldn’t put on the AP wire.”
Not surprisingly, given North Korea’s lockdown on communication within the country, Guttenfelder added, “Until last March it was against the law to bring any mobile device into the country. I had Internet access, unlike pretty much everyone else in the country. Then they opened a 3G network, and I could post pictures from the streets. This opened up a whole new world professionally for me.”
The North Korean government does not preview or censor Guttenfelder’s work. But, he said, “We have difficult discussions after they see it published.”
Toffey told the audience that his job is to tell the story of the Instagram community by showcasing the diverse events that are being documented. “We try to shape people’s view of Instagram,” he explained.
How news coverage is featured at Instagram is a topic of much discussion within the company, he said—especially lately with the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Unlike Guttenfelder, whose job is to travel to wars and natural disasters, everyday users on Instagram can show a glimpse of their lives in a different way. This is especially important in areas like Syria that are, as Pollack pointed out, “severely under-reported. Many of the images [we see] are from the activists”.
Toffey shared images from Malek Blackhatoviche, aka @syriandeveloper. Backhatoviche, who describes himself in his Instagram profile as a “Freedom Fighter,” started posting pictures before the Syrian civil war exploded. “I was being brought along on this person’s existence,” he said. “There would be four or five photos of rubble and then a cat photo.” The images by Blackhatoviche allow viewers to ride along amid the chaos. “The dust hasn’t settled in his photos,” Toffey added. And unlike a journalist who needs to maintain a neutral stance, individuals can caption and hashtag images that show they are not unbiased viewers.
On the domestic front, Toffey highlighted the images of Instagram user @greggboydston, a USFS Hotshot and brewery worker in Mammoth Lakes, California. His feed, a mix of backcountry snow sports, hanging out with friends, and fighting fires, gives people an intimate look at his life.
Pollack shared the feed of @satyaar, whose work was discovered when he started following the Instagram account of Time’s international photo editor. “As an editor, you’re finding talent in places you wouldn’t know. He’s an interesting example of the kind of people you find when you go down the rabbit hole of people’s feeds,” Pollack said.
All three panelists talked enthusiastically about the speed by which images can be distributed through Instagram. Guttenfelder reflected on covering Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. “Photographers cover natural disasters because we want to get an immediate response from people by photographing the needs on the ground. I wasn’t prepared for how immediate [the response] was. Filipinos were so grateful that I was using [Instagram].”
Guttenfelder posted photos of a Filipino hospital with no neonatal care. “They moved all these babies into a chapel and [were] manually pumping oxygen to try and keep them alive. The commenters rallied to get a generator there,” he said. “It was an immediate response in a way I wasn’t prepared for. This started lots of conversations about the power of this immediacy.”
Time’s Hurricane Sandy coverage also leveraged Instagram’s speed. “We put five photographers on assignment,” said Pollack. “It was a highly visual story and we gave the photographers the keys to the car. These pictures moved so fast. We were seeing the images for the first time as [the photographers] were filing.”
The idea that everyone is experimenting, and that no one has any real answers about the impact of Instagram, came up repeatedly. Asked what Instagram’s role in the future of news photography was, Toffey mused, “We’re still trying to figure out where we fit in.”