Photography: Yahta Natanzi
Is it really possible to make money as a citizen photojournalist? It’s a question that must have passed through the mind of every wannabe news photographer. Anyone can now earn money from stock photography. Persuasion, a portfolio and word-of-mouth can bring in occasional event commissions. But photojournalism? That means selling to news editors, and when it comes to buyers, they’re perhaps the pickiest bunch of all.
Events, though, provide a chance to find an answer. The demonstrations in Iran have created exactly the circumstances in which amateur photojournalism should thrive. Official journalists were restricted to their offices, the location was inaccessible enough for the mainstream press to have few resources on the ground, and the demonstrators’ strategy of uploading images and videos to the Web made crowdsourcing both expected by the media and accepted by the public.
And the result? Some amateur photographers in Iran did indeed make money.
One Image in Four Sold
Demotix, a service that supplies images from amateur photographers to the mainstream news media, received some 200 images from Iran during the recent demonstrations. They were submitted by more than ten photographers. Of those, Demotix was able to license some fifty photos to media outlets that included Reuters, EPA, The New York Times and “various national English dailies.”
That’s a remarkable success rate, and the payments the photographers received for those images were reasonable too.
“I am still working on the total remuneration numbers because some of our customers are self-billing and received our images through our FTP feed,” Jonathan Tepper, Demotix’s Chief of Operations, told us. “My estimate is that each photographer will have made an average of 500 dollars, some more and some less depending on how many of their images were used and the placement.”
Considering the quality of the images and their appearances in leading publications those figures might not be too surprising, but they did come in an environment in which demonstrators were constantly uploading images and videos, and making them available for free, both to viewers and — through Creative Commons (CC) licenses — to publishers as well.
Demotix’s success in competing against those free images – even as the mainstream press struggles with costs and falling subscriptions – reveals both the value of professional-quality photography and the importance that the press still places on sourced material. A picture uploaded by an anonymous photographer in a crowd lacks context, explanation and the ability for the outlet to check that it does indeed show what the caption says it shows. Those remain important features for news outlets, and ones that they’re willing to pay for.
“The reason our content is valuable is that even CC stuff has to be vouched for. We know our photographers, can vouch for them. They are part of our community. Simply scanning Twitpic or Flickr isn’t the same,” explains Jonathan. “Those [free] images haven’t hurt us at all. People go for quality and verifiability.”
For photographers who would like to double as occasional freelance photojournalists then, that all sounds very reassuring. The mainstream media don’t just want the image, it seems, even it’s good and available for nothing on a website. It also wants the verifiability that can only come with a personal submission and a connection to a photographer.
You Need to Be Talented, Available… and Lucky
But the events in Iran might not be the most representative of the opportunities available to amateur photojournalists. It’s fairly rare, for example, for professionals to be deliberately excluded from a news event on threat of expulsion or worse. (Although even amateurs were targeted by the Iranian government’s thugs-for-hire; one of Demotix’s contributors received a beating from the Basij. Taking pictures of thuggery does tend to put you next in line.) And while Iran is far enough away for even the biggest of the mainstream news outlets to have few of their photographers on the scene, that also means it’s hard for many amateur photographers to reach too.
Jonathan Tepper pointed out that photos of the rallies that were easier to reach have been much harder to place.
“[D]emonstration photos outside Iran are a harder sell. There is no shortage of photographers in NYC or London covering demonstrations.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We have come across semi-professional photographers who regularly submit — and sell — images of demonstrations. Those sales were usually made possible though with a solid understanding of the kinds of images outlets want of political events and a connection too with at least one outlet.
Perhaps the best evidence of the characteristics needed to sell amateur news images though is Janis Krums’ picture of US Airways Flight 1549 floating in the Hudson River. The quality was low. The image was shot on a mobile phone and uploaded to TwitPic, a service that allows users of Twitter to attach images to their tweets. And yet it was a photo that was shown repeatedly on news outlets around the world.
But Janis Krums wasn’t a professional photographer or even an amateur photographer. He was just someone who happened to be in the right place at the right time. While there are things you can do to increase the chances that you’ll be in those kinds of places — like reading the news or following celebrities as they leave their homes – much comes down to luck. Services like Demotix benefit by aggregating the luck (and photographic talent) of lots of people around the world but for individuals, making money out of semi-professional photojournalism is usually going to be a fairly occasional affair.
Unless, of course, you’re willing to move to a far-away trouble spot like Iran.