A photo agency does 90 % of a photo editor’s work. Yet, there is always been a love hate relationship between the two. why is that ?

Let’s step back for a minute, would you ? The fundamental role of a photo agency is to already have images that a photo editor needs. Whether it be news, sports, entertainment, lifestyle or anything else, a photo agency should work as a repository of any and all photo editors wish. An never ending land of succulent fruits for the eyes, a garden of Eden of photography where one just needs to reach to get that perfect image.

In the process, Photo agencies weed out the good photographers from the bad. They create a quality filter that guarantees that images come from top notch photographers. Furthermore, they act as the sounding board for the photographers creative ego, shielding photo editors from the relentless waves of complains and curse words.

Photo agencies like to be flexible. For a premium, you can get an image for your publication or campaign only, called an exclusive, or just specify which competitor you would like to blind. In case of a catastrophe, earthquake, terrorism or plane accident, they do all the grunge work of locating the latest images so that photo editors do not have to get their hands dirty and can just wait by their phone.

Most of the time, this works perfectly well. Some magazine, websites and newspapers are entirely illustrated with photographs that fell off the Photo agency trees. In any other profession, where someone would do half your work for you, for free, that woud be well received.

In our world, not at all. It differs by country and culture. But as a photo agency in the USA, try to call a photo editor and tell them you just received this great set of images that could be great for their publication. You will probably be able to avoid insults, a slammed phone, but the reception on the other side will be  colder than the deepest  hole on the north side of the Mars ice cap. You are not welcomed.

It’s funny, because in Europe for example, they cannot wait you to show them your new material. They thrive on it. They will even buy the article along with it. It the US, you might as well jump of a bridge first.

Part of that is people do not like when you pretend to know their jobs better than they do. They take offense to that. But it is mainly due to the fact that in the US, most photo editors are gophers and do not make any editorial decisions. The editor in chief decice what articles will be published and the photo editors are ask to go out an illustrate them. Never the reverse. In Europe, however, they have equivalent powers. If they see a great photo story, they will run it, regardless of where it comes from. They are actually asked to provide stories and sit hand in hand ( figure of speech) with the editor in chief, deciding on the content.

So maybe part of the reason for the unqualified  reception photo agencies received when they pitch a story is due to the fact that each time they do that, in the US, they just push the knife deeper into the photo editors’ wound and make them remember how powerless they are. They only become almighty when they are granted a budget to go out and produce a photo shoot. And for that, theygo throught extra efforts to locate photographers that do not belong to a photo agency or if they do, try to circonvent that relationsship by all means possible.

It’s a convoluted relationships the one between photo editors and photo agencies. One made of trust and mistrust, of need, necessity and resentment. There are a lot of real friendships in this industry between buyers and sellers, as well as some real hate. Neither are photographers but they do battle on them, for the rights of possession. It is a continuous balancing act where neither can afford to be mad at the other while the photo editor still like to keep them at a reasonable distance.

In an editors eyes, and mind, photo agency people are not real photography people. They are like a subset of creepy creatures crawling in your garden. They can help sure, but only if there is no other way. A necessary evil.

Sometimes you wonder why they even credit a photo agency at all. Portfolio, the new Conde Nast business magazine, only puts the photographers name next to the images, adding the photo agency’s credit way back in a remote corner of the magazines’ last pages, as if to show that all the images where assigned. The Economist does not credit at all. Some others, which I find the most offensive, only put the agencies name. As if to clearly show that an image is just an illustration taken from a photo bank.

There should be a middle ground. Photo editors should have more power in the editorial decision process. A la New York Times. They should be granted and given the right to bring in photo stories. However, photo agencies can help. After many, many years of working with a publication, they have a good idea of what could be of interest. And because they work with thousands of eyes and ears worldwide, they have great stories that should be published . It would certainly beat rehashing what is on CNN on a print version, or sticking with what has sold in the past. It would make photographers more creative if they knew that publications would listen to what they have seen. I cannot say how many great photo essays gather dust on lonely hard drives just because there is no ears to listen.

As much as the photo agency business has to re invent itself, as much as photo editors have to shake the cages they are in if they want to keep being making photography quality go up.

Share Button

2 Thoughts on “Of photo editors and photo agencies

  1. I’ve had the opportunity to be on three sides of the fence; photographer, agent, and buyer. I think you are spot on for many of your points, especially the Euro v. US differences. I can’t say that I’d agree about the defined relationship founded on mistrust, or that there’s vast amounts of animosity.

    (based on my experience) In Europe, Agents are accepted as a source of material. In the US, they agents are a tool that photo editors use to find what they need. Good tools are kept, valued, and used, while bad tools are set aside. Eurpean agents will work on the sale of photo / text packages, were upper management gets pitched a complete package ready to run. More often, here in the US, editors are handed half a package. It then takes more work for a photo editor to pitch a story up-ladder that needs a writer, than it is handing an already written story down ladder to the photo folks.

    I also think that here in the US, the photo editors intake pipes are clogged. They get hit time and time again with solicitations of material that is not appropriate for them, or way below the caliber of quality they require. I’ve seen this firsthand, and you get kinda sick asking yourself repeatedly, “What are these people thinking?!”

    I think photo editors (rightly) believe they are the best filter for the material appropriate to their market, and therefore best suited to go and find what they need when they need it. As an analogy; When the kitchen sink faucet pours out vast amounts of muddy water for each glass full of clear water, it makes sense that when they want some drinking water, they’ll get up, and walk across the room to go to the water cooler.

    – Gary.

  2. Gary,

    Thank you for your comment.

    You are right, but the reason the pipes are clogged in the US is exactly because there is no photo agency trust. Photo editors are thus bombarded by everyone and anyone instead of just a few photo agency that could act as a filter for them. European photo editors have plenty of time for individual photographers because the bulk of their images come from agencies.


    Paul M

Post Navigation