Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shannon Fagan, Photographer and Stock Artists Alliance President

Shannon Fagan photographed this young girl in New Mexico, and found a print of it in China (see interview for details).
Photo ©Shannon Fagan

Shannon, I know you as a top stock shooter and as President of Stock Artists Alliance. I also know that you have done many large produced shoots both here and abroad. You have won a raft of awards from Communication Arts Photography Annual to PDN to Print and even to the Addys. Can you fill us in on your background, how you came to be a photographer and how stock came to be your focus?

Thanks for such a nice introduction John. I’m at the ten-year point in my career and it’s been a decade’s worth of introspection these past few months. Our industry is rapidly evolving into unprecedented territory. I took a seat recently in attendance at multiple key industry conferences: Media Bistro’s User Generated Content Conferences in San Jose and New York, the Picture Archive Council of America’s Conferences in Chicago and Miami, the Photo Plus Expo in New York, and the Society of Digital Agency’s Conference in New York. I’m soon en route to The Professional Photographers of America’s ImagingUSA convention in Nashville. It’s an honor to share my observations from this collective experience with your audience. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned this past year, when you’re an industry President during a recession, and during a sea change in media content sourcing; everyone seeks an active opinion. You and I won’t fail to deliver here J

I concentrated in photography during a college degree filled with academics and art/photography courses at the University of Memphis. I had key mentors such as art photographer Larry McPherson, sculptor Greely Myatt, and painter Richard Knowles. Prior to that, my high school senior year included explorations of creative independent thinking speared on by a Fulbright exchange educator Luc Weegels from Amsterdam. Collectively, these persons taught me everything that I needed to know about process, about being prolific, and about being a professional. I took internships in New York City summer after summer, and when I graduated in 1999, I was ready to begin my waking dream of combining creativity with business. I loved photography, and I loved art, but I knew that it was necessary to earn a living in turn. Stock photography was a natural component and I was quickly being presented with multiple contract opportunities.

What agencies carry your work and do you also license images yourself?

I’m with nearly every major collection for stock photography internationally. It reads as a who’s who list of image aggregators, including microstock as a recent addition to the mix.

I currently not involved in direct licensing. It’s not that I don’t believe in this manner of distribution, as there are some very worthy proponents in this area of selling. I’m an admirer of the collections of Jim Erickson and Saxon Holt for example. Both have fantastic business models, niche content, and established clientele. This is very smart for the type of businesses that they have found themselves involved in.

If price is the “holy grail” of our industry, then completing direct licensing is both a business and a lifestyle choice. I have chosen to coordinate the logistics of travel to photograph, and to run the daily business operations. I’m also the creative director and technician. Completing direct sales and marketing would take a major expense and commitment initiative on my part. I’ve chosen to focus my energies elsewhere, and it’s partially a choice of reducing my overhead and remaining flexible to changes in our industry in the years to come. When you commit your business to direct licensing, you must first acknowledge the necessary means financially, the time logistically, and the support infrastructure long term. Your primary goal is to drive adequate sales traffic to offset these startup and yearly costs.

Direct licensing sure sounds popular these days, especially with the availability of a simple Google search for images. In my experience, image creators must be level headed and understand that a bulk core percentage of stock image buyers just want “a photo”, “any photo”, and they are not willing to wait for a return phone call, nor able to pay consistently more than the going market price. Direct licensing really works for collections that cannot be obtained elsewhere, and for which have established clientele already interacting with the niche-oriented photographer/s. Current agency contributor contracts do not allow for direct licensing by the contributor. One must understand that taking on direct licensing means taking on a level of business commitment long term with a separate offering unseen in agencies.

Tell us a bit about SAA, this new merger, and why we photographers should join.

The Stock Artists Alliance is the world’s only trade organization devoted to stock imagery licensing. It is now merged with the world’s largest photographic organization, The Professional Photographers of America. We choose to join forces in a consolidation of opportunity to provide the Alliance of Visual Artists (PPA’s umbrella organization) with an unparalleled level of stock expertise. They provided us with access to top legal experts, some of the best benefit packages for photographic members worldwide, and a service orientation that goes unmatched. This combination of forces will bring SAA members offers of equipment insurance, health benefit packages, seminars for business training, their own dedicated AVA/PPA Imaging USA conference, and a membership services department dedicated to their individual needs. We have an SAA dedicated publication, Keywords, and a dedicated email forum uniquely designed to address ongoing debates in the stock photography industry. We initiated a twitter stream this year and Facebook presence. We’re the only trade organization that addresses stock concerns directly with top agency owners and creative staff. It’s a prime membership to include as part of one’s business planning and daily operation. I encourage your readers to join in and participate in the discussion.

