Red Umbrella

I was perusing through photos of the 2013 CEPIC congress who just completed its annual festival in   Barcelona. Like every year, photo merchants from all over the world gathered around tables and four chairs to trade, exchange, redistribute content they mostly did not create, like kids playing with sets of collectable cards. I’ll give you this set against this one if you let me distribute this one in my country. The rule of the game is to amass the maximum sets to license in your territory while keeping the commissions payable as low as possible. Everyone is looking for the next gold mine, that set of pictures that will make them fabulously rich.

Every year, the pompously named Center of the picture industry, as if it even needed a center, organizes this trade show in different european country, allowing photography merchants to tune their collections by signing trade agreement with other foreign merchants. I don’t know why, but it reminds me of the Middle Ages when textile merchants would meet once a year in the city of Bruges to exchange/trade/ their productions.

It also reminds me how precarious and out dated this industry is becoming. Oblivious to the current economic situation, they stubbornly continue to do business as usual without any concerns or thoughts about their situation. As if obsessive persistence would somehow help them travel through these changing times, shielding them from trouble. It won’t. It is also no coincidence that these festivities would happen at the heart of a country hardest hit by the economic downturn and suffering one of the worst recession in the world. Just an ironic mirroring of their own situation.

The stock photo industry today lives on one fundamental cornerstone : Photographs created by independent producers. As long as these independent producers make money by submitting images to stock agencies, all is fine. However, this is no longer the case.

And while the photo agencies are busy struggling to undercut each other on pricing, photographers are less and less interested in giving them pictures to license.

Today, they are hundreds, if not thousands of companies working on monetizing photos without licensing them the traditional way. For now, none have gain enough traction to compete with the revenues created by the stock photo industry. For now. As soon as one, or two, or three do, photographers will start leaving photo agencies in droves to join the better paying companies.

Already fighting to keep market shares in a diminishing client base, those photo agencies will have to fight for a diminishing professional production pool gone elsewhere, or all become crowdsourced. We have seen already how much room there is for a successful Microstock agencies ( hint: it’s around 2 or 3) .

Like the persistence of an idea doesn’t make it true and the stubborn persistence of a business model doesn’t make it successful. Traditional photo licensing is dying a slow  death by ignoring the threats around them. Creators have the right, and the need, to make a decent living with their images. They should not be the unwilling supporters of an industry that refuses, either because it can’t or it doesn’t want, to recognize its own shortcoming and failures.

Photographers, for example, are now very aware of the agent-subagent scheme that has been playing for decades, the one you see being played at events like CEPIC congress. In an all digital, connected world, they should no longer be the ones paying off remote agents they have never met. Their images should no longer be traded as assets to anonymous database builders whose main preoccupation is filing in blanks in their search engines results.

Once photographers start leaving the stock photo industry for more profitable resources –  it’s happening already – there will be no stock photo industry. The pompous entitlement of an industry that still thinks of itself as the only source of revenue for creative professionals will pop like an overinflated balloon. It will be replaced by a few fully crowd sourced sales platforms like Shutterstock and Istock, automatically dispensing royalty free images. There will be no Center to exchange image sets in a party like atmosphere of mixed greed and inocence. There will just be a group of people at home asking themselves where and why they went wrong.

If the commercial stock photo industry wants to survive, it will need to quickly evolve out of its shell. It will need to innovate and absorb new business model, as well a bringing in photographers as business partners. It will need to break the rules to which they are accustomed and redefine their roles in the photo ecosystem. They can no longer operate like giant photo repositories working like used clothes consignment stores offering mass rebates to multi billion dollar publishing companies. Most importantly, they have to recognize that photographers are at the core of their businesses and that without them, they are absolutely nothing .

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