Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stock photography for storm photographers - Part 1

Back in the latter parts of the last century (mid-1990s), after years of occasionally licensing the use of my storm photography on my own, I was invited to join the stock company managed by Tony Stone.  This was quite an honor, actually, since Tony Stone Images (TSI) was one of the most prestigious image stock photography agencies in the world.  This promised to transform my storm photography into an operation that could help pay off the very real costs incurred by storm chasing, and perhaps even generate a modest profit, with which I could maintain and upgrade my equipment.  It was around this time that I formed my own Oklahoma corporation, Chuck Doswell's Outdoor Images, Inc., which has become C. Doswell Enterprises, Inc.

Unfortunately, shortly after I began to submit images to TSI, they were bought out by what was then the start-up corporate giant, Getty Images.  Tony Stone himself likely was paid handsomely from the sale, but we photographers who were bought out had no say in the matter.  My original contract with TSI rant a scant two pages, as I recall.  After TSI's takeover by Getty, all the former Tony Stone photographers were offered a new contract to sign, with a very clear black-and-white decision to make.  It was about 27 pages long, mostly in unintelligible legalese (lawyer jargon).  That sent a very clear message to me!  The particulars of the contract offer by Getty were non-negotiable, which was another unmistakable signal!  Anyway, I didn't sign.  For five years after that, by the terms of the buy-out (about which I had no say, remember) Getty had exclusive rights to market those images of mine that they paid for when they bought out TSI, so I couldn't sell those particular images on my own.  That time has long passed, of course.

It was clear to me from the start that Getty Images wasn't a business partner with its "content providers" (photographers), as TSI had been all along.  A business partner negotiates agreements (contracts), rather than dictating terms.  Instead, Getty was exploiting the contributed images to gain further market share, with aggressive license fee reductions to drive out competitors (or force them to merge with Getty).  When I started with TSI, the photographers received 50% of any sales with TSI - a so-called "50% split".  With time, Getty cut the photographer's split down to 30% (last I heard), or even less for some sales.  Reducing the pay-out to photographers increased their ability to leverage their market share.  Typical sleazy corporate business tactics.  Getty sold some of my images for $1, so my take from the "sale" (more like a giveaway) would be 30 cents!!  Plus, they bought out other stock companies, such as Visuals Unlimited (VU)  Sadly, when VU was bought out by Getty, I had a contract with VU for a 50% split.  When they became "partners" with Getty (i.e., they sold out!), then my split from VU became 50% of the 30% from Getty - that is, 15%!  Getty had reached out and bit my ass again, even though I had never signed a contract with them!!

I still receive occasional checks from Getty and Visuals Unlimited for image sales from past submissions, but they amount to a mere shadow of what I used to receive.  I certainly have no plans to submit more images to VU (or Getty).  The stock companies siphon off the profits and give the photographers (now referred to as "content providers") whatever percentage the companies want to, and no photographer can do anything about it.  Some ex-Getty photographers tried to resist at first, and formed the Stock Artists Alliance (of which I was a charter member) to try to stand up to the Getty steamroller.  They basically failed in that effort, and I finally stopped renewing my SAA membership in 2009.  There was no point.  SAA got some trivial concessions but all the important matters (the split, for example) were simply non-negotiable and the SAA was powerless to do anything to change that.

The major stock companies, Getty and Corbis, have swallowed up most of the small-time stock photography operations.  In the process, the former relationship between photographers and their agents has been transformed into one of exploited "contract workers" for a giant corporation.  It might still be possible for photographers in general to make a reasonable living by stock photography - I have no direct knowledge of that - but I seriously doubt if anyone truly making a reasonable income by licensing photographs can only be working for these corporate giants.  During recent times, my income from stock image sales has declined to become just a tiny part of the income for my corporation, so I had to branch out into other things, such as scientific consulting.  Hence, the name change for my company. 

Next time, I'll discuss how the specific market for storm stock photographers has evolved.

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