Debating ideas or being run over by change

I have been having an email exchange with a still photographer I know who is conflicted about doing work in video, as he is getting paid to do just that kind of work. His experience of being knee deep in a debate, while the issues at the core of that same debate swirl all around you, that is something I have experienced a number of times in the last decade. The latest debate, about whether still photographers should embrace video, looks to be another one of these equally intense debates. For me, the only thing different about this debate is that I am now old enough (and maybe wise enough) to be able to take a step back and analyze it a bit better than I have with similar previous debates. Whether I will make the wise decision is something only time will tell.

The photographer I was corresponding with wrote me:

The couple of projects I’ve done in the past few months have been ‘everything’ projects where I’m doing video, audio, stills, editing, etc. I’m glad to get the work; however, I do feel creatively diffused when doing them and frankly not satisfied with the end product. Clients seem to think they must have a video…have to have video…everyone has a video! I’ve done several projects where clients would have been far better served with stills and audio (a la the New York Times online projects) but I’ve just not been able to convince them of that (I think that’s going to change as that particular medium is more widely accepted.) I especially can’t stand to see a video piece that is all talking heads, which would have been wonderful as an audio piece with images vs. a video that is boring as all heck.

I was struck by the phrase “creatively diffused” and asked more about that. He replied:

One always knows that this is a risk; I just think there is a fine line between purposefully putting oneself in a situation where this is bound to happen…or pushing oneself out to the limits then blossoming into something more than expected. I don’t want to just remain in the ‘safe zone’ and become stagnant but neither would I want to spread myself so thin that I never master any one thing.

The last sentence seems the key to me. I have no simple answer to his concern, but I will say that much of the commentary that I read about the debates focuses on this same issue. The other major points of concern include the expense of buying newer/expensive gear, as well as the time spent learning to master that new technology. People already working in video are also warning newcomers about the under-appreciated pre-production and post production skills that working in video require.

A resource list showing some of the forums that I read daily, can be found at: This list is by no means an all inclusive directory of where these discussions are taking place. But, it highlights some of the forums and professional organizations for photographers that are good resources.

The rules of nearly all of these forums stipulate that I cannot quote individuals without permission, but to some degree that does not matter. What matters is that the responses range from fear to paranoia to the rapid embrace of video. In trying to separate the debate from the noise, I draw on my own experience with some previous debates I lived through.

Today’s debate sounds a great deal like the one that happened years ago when digital imaging first arrived. Proponents and opponents were both rational and irrational in debating the future of photography. The technology and the economic forces it unleashed were overwhelming powerful as photography was changed, from a silver-based to a silicon-based medium.

That last debate, and today’s debate about embracing or avoiding video, are most wisely viewed from an economic point of view, not on grounds of morality or philosophy or any other abstract notions. This is based on the idea that economics is the science of understanding decision-making. If so, then economics is the only tool we have to try to make a rational rather than an emotional decision.

So what precedent do I have to guide me? Back in the early 1990’s Bill Gates’ now well established stock photo agency, Corbis, was starting up, gathering what would eventually be millions of images into an electronic stock archive. The Corbis contract was particularly focused on electronic rights, which is not something that we photographers fully understood back then. There was much debate, rational and irrational in the forums (and in the bars where photographers meet and argued.) The debate was about how “evil” Corbis was and how it would destroy the stock photography market. History has since shown that the market for stock photography has changed incredibly, but Corbis was only the “headlight on the front of the train” that ran over the entire stock photography industry and reshaped it in its wake.

As I was pondering what to do in terms of Corbis, that agency grew and their image collection expanded with it. After listening to the debate for far too long and avoiding a decision, I finally signed up with Corbis. In hindsight, I deeply regret not having signed up even sooner. Apparently the earliest photographers who signed with Corbis have the most work in the archive and make the most money. This is not an observation with any basis in morality or philosophy. It is purely an economic decision.

So, is there a lesson to be learned from having been through these recent debates? Looking at how I decided to sign with Corbis and later how I embraced digital imaging, I now see that the best thing to do would have been to view those new technologies via the prism of economics. I am not fully settled on embracing video, but the economics argument goes that anything that is cheaper to use, more efficient and more widely used, will inevitably displace whatever came before it. That proved true for Corbis and for digital imaging. In both cases I waited too long to embrace both of those. I regret that. But, I also regret giving up the inexpensive rent-controlled apartment that I once had in Manhattan. At least in the case of embracing video, I have a little more foresight on which to base my decision.

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