Image © Alberto Paredes
Mark Zuckerberg could have bought The New York Times for less than the $730m he spent on Instagram. Although media outlets and photographers were once dubious of social networks, they are now increasingly using them to give a much-needed boost to the field. Laurence Butet-Roch of Polka Magazine reports
Richard Koçi Hernandez is no stranger in the photo community. He spent 15 years working for the San Jose Mercury News and has been published in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, USA Today and Stern. He was nominated twice for the Pulitzer in photojournalism and once for an Emmy. Despite his impressive resume, the photographer swears he has never been more in demand than since he started posting his pictures on Instagram – the hugely popular mobile platform for image sharing. "The past year and a half has brought me more visibility, more work, more money and more opportunities than ever before. It is not an exaggeration to say that since I joined Instagram, I have received more queries from people wanting to buy my work and willing to pay a decent rate for it, or from editors wishing to feature my photographs or send me on assignments."
Today, well over 160,000 people from all walks of life follow his visual musings through the mobile app. "It is almost as if someone came up to me and offered me a billboard alongside the busiest highway – for free."
On the eve of becoming Facebook's latest purchase, more than 40 million people uploaded approximately 60 photos every second on Instagram. Three months later, it now has more than 80 million users.
According to André Gunthert, a French visual culture researcher and founder of the magazine Etudes Photographiques, sharing images on social networks has become second nature. "There was a time when we would turn on the radio as soon as we woke up. Today it has been replaced by Facebook, Twitter and the like."
Within the span of eight years, the website created by Mark Zuckerberg has become the world's largest image collection – and it keeps on growing. On average, 300 million visuals are posted daily on Facebook – that's 3500 per second. Agence France-Presse, the 177-year-old photo agency, offers a mere 2600 images per day (including infographics).
When stock photos were first made available on the web, and with the subsequent rise of social networks, many photo professionals feared the worst. Easy, free or cheap access to an ever-increasing number of amateur images threatened the ethical underpinnings of journalism and was seen as disloyal competition.
Image © Richard Koçi Hernandez
Traditional media outlets can be tempted to exploit images found on social networks. "They have always used amateur photography when reporters were absent from the scene. Publications adapt their practices to the tools of the day. If photographs are available on Instagram, that is where they'll look for them," explains André Gunthert.
No matter where they are posted, images remain bound by copyright. "Traditional media oulets have a tendency to believe that if a photo is published on social networks it is part of the public domain. This is not the case," explains Lionel Maurel, a jurist who specialises in legal questions pertaining to image rights. To use photos found on online platforms, editors have to obtain the consent of either the author of the image, or – when the license agreement of the social network allows it – the administrator of said website.
"Obtaining permission to reproduce images from social networks and verifying their authenticity takes an awful lot of time," remarks Nicolas Jimenez, photo editor at Le Monde.
New applications aim to accelerate that process. With Teleportd, created by Gabriel Hubert and Stanislas Polu, images can be divided according to their embedded geolocation, an easy way to scan through millions of photographs and a small assurance of their reliability. The two French developers are also working on a system that would put users directly in touch with photographers, or even offer to lease the content; services similar to that of an agency. Nonetheless, Nicolas Jimenez is vehement it would not replace the work done by reporters: "Photojournalism remains a profession."
However, the changing networking habits of these past few years have rendered these platforms indispensable for photojournalism to thrive. "Every photographer, every agency, every magazine has to be present on an array of social networks, since each play a different role in making something go viral," says Jérôme Huffer, photo editor at Paris Match.
Image © Alberto Paredes
Similarly, James Estrin remembers: "Thirty years ago, when I was a photographer trying to show my work, it was difficult to have it seen. I would drop off my portfolio at a publication, knowing that if I didn't know anyone there, I'd be lucky if the secretary looked at it. Today, through social media, everyone can share their work and show it directly to the heads of the photo department."
Estrin, who is also co-founder of Lens – The New York Times photo blog dedicated to photography – points out that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are powerful tools for editors as well: "Through social networks, I have access to wonderful curators. I probably search substantially less and rely much more on my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to find new work." Some of these go on to being featured in Lens. This was the case with Richard Koçi Hernandez's portfolio published in June 2011. Although Estrin was already familiar with the photographer, he had not yet seen his iPhone photographs, posted on Instagram, worthy of the greatest film noirs.
His colleague at The New York Times Magazine, Stacey Baker, admits she has yet to discover a new photographer through social networks, which she scours, but believes "it's only a matter of time".
These sites are the virtual equivalent of word of mouth. Friends morph into filters and spare us from being submerged with information, but they can also bar some news from reaching us – a controllable phenomenon, according to Gunthert. "If you feel like your newsfeed repeats itself, you need to extend your network. On the other hand, if you're receiving too much useless information, you need to edit your friends.
"Facebook has become a newsletter, where each photographer showcases his latest undertakings. Twitter and Instagram are newswires much like AFP."
These networks are useful in understanding what is happening on the ground in real time. "During the Toulouse standoff between Mohammed Merah and the French authorities, tweets from contacts in Marseille allowed me to follow how the operation unfolded and to direct photographers accordingly," says Jimenez.
In today's difficult economic context, where newspapers relinquish sending photographers on costly assignments, social networks prove to be a lifeline. By detailing their whereabouts, photographers can optimise their moves. "I follow photojournalists whose work interests me. If one of them is in a place where I need a reporter, I'll hire him," says Armelle Canitrot, photo editor at La Croix.
This is what happened to Michael Christopher Brown: "Last year, when I commented on Facebook that I was heading for Libya, both Business Week and the Financial Times contacted me. They needed someone on the ground. It allowed me to stay a few more days."
Image © Richard Koçi Hernandez
Beyond that, social networks are communication tools that can help photographers propel their career. "Those who understand the dynamics of social media, and who play the game, are becoming public figures and increasing their standing," observes Gunthert, citing Ben Lowy as an example.
During the conflict that opposed Libyan rebels to the men of Muammar Qaddafi, the American photojournalist shared his images daily on Tumblr, a microblogging platform. Although this approach did not have any direct financial outcome, it created a buzz. "When I was in Libya, 500 new visitors came to the site every week. If a project is sufficiently popular, traditional media outlets will be forced to publish it if they want to be part of the game. If the work is already popular online, it will only help sell print versions too," believes Ben Lowy. His tactic was met with varying degrees of criticism and fuelled the debate on the legitimacy of iPhoneography. Nevertheless, in February 2012, Lowy received an Emergency Fund Grant from the Magnum Foundation to continue his work in Libya. This time, he used Instagram, more instantaneous, to share his images.
Does this means that social networks are at the heart of a new economic model for photojournalism? Estrin believes so: "Their reach is vast and profound. Look at Egypt and the Arab Spring. But it goes beyond that. With social media, you can accomplish in days what would have taken years before. To are large degree, you are limited only by the limits you impose on yourself."
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are creating new ways to publish, spread and finance projects. "Social networks link and relay all the activities of a photographer," says Huffer. For instance, on the Facebook page of Emphas.is, the crowdfunding platform, the visitor can learn which projects need funding and stay informed on the whereabouts and activities of the photographers supported by the organisation. This fosters a stronger community, more likely to get involved financially. "For every ten "like" mentions on Facebook, we have a donor," explains Karim Ben Khelifa, co-founder of the initiative.
Billboards, newsletters, agencies, address books, newsfeeds, forums, sponsors – the metaphors for social networks are as numerous as the functions they fill. "When I started posting my photographs online, it was a game. I had no idea of the role social networks would take in my practice," remembers Richard Koçi Hernandez. He now focuses exclusively on iPhoneography.
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