By Janet Smith
The “dizzying” pace of change in the photography industry has pushed many photographers to seek ways to reorient their approaches to business and find firmer financial footing. Some have turned to photography cooperatives or collectives, joining forces with like-minded photographers to market their work, seek out assignments and support each other creatively.
The lone-photojournalist model is harder and harder to sustain. Challenges include increasing costs, decreasing revenue streams from traditional sources, such as magazines, newspapers and stock sales, and the need to call attention to your work in a world that is inundated with images from myriad sources.
The question: How do you meet the promotional, sales and administrative challenges of photojournalism today and still find time to develop project ideas, shoot and process your work?
The cooperative business model is an old one. Individual businesses with similar interests come together to sell their products more efficiently. They join forces in marketing and delivery, often under a single brand. They share in profits based on the participation of each member. The bottom line behind cooperatives is economic safety in numbers.
The photographer cooperative can trace its roots to Magnum Photos, started in 1947. The types of photo cooperatives are as numerous as the people involved and their reasons for coming together. Some focus on marketing existing work; some are project-oriented. Some focus on editorial work; others focus on commercial and fine art. Still others exist to support each other creatively. And some are all of the above.
Cooperative’s specific business models also differ. Some have paid staff, including administrative and sales staff. Others are run by the photographers, with members sharing tasks, depending on their specific skills.
Marketing and promotion also takes many forms: Traditional cold calls to editors, websites, blogs and other social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Group projects, exhibits and books promote members’ work.
Mike Davis, the Alexia Tsairis chair for documentary photography at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and a photo editor who has worked with photographers at several cooperatives, said cooperatives allow photographers to share duties instead of being one-man or one-woman bands.
“Different members bring different skills or preferences to the table,” Davis said. “Marketing, design, social media, you have three times the power that you have as individual.”
A cooperative also offers a support system, he said, whether it’s feedback on work in progress, how best to put in a bid for a given job, editing each other’s work or challenging each other through joint projects.
Davis said his work with photographers in cooperatives included helping them refine what they were showing, making sure each person’s best work was out there and that the overall structure made sense.
“You’re seeking clarity of the individual voice,” he said, “but the group voice also has to make sense.”
Increasingly, he said, the business model is that you get hired because of the uniqueness you bring to a visual challenge.
“Unless what you put out there is unique, distinctive and has a voice, you’re probably not going to survive,” Davis said. “You’re trying to make clear what your voice is so it’s more likely to coincide with a commercial entity that shares that voice.”
It is essential that photographers have a brand and that extends to the cooperative.
“Everyone I know (in a cooperative) continues to own individual businesses,” he said. “The collective ups the ante; it increases the volume of the voice out there representing them.”
First and foremost, Davis said, it is a business. The cooperative should have all the things a business requires, including an accountant and an attorney. You should be able to answer the questions: Why are you doing this? Who is it you think should hire you and why?
“Some people assume what the advantages (of cooperatives) are,” Davis said. “You should look at the advantages and balance that with the amount of additional work it will take.”
Ed Kashi says a rapidly changing photography industry inspired him to accept an invitation to join VII, a cooperative agency started in 2001, after having worked as an independent photojournalist for nearly 30 years.
"Together, we can accomplish more than we can individually," said Kashi, who also serves on VII's board of directors. "Our goal is focused on having impact, doing meaningful work. VII grew out of conflict photography, but it’s much more than that now.
"It’s a very different landscape today," he said of the industry. "It’s dizzying how things are changing. It’s much harder, even for people at the top. There is a much greater need to be nimble, to be smart, to reinvent yourself."
The twin pillars of being a photojournalist, he said, had been editorial assignments and resale.
"Archival resale has been decimated by the digital revolution," Kashi said. "You can still have a set of pictures or one picture that has a lot of value, but with free content and pirating, that pillar has been eroded dramatically. It is forcing us into new areas — film, lecturing and education, for those who have reached a certain level in their careers.”
Kashi sees these new directions as a positive development.
Members of VII – 22 photographers today – sign an operating agreement and pay a monthly fee. They also pay a percentage of revenue from assignments and resales. For assignments photographer secure on their own, they pay a small percentage to VII.
The money helps pay for a CEO, as well as sales, finance and photo-archive staff, Kashi said. If there were profits, they would be split, but in general, the money is plowed back into VII for such uses as group projects and partnerships.
Photographers continue to run their own businesses. Certain types of income – grants, workshops, lectures, in short, anything in which the agency is not involved – go solely to the photographer.
An example of the logistical help VII offers its members: Each week, it sends out a "whereabouts" list to let clients know where member photographers will be working.
