It seems to be in vogue these days to suggest that the photo industry has a problem that needs fixing. It doesn’t.
“If only we could limit access…”
“If only we could slow down talent acquisition…”
“If only we could go back to the good ol’ days…”
I don’t hear many people say things this overtly, but I do hear it underneath industry complaints. What I hear even more is that, somehow, it’s the new photographers fault that things have shifted. It isn’t.
Although it might feel good to try and find a scapegoat for challenging circumstances, I don’t think it’s very constructive… or creative.
In a recent conversation, Seth Godin noted that all you used to need to succeed as a pro photographer were (a) access to tools and (b) access to talent. He believed this was so because of his belief that where there is scarcity, there is value. Since neither tools nor talent are scarce any longer, success can feel elusive.
Let’s back up for a second and get some perspective…
Not too long ago, if you aspired to be a pro photographer, you’d have to invest a chunk of money on inconvenient and heavy camera gear (tools), not to mention a lifetime of commitment to the craft to become something special (talent).
Like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker before him, the photographer had the chance to create value because he could do things with his camera that others couldn’t. That is, what he had to offer (tools and talent) was in short supply and high demand.
Over time, a sort of ecosystem evolved around photography. You and I call that ecosystem “the photo industry” and it is part of a larger ecosystem called “commerce”.
What’s interesting about this ecosystem is how it evolves, with or without anyone’s participation. In that way, the changes we are all experiencing aren’t in any way personal. The tectonic shifts happen in every industry once in a while regardless of how any of us feel about it.
Notice how the evolutionary pattern of successful iterations is always the same:
• from film to digital
• from negatives to JPG to RAW
• from dark rooms to labs to manufacturing facilities
• from Paint to Photoshop to CS5.5
• from large format to medium format to 35mm to DSLR
• from self-taught to art school to worldwide online broadcasts offered for free
Why wouldn’t this also be true for the photographers themselves?
Ecosystems need to grow to live. Participants in that ecosystem need to iterate to survive.
Yet, so many photographers take the evolutionary process of the ecosystem personally. Like there’s a conspiracy “out there” trying to steal what “should” be ours. We think too highly of ourselves if we believe (unconscious or not) that we deserve to get paid for what we do with a camera. We don’t.
Evolutionary forces are always at work. Those who creatively adapt, win. Those who don’t, disappear.
As a business person within any trade (e.g., cake-baking, candle-making, photo-taking), I take it as my job to respond to the system resourcefully and not the other way around.
The most recent and obvious shift in the photo industry hit about a decade ago when everything went digital. The naysayers fought it for a bit but besides a small band of endangered analog enthusiasts, it has become clear that if one didn’t adapt to digital on a professional level, you ran the risk of extinction.
Where professional photographers have felt the implications of this reset the most has been with the influx of photographers. From the perspective of the ecosystem, this is of course great news: more people are being infected with the desire to take pictures!
From the perspective of the participant in the eco-system though, it could feel personal if it affects my ability to feed my kids. But, getting mad at evolution or trying to hold back the tide or hating on the new wave misses the mark. Why not try something new? Why not leverage our times and the direction of the ecosystem instead? I wonder if that might be even more resourceful.
The photo industry isn’t a problem that needs fixing. It’s an evolving resource that needs leveraging.