Commercial stock photography is all about problem solving. The first is how to make a living shooting commercial stock. One way to do it, is to solve other people’s problems.
When image buyers go to a Web site, it is because they have been asked to provide a solution to a very specific problem: They have text, they have a layout, they have a concept and they have a client with a message. The task: fill in the visual space with the perfect image.
Seems easy in theory. If what’s needed is a picture of a tool, get a tool. If it is a concept, it is much harder.
A photographer’s job, one that shoots stock, is to preempt this problem and solve it. The more common the problem, the more successful the image. Potentially.
How does one figure what problems need to be solved worldwide? In a way, it is not that hard. As humans living in the 21st century, we share common experiences. We seek solutions to a lot of tasks and issues. Our lives, in a sense, are a continuous search to alleviate problems. And unbeknown to us, many are shared by our peers.
So, photographing our own problems, or at least solving them, is productive. Figuring out what the next problem will be is a better way to be a successful stock shooter. The image of the solution, however, should always be tied to the problem.
Once this is understood, that a stock photographer is a problem-solver, a big step has been made. But it is not all. A stock photographer should also know how to create meaning. And for that, we need to dive a little deeper in how the brain functions.
Our eyes, in a way, are very stupid. We receive light, and it bounces into the back of our brains, at the primary visual cortex, which only sees and recognizes basic shapes, like circles, squares, triangle, etc. However, this is not the end of how we interpret a photograph in our brains. It actually goes from there to at least 30 other different places in our brains, some of which we are still figuring out what actually they do.
Some we know:
We will skip quickly over the ventral stream, which is the “what” of our brain that recognizes what an object is and what it does. Sort of the catalog section of our brain. Photographs share this space, in the frontal lob, with words, and how we interpret them. We will also fly quickly over the dorsal stream. That part of the brain creates a map of where the object is. A sort of 3D GPS system that puts the object in perspective to its surrounding.
What is interesting is a third location where the information bounces, and that is called the limbic system. That is deep inside the middle of our brain and very old. Old in the sense that it has been with us throughout our evolution. The limbic system is the part that “feels” those basic emotions, from satisfaction to fear.
Those three parts are what create meaning for a photograph and what every single human being has in common, including your potential client.
That is what stock photographers should go after: create meaning. Images should tickle that part of our brains that recognize, put in perspective and make us feel emotions, because it also makes them valued.
When a creative director or a photo editor is looking for an image, it is not just a problem they are trying to solve, but a meaning they are trying to convey.
If you look at the stock industry, with photo libraries boasting millions upon millions of images, it is easy to see that maybe 90% will never sell. They aren’t useless; they just have no meaning to anyone.
Commercial stock photography, in order to strive, has to offer an emotionally meaningful solution.
Well, for quite a few it is far more difficult. Because you are asking the modern man to feel. And the modern man is just a shadow, a consumer and a product at the same time. He reached the apex after so many generations to become something valuable in himself, almost efortless. He is the second most prised commodity right after the mighty Information. And it goes both ways: because the modern man is a consumer – he has value. And the other way around: he can consume because he has a value which he can “sell”, give in order to obtain other products.
An individual caught in this deadly trap has no option. He has to consume in order to have value which, in turn, can be given away to acquire goods to consume.
Maybe I am too cynical. Somebody who can go to some place, say “I love this place” and leave job, career and everything behind just to enjoy the feeling of being in that particular environment. Well, that somebody can create, because he is trying to express that inside richness that he is feeling. In my life I haven’t seen somebody unable to do something like that, yet be able to do something meaningful. To de-abstract the concept – fashion photo is so prised, yet the ones who do something more than ilustrate their own emptiness with pretty pictures of dressed bodies are the ones who just happened to be there, they wanted to do something else. The empty ones go there to “be somebody”. I don’t know, maybe to fondle an ass or two. They go to New York because they know it is a fashion hub. They spend quite a sum to live there, to reside in that perceived Mecca, and they have already become a consumer. A chic loft in a cool quarter, some fancy dress, haircut – all that is expensive. And when they were supposed to create they discover that they are in debt and they have to do something fast. Should he had staied at home, living in a tree house and photographing farm boys and girls than he had a real chance to both get to fondle the ass of somebody and get some meaningful photos.
The consumer does not have time to go to a museum, or read something other than emails, tweets and facebook statuses. And if you do catch him at some vernisage than it’s something social – being cool to be seen there, being cool to be perceived with a certain entourage, etc. The actual cultural event is useless and pointless without this superficial hooks.
And you are asking a hoard of empty bodies to go out and create? To have feelings? To have feelings and also put them on paper? But how? 5.000 years of human art resumed to stupid remarks by sticom actors and badly drawn comic book characters? Say it’s just numbness, their soul is asleep somewhere and not dead. Say they can still have feelings other than basic reaction to stimulus. How can they bridge with a two dimensional paper the distance between others’ soul and theirs?
I went to Visa de Perpignan and to the Rencontres d’Arles. Some of the artists are the same. Some are empty shells who have pretty pictures. And only a couple of new ones. But Languedoc and Provence are not the only photography hub. There are others. Do they come out with more than a couple of promising new ones? Are the promising new ones different from one to another? Let’s assume they are so many. But they can pierce through petabytes of crap? Are they able to get through this maze of relationships – many of the artists of the day are there because their ass is interesting enough to somebody or because they are blood relative with somebody else.