On Valentine’s Day, a former student opened fire in a Northern Illinois University classroom, killing five students, injuring sixteen and eventually taking his own life. I was on campus when it happened. This was my lightning strike, my Eddie Adams moment, albeit on a much smaller stage. My paper, the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Ill., was inundated with entreaties from media outlets wanting to feed off of our coverage. I kept on working for the next few days posting pictures and contemplating how my coverage of one tragic event would be more well known than the combined popularity of a thousand county fairs. It appeared that my brand was tending toward the tragic (I’d almost been crushed by a monster truck in August).
Photographers at newspapers this size are generalists–meant to cover anything and everything and do it quickly and well. But as a photographer and a writer in today’s multimedia-crazed newspaper business, being good at everything sometimes means that you’re good for nothing. As the furor died down from the NIU shootings, I confronted the fact that perhaps my brush with exposure had not furthered my journalism brand as much as I had imagined.
For all intents and purposes, a photographer’s portfolio Web site is their brand. These sites run the gamut (In a relative sense as most photographers are not programmers as well) from accomplished shooters who worked their way to the world’s hotspots largely without help from a major newspaper such as Chris Hondros to my former colleague Adam Gerik’s proto-confessional photo blog. But if our brand is our Web site only, then it would seem to follow that the top 10 results for “war photographer” or “freelance photographer LA” could essentially corner the market. Metadata trumps hard work and killer documentary skills.
But that would be a fallacy. For all the change that the Internet has brought to photography, it has not changed certain universal truths. Scott Strazzante is a staff photographer at the Chicago Tribune. A past winner of the Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 2000, Strazzante has worked his way up the ladder by being a hard worker and a good marketer. Though he has been shooting since 1987, he does not yet have a portfolio Web site of his own. Despite this, his recently-published series on the encroachment of sprawl into rural Illinois took off via a convergence of buzz on listserves such as APAD and webzines such as PDN with the physical pages of the Trib and National Geographic.
“The one thing that the Web has done is devalued photographers. Now magazines go into Flickr and steal photos. Even though there are more outlets, it has really handicapped photographers because there’s much more supply than demand,” Strazzante said. “The top one percent will be fine. The kind of middle-tier photographers who haven’t quite found their voice yet, they’re the ones who are really going to suffer. It’s almost become like society in general where it’s going to be a greater divide between the rich and the poor. It’s going to either be the super-talented or the people who are willing to give away their work for free.”
Strazzante cites Vincent Laforet as an example of a photographer who has branded himself successfully. “He started out basically a sports photographer,” Strazzante said. “Now, if anyone at a huge publication in America wants an aerial style, Vincent is it. He’s made his name with creative aerial photography. He’s now created a niche where he is the guy to go to for aerial photography. He’s done that by being a great businessman in addition to being a great shooter.”
In today’s newspaper market, it sometimes feels as if the chances are better that you’ll be laid off than receive a decent-sized raise. David Zentz is a 29-year-old photojournalist at the Peoria Journal Star with an impressive track record of high-profile internships and clip-contest wins under his belt. In a good to fair market, he would likely be at a major metropolitan daily at this stage of his career. But as it is, he has been bought out by the new owners of his newspaper, GateHouse Media, who have been slashing expenses through voluntary buyouts across its properties since purchasing nine Copley properties last year.
Don’t cry for Zentz, he has a plan. Los Angeles beckons and a career in freelance commercial and editorial photography awaits. The only problem? How to create the DZ brand.
“No one should ever market themselves as a generalist because it devalues your voice,” Zentz said. “I can shoot everything, but I want clients to know what my interests are so I promote myself and market as more of a specialist in documentary and hard news. I’m trying to figure out how to create multiple brands.”
“You can look at photo magazines and you’ll see Paolo Pellgrin, Alex Webb. You can see their stuff and recognize it right away or at least say it looks like something he would have shot. People do work over years to consolidate their style and concentrate their portfolio to a specific thing and that will bring them more work.”
Style then, is brand. Chris Bartlett knows that first hand. Bartlett has been shooting still life in the fashion and beauty world for 20 years, primarily editorial and some commercial work.
“There was a much wider middle ground in which to swim and there was a greater array of photographers who were not particularly hugely distinguishable from each other who were all capable professional photographers,” Bartlett said. “To take a nice picture took more skill than it does now. What has happened is that the bottom has risen up because it’s easier to come up with a competent photograph. The middle area, where people branded themselves but not really distinctly, that marketplace is sort of eroding and people with a combination of very clear style and brand plus a good business sense are carving out a little niche for themselves.”
The practical applications of this hits right where it hurts. Bartlett recently did an estimate for a job he is shooting next week based on previous work he had done for the client 10 years ago. They came back and said they wanted his price to be about 60 percent less than his bid. His competition? The in-house digital studio.
“The rub here is that the art director wants me to do it because he likes the way I treat the subject matter but the money people are saying this is what we’re going to be,” he said. “It’s up to me to compromise my rate to get the job or stand my ground and say ‘I won’t do it for less than that.’ It won’t be done to the level it would be done with my original estimate because I have to cover more ground in less amount of time to make money. That is a pretty familiar scenario.”
The irony is that there is a lot more potential for money because of the wider audience, but everyone is expecting that work to be done for free. In order to compete for the jobs that pay good money, strong work is key. When you mention a photographer’s name, Annie Lebowitz or Robert Capa to use two examples, an image has to pop into your head. People need to know that if they’re spending the money, they’re getting a certain treatment.
So, then, is my one picture that made it around the world my brand? I tend to believe that it’s not. For one, few if any photojournalists have been hired based on one picture. Iconic images can catapult careers, but being good in today’s newspaper, and commercial, markets doesn’t always mean that you’ll get the job. Thus the paradox of being a more attractive job candidate when you’re cheaper and younger than when you’re better and more seasoned. Bottom line concerns aren’t making brands less relevant, but they are making most photographers’ stake less valuable.
Eric Sumberg is a visual journalist and writer (For one more day) in DeKalb, Ill. On Saturday, he will pack his life into his car and head to New York to transition into the next phase of his life.