Micro stock has exploded onto the scene, but seems to be reaching a maturation point, at least for many of the top micro producers who are for the first time seeing their earnings level off. Do you have any thoughts on the future of micro stock?

User generated content is hot, and for microstock, it is being created professionally by photographers amongst us. To some degree, it is an oxymoron to call professional microstock content “user-generated”. Earnings are leveling off because of an oversupply in nearly every channel of imagery internationally. Free imagery isn’t seeing a leveling off in earnings however (I’m being a bit tongue and cheek here!), and it is becoming a new competitor as users provide talent in trade for exposure.

I have a great respect for microstock. Microstock photographers are some of the most business savvy in our industry. Its history is a classic self made commercial art success story that is a reminder to nearly all of us who started out in art school with dreams of being professional photographers. The future of microstock is a repetition of other classic branding stories. There will be stratification of the offering by quality and price, and price itself should continue to rise, albeit slowly. It will continue to eat away at traditional pricing for imagery that is inherently the same or can be obtained at lower prices.

I’d look at the airline industry in terms of where it goes from here. There are top tier airline carriers with limited routes, but their clientele is small, particularly in a recession with a tightening of budgets globally for the next couple years. There are mid tier fliers and they take the bulk of traffic with great expanse. There are low cost competitors, with perhaps no frills, but great service. Passengers “dressing up” today for any international flight in business class, let alone coach, has become a thing of the past. Expecting complimentary dinner service has also permanently changed. This goes to say that flying as an art of travel isn’t special anymore and we might take note of that with the following.

I’m going to take a lot of flack for saying this next statement, but I do feel that what we do as an industry for commercial photography is not any more insular than the B2B businesses hiring us. Expect media in the coming years that is generally less driven by quality and creative invigoration, and more driven by price and availability. I appreciate this New York Times article by technology visionary Jaron Lanier, and audio interview. Making a portrait of Lanier was my first-ever editorial portrait assignment. I shot Kodak negative film with a Pentax 67 camera and delivered contact sheets to Fortune Magazine. It’s an understatement to say that our manner of business has changed dramatically since that time, and it was uniquely resonant to me to read about it Lanier’s book “You are Not a Gadget”.

Look at the airline industry and how tickets are bought and sold. Where did the travel agents go? Availability will be the next self-fulfilling prophecy in commercial art. Desktop publishing software took out the printing industry. Rights managed creativity was cherished because that was what was prolifically available. This table turned and then went to Royalty Free. It is now microstock.

We are reading online newspapers proliferated with cell phone images. We are watching television commercials shot with low-end cameras to be made to look “user-generated”. We want to create our own content. We want to be individually famous for 15 minutes. Apple and Facebook are on this trend line. Do not expect to bend the wants of the consuming public globally. Microstock listened to that, intelligently. In fact, it helped to develop it as a self-fulfillment to what was an anticipated global desire, just as Apple’s iPod did with portable mp3 music at a low cost. Follow your heart and combine it with your creative and business intelligence. You do not necessarily have to be a microstock photographer to succeed. You do need to be positioned with where the marketplace is going.

Royalty Free images have certainly been suffering from the glut of such imagery available. As photographers, our response to declining revenue from that glut is to produce more imagery. Do you see any way out of that vicious circle?

I take a lot of direction from comments made by Jeff Howe, author of the book "Crowdsourcing", when he addressed the User Generated Content Conference in New York. Howe said "photography is the canary in the coal mine, with inexpensive cameras, easy editing, and internet access. The threat to photography is a continued downward price pressure due to natural pressures of supply and demand." We are not seeing a decrease in the interest to provide image content online, rather, it is exponentially growing.

I believe the vicious circle may be starting to slow. However, ironically, it’s not because there isn’t a desire to have it continue by the content creators. Photographers love to shoot. I objectively project, and assess in observation, that it is slowing because those that create the content can no longer afford to create it in the quantities that they did in the past. This is because revenues are being choked by distributed offerings at lower price points, ‘free’ being one of them. To maintain continued investment, one needs a steady revenue of encouragement. The big question yet to be determined is what is the tipping point for contributors to earn a living vs. returns on investment that they are experiencing this year and next?