In the old days, Kashi said, a client might say, "We have an assignment in Kiev, can Kashi go?"
Now, if Kashi or another VII photographer isn't in Kiev, the client moves on. Rarely, do clients fly photographers to an assignment, he said, but they might hire a photographer who is already in the region.
The administrative, sales and logistical support are not the only reasons Kashi joined VII.
"(It) was not just a business decision," he said, "but a spiritual, philosophical reason."
The high level of support, information sharing and camaraderie among the photographers are pluses for Kashi.
"You can tap the smarts and expertise of fellow members," he said. "Younger photographers bring a whole other energy. … I spent most of my career alone; I can really see stark contrasts."
What's worked for Kashi?
"The opportunity to create, to be involved in larger projects than I could do on my own — books, exhibitions, cultural activities. I have received a couple of large commercial assignments I never would have gotten on my own."
He also cites resale of his work, some of which would not have happened without the sales "muscle" of VII.
"I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to deal with people about money," Kashi said, "I can, but it’s not a conservation I want to have. With an agency like VII, you have that buffer so that you can focus on your role as artist, creator and storyteller. It's good to have someone who negotiates contracts and rights for projects and assignments."
The negatives of a cooperative include more work and more responsibility, he said. "I'm now worrying about 30 people."
Other negatives, Kashi said, are the financial burdens and exposure to greater financial loss.
"Photographers don't tend to be great business people," he said.
They also can be selfish, Kashi said, citing work from earlier years on photography rights issues. Gaining consensus can be like herding feral cats, and that selfishness can undermine a photographer's own best interests, as well as the group as a whole.
"That allows us to be manipulated and hurt," he said. "It’s important that we stand together. That happens at VII on a very intimate and profound level."
His advice to photographers considering joining a cooperative: "Go in with your eyes wide open. They can cost you money and time and energy. That’s why it’s called a 'cooperative.' When you cooperate with someone, it doesn’t mean you get something for free. Don’t go in with attitude of 'what can I get for myself.' … You’re a part owner; you take on more responsibility.
"Are there frustrations, burdens? Absolutely," Kashi said. But "it's like a marriage or any relationship you commit yourself to in life. It’s not always perfect, but the point of commitment is that when it works, you can accomplish something bigger."
For Greg Kahn, Lexey Swall and Tristan Spinski, Grain offered the structure and support they needed to leave their newspaper staff jobs in Naples, Fla.
Forming the collective in 2012 allowed them to maintain the relationship they had built at the newspaper, Kahn said, continuing to work as a unit and bouncing ideas off each other.
“We wanted to stay connected,” he said. “We all had the same passion, vision and goals. We realized by sticking together we would have power in numbers, and it would motivate us.”
The three share responsibilities and costs in a three-way split.
Kahn and Swall, who were married this summer, work in Washington, while Spinski is in Wilmington, Del.
“We all pitch in,” Kahn said. “Tristan is a terrific writer. Lexey is doing a lot of the social media, promoting the brand and getting the word out there. I’m doing a lot of website work. … We’re each an extension of the other to make sure everything that needs to get done gets done.”
Grain’s business model has each keeping the income he or she generates, but splitting three ways anything that benefits the group as whole, such as the costs of promotional pieces or a new plug-in for the website.
So far, it’s worked out, Kahn said. No one’s had to miss any payments.
“Part of what we discussed with Grain is not losing our individuality,” Kahn said. “We’re in this together, and we want Grain to be successful. But we also want to maintain the individuality of our work.”
The goal for the first couple of years, he said, is a push to work on big projects in any spare time they have to be able to show new work to editors.
“Our personal work is something we aim to do, something we’re really passionate about,” Kahn said. “Our theory is that the personal work will get you more assignment work. It shows editors what you’re really into. “
The biggest challenge so far has been to get their names out there and get in front of editors.
“We’ve learned quite a bit in the last year. We’re learning how to navigate that and get in front of the right editors.”
Kahn said one of the pitfalls of a cooperative can be a member not pulling his or her weight, but for this tight-knit group that hasn’t been an issue.
“We have worked hard individually to make a contribution,” he said. “One of the main things is to have a system in place to be sure everyone carries their own weight. It can get out of control if one person is not doing their share.”
Kahn said he hadn’t sensed any extra workload from being in the cooperative, but not having been out on his own before, he didn’t have anything to compare it with.
“Our small size could be a help,” he said. “We don’t have varying wants and needs. We’re all coming from the same place. We have meetings and talk a lot, but that something we’d be doing regardless.”
