Last week, the professional photography world was abuzz when Sports Illustrated laid off the remaining six full-time photographers they had on staff. Many other photographers and groups such as the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) made statements expressing their disappointment.
“Maintaining the commitment to pay fairly for production of high-quality sports images should be a goal for Time Inc. and Sports Illustrated management, even as this media organization continues to transform operations to adjust to the digital age. Committed photographers deserve the same loyalty that they have historically provided to Sports Illustrated.” – ASMP Executive Director Thomas R. Kennedy
This latest move by Sports Illustrated is nothing new to the industry which was rocked in 2013 when the Chicago Sun-Times pulled a similar move when it cut its staff photography department in favor of reporters wielding iPhones. In fact, journalists and photographers being displaced has become such a stressful trend that there’s a private Facebook group “What’s Your Plan B?” dedicated to those who have been laid off or are facing layoffs with advice and support from others in the community. As a member of the group mainly for observation and research, it’s been eye-opening to see just how many professionals, from relatively entry-level to respected veterans, are being affected by technology that seems to be moving faster than individuals can keep up with.
This struggle that photographers and members of the media are going through is nothing new. Technology has been both rewarding and incredibly harsh for a number of professions over the past decade. From factory workers being replaced by robots and machines to professional photographers and journalists being pushed out in favor of iPhones and social media, many traditional professions are being reinvented as we speak, and there seem to be two dominant sentiments being voiced: bitterness over why these professions are going away or a desire to acquire new, more relevant skills. Below is a screenshot from the Sports Illustrated article that voices the typical comments I see on any article talking about the slow demise of the photography profession.
As all of these commenters indicate, everyone has a very clear understanding of what’s happening to photography as a profession: camera technology is more affordable and the skills are easier to acquire, thus making it hard to justify reserving the profession of photography for an elite few. Rather than playing the blame game and wallowing in what can’t be changed, another approach is to embrace the technology being made available and create new ways of providing unique added value for customers and clients.
Since I’m a photographer, my examples are related to that industry. One example is in the fact that many digital cameras today are equipped with Wi-Fi technology. The main, obvious benefits include being able to control your camera remotely using your phone and immediately view, edit, and post those photos to the Internet via your smartphone. This is incredible technology that very few organizations let alone individual professionals have bothered to make use of. In fact, I’ve read countless comments and articles on blogs where photographers scoff at having Wi-Fi on DSLR cameras, asking what value they add. Besides uploading higher quality Instagram or Facebook photos from your DSLR for your friends to oooh and ahhh at, how about using that Wi-Fi technology to provide your clients’ social media pages with quality images on the go as you’re shooting an event for them so they don’t have to post fuzzy camera phone shots they’ve taken? Clients will appreciate this insight, and given the fact that very few DSLRs have Wi-Fi technology at this moment, offering this service will definitely set you apart from competitors.
Another example of embracing new technology comes from a real life question I’m being asked by clients more and more today: “Can you simply shoot a few photos with an iPhone? We don’t really need high quality DSLR shots for these marketing materials.” Many photographers would likely be offended at this question. I admit that the first time I heard it I was taken off guard and didn’t know how to respond. But after a lot of consideration, I’ve taken on quite a few of these jobs and seen decent success; the iPhone wielding Chicago Sun-Times reporters mentioned above would probably say the same. Camera and smartphone technology has evolved to the point where affordable devices can take quality images as long as the operator knows what he or she is doing. It comes down to being able to repurpose skills and realizing what this means for prospective clients. It would be difficult to justify charging high fees for iPhone photos (and admittedly not all situations can be shot well with iPhones), but as a trade off, the time spent taking and editing these photos should be significantly lower.
The main point is not to say drop everything about your current profession and embrace every new device or technique that comes your way. Rather, my point is that many professions are going through rapid shifts and are being redefined at this very moment. This can be scary for those who may not understand their place in their industries anymore, or it can be exciting for those who embrace the possibilities of new technology and use them to help mold and redefine these new roles in the workforce.
The age-old saying of “sink or swim” has become more relevant than ever. Which will you choose?