The next question to follow is one that we have witnessed play out for the past two years already. I ask this analytically. What happened to all of the motivational mechanisms for an agency to support its self-funding contributors with art direction support, production help, imagery training, and regular meetings to keep the buzz of energy alive? What happened to mentorship? The signal to seasoned contributors and seasoned agency staff, if you read between the lines, is that the image licensing industry is confused, financially struggling, and veterans are necessarily expendable. This is a market condition at this time, and for small business owners operating as full time professional photographers, generally energy begets energy. Leadership is becoming a rarer commodity as images commoditize.

As traditional contributors find other paths that are more lucrative and more rewarding, will crowd sourcing or new professional or semi-professional photographers be able to take their place? My gut tells me yes, but my business sense tells me no. Shooting stock independently, as a professional, takes years of experience and innovation cultivation. Agencies have laid-off numerous instigators of creative direction, i.e. their salaried art directors and editors. There are now more laid off professionals in this area than there are available positions for them to be assimilated into. They must and will migrate to other professions, commercial art not necessarily to be one of them. This is a dot com era bust for the stock photo industry. There could be two upcoming changes in our traditional industry: increases in royalty percentages to core contributors to encourage participation, and/or ‘perk’ programs to initiate veterans. Major microstock agencies are already doing this with their regular contributors whose canister levels or selling levels are high. I’d take note of that. It’s quite impressive on their part. It’s one of the reasons we are not hearing of professionals in the user generated fields jump ship to more traditional lines of selling.

Microstock has a different need than Rights Managed. Contributors all have the same need. They need to be cultivated if to be retained over time. When the industry was on the growing upswing, cultivation was high via agency staff support, regular agency meetings, and the like. Now, we are witnessing a downswing. What goes up, yes, does come down. Ask veteran assignment photographers about their career changes over time. Being a freelance commercial artist is not a protected, tenured, salaried position, and agencies will see changes to “who” is providing the content. It is highly unlikely that the stock photographer of tomorrow is being actively cultivated by today’s agency staff in a manner that retains long-term relationships. Imagine for a moment, the start up fixed overhead costs associated with ingesting new contributors on a self-funded traditional scale. Veterans of today will slow submissions, retire, and move to new industries. It’s happening in 2009, and I agree with what was explored at the UGCX in New York – this will be the year that it all changed. This opens up a new era in stock photography. Flickr and iReporter might be a good model for the future of content in years to come, and if we’ve seen self-fulfilling prophecies of the past, I cannot help but see that what’s available is what will be bought. It’s not that the model that currently exists is invalid. It continues to work. I’m pointing to where we’ll be in 2-5 years. Everyone agrees that licensing content on the web is due for a change. Now that average prices to produce the content exceed what the content sells for, one knows that the current model is broken.

How do you feel about the future of Rights Managed stock photography?

You, John, have been a voice of reason for rights managed this year and you’ve shared with your readers some really wonderful insight. Rights Managed imagery continues to carve out a stable future and strategy. It is an ingredient to a successful business if the contributor enjoys shooting it and is interested in creating the types of unique content needed in this area. Personally, Rights Managed has been my best success for creative imagery and personal artistic development for my entire career. It may not have trained me in the logistics of a diverse offering and building my business to a new revenue level for re-investment elsewhere, but it was a crucial component of my shooting and will continue to be.

One thing I find mildly distressing is Getty’s current fixation on Flickr. I have even heard that some Getty photographers have started putting images through flickr instead of Photographer’s Choice (Getty’s pay-to-play option) to avoid the PC charges and perhaps get a better acceptance rate. How do you see flickr’s role in the larger picture of the stock photo industry?

Flickr highlights just how much a contributor now must ‘play the system’ and not just create award-winning imagery alone. I would go so far as to say that distribution of imagery is more important than what the imagery is itself. Jaron Lanier’s book also addresses this important truism of Web 2.0. This has created the vicious circle that we talked about above. It encourages imagery to be commoditized. This is just simply a business condition at this time. It does not show any signs of letting up any time soon, so my advice is as follows: As a contributing creative commercial artist you have a responsibility to your business (to your models, your crew, your future hires) to stay in operation. They rely upon you as a market maker. Flickr is leveling the playing field, yet again, to the barriers of entry to license imagery globally. If you assess that it is worth your business’ time to channel distribution via Flickr, I would vote to try it. One must look at the amount of time it takes to participate in licensing via this manner. Flickr was not designed as a place to house professionals’ full time portfolios, and yet, in evolution, it has tested that. It’s a tool. Use it as such if it fulfills a need that you have. The industry will eventually adapt around that, just like it did around the digitalization of photography.

