Are we the new history boys and gals ?

It seems to me that we merry band of photographers from the press, magazine, documentary or agency world are really the new history boys and gals…it is often said that ‘reporters’ draft the first version of history…but I maintain that it is us who have recorded up front and personal our view of history as it happened in the raw for future generations to enjoy and even maybe learn from.

I’ve been thinking this for some time and as publications and especially newspapers world wide cut back on their in house staff photographers and rely more and more on stock photo-agencies to supply illustrations to go with their stories. More and more of our ‘old’ pictures are coming to the fore on a daily basis in many newspapers. Images that we thought of as ‘just todays picture offering’ are now important visual history…and from our own very immediate past.

Photo by Alain Le Garsmeur / Getty Images in The Guardian review 8 Feb 2020 but made during the bad times of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland more than 40 years ago

Certainly this is not new. Newspapers have always had access to the ‘Morgue’, their own libraries to supply archive images for publication. But, with photographers being laid off and entire photo staffs including librarians who could often reference back to the beginning of time being tossed out with the garbage a new way of working for newspapers has had to be developed.

Photo by Philippe Achache/Gamma-Rapho/Getty shot in 1975 and published in the Guardian in February 2020

Step forward the stock photo agency. Never have there been so many images, so much history controlled by so few. Photo-agencies flourished in the austere post war period. Operating mainly out of Paris, London and New York but also running from bombed out Germany with agents flourishing in Munich and Hamburg. There were dozens, maybe hundreds in these five cities alone…but not anymore. Now there are but a few behemoths that hoover up the negatives and bromide prints from dusty shelves and damp basements across our industry…the latest being the biggest rodent on the block…the Disney Corporation who now have the entire National Geographic photo archive in their claws as part of the Disney / Murdoch / Fox Films sell off.

And as I write this on 11 February 2020, I have just heard that Alamy one of the largest stock photo agencies in the world with 192,141,550 images (yes, you read that correctly-nearly 200 million stock photos) in their collection has today been taken over by PA Media – to the uninitiated thats the Press Association Media operation. The PA was set up more than a century ago to supply images and copy to the regional and national press and is ‘owned’ by all the major newspaper groups up and down the land. So, another independent supplier has been swallowed whole. And as these media groups now own the entire Alamy cake it will surely be in their interest to reduce the amount they pay for each picture usage…further decreasing the share that the contributing photographer will make.

From the PA Media web site showing how quick they were to promote their acquisition of Alamy this afternoon…only a hour after informing contributors and customers

And so the world carries on turning and a thousand, a hundred thousand stock photos are supplied and used in the press world wide every day, every week. Far more now than ever before, after all, that newsprint has to be covered in something.

And this is my point…never before have so many stock archive images been used, been sold and reproduced…the ease now of electronic delivery makes things so very easy, a click of a mouse and your selection of maybe 100 or more images is before you on the computer screen.

But….but, If publications are contenting themselves with using stock which is plentiful and cheap, who is producing new work, who is recording todays history for future generations.

Photo by Peter King/Getty Images: Miss World in 1970 but published this week in The Guardian 50 years after being taken-truly historic…and as an assistant in 1970 I worked alongside the photographer Peter King when we both worked for Fox Photos Press Agency…since sold to Getty Images

It would be good to think that newspapers and magazines are investing their immediate savings back into producing work of quality for the future but I don’t see this being shown in most of the press. A saving is a saving and the bean counters rule.

My thoughts above were woken as in the past week I have seen a number of stock-archive-historically interesting images being used to illustrate various piece at home in the UK and even a picture of mine appearing in the NYT Review of Books which I was alerted to by my good friend Steve Raymer in the States. All these images are of ‘Historic’ value and wonderful to see them getting an airing, some more than 50 years after being made…but what of the future…if publishing groups who are reaping the fiscal benefit of buying in cheap stock and are not investing in intelligent mature photo-journalism then our future is pretty much finished…apart from getting a few pennies from a 50% cut of a 40% sub agent share via yet another sub agent…and that will be on a good day with a following wind.

Photo by Brian Harris of Radavan Karadzic/The Independent/Rex-Shutterstock…I made this picture when the war criminal to be was in London in 1993…Published last week in the NYT Review of Books.

About brianharrisphotographer

I have been an editorial photographer since 1969. After working for various 'Fleet Street' press agencies and local papers in the east end of London I joined The Times of London where I worked around the world until 1985. I joined The Independent Newspaper in London in 1986 and stayed with them until 1999. I'm still working as a photographer, generating my own story ideas which I sell to the international magazine market. I also contribute generic stock images to various photo libraries. I live near Cambridge in eastern England.
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