Category: War Phototography

Is it time for a complete rethink on stock image archiving?

35mm slides
Old school…In the 1990s archiving images was simple with colour slides and a fine marker pen, during this period, most stock photographers produced several hundred images a month without the burden of tagging and pre-press work. Image © Jonathan Mitchell

Like many older photojournalists, when I began my ‘career’ in photojournalism in the early 1990s, photojournalists and news photographers mostly produced their images on 35mm film cameras, using black & white Kodak, Ilford and Fuji films or low ISO colour slide film. As the 1990s progressed, we began to shoot more on the new high-speed fine grained colour negative films that came on the market, particularly the excellent Fuji 800 ISO press film that was manufactured then (and still is in some guise I think!).

Stock photographers tended to stick more to colour slide and mono films, while most news was shot on colour negative. As a result, many of us who began our careers in the analogue days have a hotchpotch archive with large amounts of slide, plus mono and colour negs. Above, is some slides from the mid-1990s – when I based in Panama City as a foreign correspondent and photojournalist – and in that era, filing stock was a much simpler affair…For starters, scanning was done by printers and all the pre-press was the responsibility of the magazine or newspaper or book publisher. Mostly we just shot photos, edited them briefly and sent them off to the agencies that represented us.

I mostly sent my stock images to Panos Pictures, where they would be stored in filing cabinets and (if I was lucky) plucked out by a picture researcher and used in a book or newspaper. It perhaps seems quaint to younger photographers.

As the digital era came upon us in the late 1990s, I started scanning news images and then entire projects. It seemed the way to go. The clunky and heavy low res digital cameras were becoming very useable as the 2000s progressed, but few could afford them and resolution issues were a concern. I was (partly through poverty), very slow to accept digital cameras and still I actually prefer using 35mm and larger format films for certain subjects.

Seeing the transition from analogue to digital has been both amazing and disturbing. I like many aspects of digital photography, though much of my workflow is now a bit of a nightmare. In all honesty, I miss the days of shipping slide films to agencies like Sipa Press or Gamma in Paris or New York and the rapid editing process of preparing a stock submission for Panos Pictures. I don’t miss the drudgery and difficulty of printing A4 or 10×8 inch black & white prints and labouriously typing out the captions on a typewriter and gluing them to the back of the image. I like having my images available to study or re-edit. I find key wording tedious and inefficient.

Since those days, the post-image production is now fairly slick, but key wording means a slow rate of production of about 8-10 images per hour if working at a good clip. The industry demands (but does not like to pay for) all the pre-press work we do on the images and the enormous amount of time spent adding tags. The publishers then pocket the cash saved and effectively this work is almost zero pay.

If you take a peek in most professional photographer’s computers, you will see an enormous number of unedited photographs, often very useable ones at that. I edit hardly 25% of the images I shoot while on the road as a photojournalist and have literally thousands of great pictures unscanned, languishing in negative files or slide binders. The introduction of digital and the impossible demand of ‘everything as JPEG key worded online now please’ has lost me and many other photographers thousands and thousands in lost revenue. There is a ridiculous sense that an image does not exist unless it is digitised and tagged for online search and available on a large portal.

This is of course, ridiculous. Even if I worked full-time on nothing else, my estimate to digitise my film collection is five solid years of work with no holidays, working 40 hours a week!

Rates for stock photography – driven by selfish MBA types who brought in the concept of Microstock or “value stock collections” have nose dived in the past decade and are usually quite paltry. Crowd-sourcing it is thought will replace the professional stock photographer and I do not know many who actually make a decent living out of it in the editorial side of things. Even former super-seller web sites like return (in my case) around 2p/per image/per year for my editorial stock, which they do not seem to take very seriously. On top of all this, the mega agencies now offer lower and lower commission rates. It is indeed surprising anyone still bothers to edit editorial stock images, the returns make it simply, unviable economically. Of late, I have reached the point where I am reluctant to edit new stock images into my collection, though I often shoot them – as old habits die hard.

Personally, I find it quite bizarre that the stock library industry has been so obsessed with having everything on the web, searchable and downloadable. Storage on the Internet is not cheap and server costs for million and millions of highly useful stock images are high and the clients are often reluctant to pay, lest it deprive the publisher of another luxury car or shareholders of their dividends. Some may argue the world has gone that way. Which indeed may be the case, though it is a brainless way to operate archives, which are, in my opinion great cultural treasure troves, not simply data which is valuable in a monetary sense.

It seems increasingly clear to me that the current system is a mess and with some photographers (like me), still choosing to shoot some subjects on film and also prolifically producing new digital images (I shoot 30,000+ pictures in a middling year, maybe a thousand or so make it through edited), the agencies have it all wrong. Most photographers are not all that great at key wording and there is not usually a budget to pay people to tag or edit photos.

So why this crazy system of filing everything as JPEG? It beats me. Sure clients like to have everything on the end of a search box, but this is actually far from the case. One photo editor at a large German news magazine recently told me no one would buy images if they are not on the net. I think though, this opinion is a little narrow-minded, much of our visiual history in terms of still photographs lies unscanned, like most of my own archive. These are high quality images in which a huge amount of resources and time and effort went into producing. Why ignore them on such arbritrary lines?

It is high time that we dusted off the art of photo or picture research and reorganised how we archive the millions of great photographs which are taken, particularly by professionals. Online search has it’s place for many uses, but should not be the be all and end all. If we continue like this, not only do the publishers impoverish one of their greatest assets (the hard working photojournalist and/or stock photographer), but all of us and future generations too. Visual history needs to be taken more seriously, as these are not just old photographs, but the story of us. Future generations and the current one should not fall victim to selfish corporate policies which will deny them the gems and curiosities that photographers go to great lengths and dangers to make!

The only way to do this is to educate younger picture researchers and editors to end their addiction to online databases. More consideration must be given to careful physical archiving and methods of getting this type of work in front of clients (delivered digitally of course) and fullfilling their requirements. The technology has now settled down to such a degree that this is possible and highly-desirable for both clients and photographers. Badly-led agencies need to rethink how they operate and do more for the photographer, rather than squeezing them for more until there is nothing left to extract. This would help to make us more efficient and give a better service to those who find a use for archived editorial stock images in particular, though is also true of some other areas of stock photo collections.

© 2013 Jonathan Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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