There are an increasing number of options to detect copyright infringement of images, such as PicScout and Tin Eye, to name just a couple. Do you think that there will be a shift away from so much piracy?

I’m in Beijing at the moment, and I just got off the Skype phone with PicScout’s CEO Offir Gutelzon. I was shocked to learn that in the United States, where intellectual property has reportedly the highest degree of enforcement, that 85% of all online imagery being used is pirated. 85%! These are PicScout’s numbers talking here, and if it’s 85% in the US, how much more could it be in other countries throughout the world? I was informed that in China it is estimated that all major stock agency licensing accounts for only 40% of imagery use in the marketplace there. The other 60% is pirated. If that’s the case, then China is doing better than the United States! Take that!

This is such a difficult discussion to be had because many companies project what the infringement percentages are, but no one can ever truly know. The best we can do is educate and make available offerings that allow an easy license to avoid the theft of imagery online. User habits are in line with human nature and the tendency is that if you give someone an inch, they’ll take a mile. That’s a tough act to follow when enforcing legal use of intellectual property licensing online. You can read this two ways. Give people an easy manner to license, and they’ll do so. Give people an easy way to steal imagery unchecked, and well, they’ll do that too.

For many of us these are tough times in the stock photography business, yet there are more people buying stock images than ever. In fact, it is easier than ever to break into the stock photo business, though I think harder than ever to make a good living at it. Can you share your thoughts on the changes that are rampant in our industry and what strategies you are using to deal with those changes?

I’ve touched upon several of these above. One of my favorite podcasts of the past year was from Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program lecture series. Scott Kriens, President and CEO of Juniper Networks said, “there is an inverse relationship to the amount of credit that one takes for success, and how useful the information is that they provide.”

This has been a year in which to do personal introspection and self-assessment as to what lifestyle one wants to have as a photographer. I’m not the only one thinking this, but I might be the only one saying it. Earning a full time living from the profession in the future is clearly under pressure. For the analysts amongst us, we’ve seen it coming for several years. Trade organizations are shifting. Photography publications are shifting. Trade conferences and seminars are shifting.

Ironically, education and validity to the medium of photography remains rooted to the dream that one magazine assignment, or one substantial award will lead to a lifetime career of success. That system started shifting in the early 1990’s. To expect a bounce return to normalcy, pre-recession, would be na├»ve to suggest. I would not want to be a leader who shares a lack of objectivity, and often, in our media, unfortunately, being objective and pragmatic is viewed as pessimism. The overly zealous, and those with a lack of regard to current needs in our industry, will fundamentally be weeded out.

It is wise to test new technologies, but timing is everything. As returns on shoot days for self-funded stock imagery push themselves into years instead of months, this industry is more and more about entrepreneurship than it is about being an artist. It always has been when you investigate the personalities who are at the top. Follow your heart. I’ve said this several times because this is the best advice that any successful person in any career field ever gave me. If that is in photography, you will always be at the top of your game. Following your heart means recognizing what you are most interested in and what you inherently are good at. I am most proud of photographs that I have made, not because they won awards, but because they touched those around me in a way that I could not have done had I not held a camera in hand. This career is about connection. I love what I do because I can connect people together.

Do you see social media as essential to success as a photographer in the coming years?

It depends on how it is used. Social media is a very potential waste of time. Uh oh, did I say that out loud!? And yet, I love being a participant on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and whatever comes next. It is, no doubt a distraction to my core work, but I can’t help myself because I love being ‘in the know’. That is what makes the abilities of the Internet and mobile communications so successful within the context of social media. It is transforming where we get our trusted sources of news and, in turn, visual content. Humans are social animals and we gravitate to community. We are at a time when the medium, well, perhaps the context, of what constitutes ‘being’ a photographer is changing. The beauty of this is that all photo enthusiasts can share these changes and thought processes via the readily available accesses of social media. Facebook alone has become a massive self-promotion tool for the creative field. I daily get invitations to personal fan pages, networking events, or group integrations. Isn’t it ironic at just how much cutting through the noise of social media mimics the same manner in which stratification of our own licensing industry is undertaking? Irony or not, yes, I believe that social media is a critical component of being a small business in the coming years, but it’s because it’s always has been. We used to just call it ‘networking’.

Are you employing social media, and if so, how?

I’m actively involved with Facebook and Twitter and I just joined QQ and RenRen in China! These mediums are quintessential ways to learn about my colleagues and my friends’ interests and happenings’ globally. From a business perspective, as a photographer always seeking a great idea on which to expand upon, the medium of social networking is a quick means to disseminate and obtain what I like to call ‘whereabouts’. My friends post their needs or interests and I respond. I post mine as well, and a network of sourced information hits my ‘in’ box. It’s the random aspect, filtered, that makes these networks so successful. They naturally filter themselves and provide me with creativity and contacts. Just as any project, the more you put into them, the more you obtain back out.

OK, a bit more about your photography…where do you get your ideas from?

My best ideas come from personal and direct observation. I know that’s a fairly simple straightforward answer, but it’s becoming more and more true as the internet homogenizes us. I never achieved success by direct copies of others’ works, nor their opinions. Be willing to stand out on your own, no matter your work, no matter your ‘take’. This alone is being a success, and today, with all that we’ve talked about above, it is so much more critical than it was just five years ago. Yes, it’s all been done before. Our planet has been Google-d. Therein lies the biggest threat to our creative industry in the years to come. We will suffer from a lack of thought innovation, not technical innovation. There will be a perceived need to not create when there is so much free and available content online at the click of a button. Your ideas as a commercial artist will need to speak to both; what sells, and what sells artistry. The latter will become more rare.

What do you enjoy shooting the most?

Ha! Well, I enjoy a challenge. The more limiting the idea, the more mundane, the more logistically intensive, the more creative it is. Send me your “boring” projects. I’ve had just as much fun shooting a “business handshake” as I have had traveling to shoot throughout Beijing or British Columbia. It’s about the mindset in place when tackling a challenge. I’ll admit, I tend to bore too easily and am on a constant search for a new unchartered adventure.

Can you share a favorite image of yours with us and perhaps a bit about how the picture came to be?

I’ll share a favorite image of Getty Images’ Beijing office. It is one that I was so proud to see hanging as inspiration above the sales staff when I arrived to a meeting there last week. I traveled to Santa Fe, NM in 2003 for a commercial assignment and returned months later to complete personal work. I photographed a young girl in a tiara peering through a star shaped magic wand in her grandmother’s living room. She was glowing with pride and at the same time, all dressed up, acting in a manner of sticky silliness that makes us all feel like a kid inside. It could have been shot anywhere. I did it in New Mexico because I developed a relationship of trust with those that I had been working with there. Remember when I said that the most important aspect of photography for me is connection? I have connected this moment, totally initiated on my own behalf with a family who had never modeled before, to an agency sales team 7000 miles away working in the world’s fastest growing economy. I take pride in this. Send me your impossible projects. There’s no such thing as impossible in my repertoire.

Any words of wisdom or advice that you would like to leave us with?

Again, follow your heart, and most importantly, don’t ever take ‘no’ for an answer. If you do these two things well, you’ll always have a career in visual imagery. You’ll also do yourself a favor, because, you’ll always be great at what you do. No recession or unemployment statistic can belittle that. People love people with energy and those are the only people that I want working on my team. They’re the only people that I can afford. Don’t agonize with bitterness over these adjustments that we’re seeing in our industry. Embrace them with the complacency that as shifting occurs; opportunities open up for movement into other new challenging needs in our economy. One of my key art mentors once told me during a drawing exercise, “You are not a slave to the still life laid out before you.” As photographers, we are illustrators to the elements of life that we rearrange with our lighting and design, retouching, and communication. Seek your best opportunity in this. Others will follow.

To see more of Shannon's work:


Ken Cavanagh said...

John...thanks for providing this post! Shannon thanks for sharing your insightful assessment to the current and future state of stock photography as well as the climate of the photo industry in general. It is a valuable read for those of us coping with the rapid change of this business and the commoditization of images.

You both are providing a positive vision while acknowledging the difficulties that lie ahead.

John Lund said...


What the...?


John Lund said...


Thanks for your support!


John Lund said...


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John Lund said...


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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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