And Kahn said the group didn’t feel any rush to grow in size, despite the many inquiries they’ve had since Grain started.
“It wouldn’t be based on name recognition or killer work. They would have to fit in with us, and we would have to know what they bring to the table.”
The three have had only minimal discussion of hiring staff.
“We’re just finishing our first year,” he said. “We’re getting established. One of our goals was no bad contracts. If you’re business model includes a lot of work for credit, you’re going to fail.
“It’s been the most stressful, nerve-wracking time I’ve experienced, but it’s also the happiest I’ve been as a photographer. … People have seen how (cooperatives) work. The community of photographers has vetted what has worked and what hasn’t. We went into this, I think, well prepared.”
Since 2007, many industry-watchers have looked to Luceo Images for answers about photojournalism’s future.
The photographer-run agency was seen by some as a model to follow to business success. But with the departure of three of its six members last year, the model has changed, and once again, Luceo is showing how to adapt.
Today, Luceo principal Matt Slaby says, Luceo is no longer a cooperative, but a company with a new directive: to bring creative ideas to the table to help clients achieve their goals.
Slaby, an attorney, makes a distinction between collectives and cooperatives with their own legal definitions. Luceo, he said, started out as a collective, a group of people pooling materials, loosely sharing assets and resources.
A cooperative, he said, was the next step in the evolution. He cites dealerships as an example of a cooperative. Dealerships pay into a marketing pool, which, say, Ford uses to market a particular model. The cooperative works to promote a common brand.
A collective might look like this: a Chevy dealer, Ford dealer and Fiat dealer all lining up their cars on the same lot. Each is trying to sell their cars. The collective doesn’t have forward motion toward a common goal.
Luceo has been building a common brand, Slaby said, but only in the last year and half has that product not been an individual product.
“Now it’s not a Slaby commercial, but a Luceo commercial,” he said. “I’m involved in it the way every other person is involved.”
“People’s changes in priority affect the structure,” Slaby said. “When we had changes, we had plan in place. We needed an agreement and a roadmap for how that got done.”
He points to recent projects as examples of the shifting marketplace and Luceo’s response to it – a series of documentary television public service announcements for New York City Health and a personal story, photo-based social media platform for the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Reform conference.
For the Drug Policy project, they never touched a camera. The content was all user generated. Luceo built the structure that allowed people to share their stories.
“At the core of being a photographer,” Slaby said, “ it is about being creative, seeing solutions.”
In the past, he said, specialties of craft were necessary for marketing and reaching people. The way people engaged audiences came in very clear boxes.
“Now, there is a proliferation of images,” Slaby said. “How people share and think about images has changed. Today, you’re defined by ideas and not just your ability to craft an image. Ideas never go out of style.”
The delivery system is going to continue to change, and the changes will come quickly, he said.
“The most important thing is understanding what the client wants, what the challenges are,” Slaby said. “The next question is what’s the best medium to apply to that job. Is it photography? Sometimes you need to hear somebody. Video offers that. Audio offers that.”
Some people cling to old delivery methods, he said, almost as a life raft. But if they let it go, they can start to see new ways of doing things.
The ability to adapt can make the difference. Still, it doesn’t come without work.
“The average day is difficult and long,” he said. “You make a bunch of cold calls, get some meetings, make a pitch. Rinse, repeat. … We found that the best marketing is to build a brand. Building a brand goes beyond the individual people.”
Cooperatives help photographers take small steps early in their careers, offering the support they need, Slaby said. But change is inevitable.
“Eight years ago, magazines were a reliable revenue stream,” he said. “If you honestly consider the market today, it would lead to different conclusions”
But with Luceo, he said, “we were able to set goals. That’s important. That goes for business, cooperatives, life. We set goals that we could measure. Six months, a year, five years from now, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
“Journalism starts out as an idealistic endeavor,” Slaby said. “But how do you reconcile that with making the mortgage payment? Early on, these things are scary. In business school, the paradigm is money, profits. … Photographers are different.”
The key, Slaby said, is to keep defining goals, and as goals change, you change how you answer that.
“The longevity of things,” he said, “is about flexibility.”
Is a Collective or Cooperative Right for You
Forming or joining a collective or cooperative, like most decisions, has pro and cons. Weighing these in light of individual circumstances, personalities and professional goals is critical. Here is a digest of things to consider:
- Shared administrative and promotional costs.
- Higher profile for photographer.
- Creative support.
- Ability to do projects not available otherwise.
- Shared workload.
- Specific expertise from individual cooperative members.
- Opportunity for exhibits, joint projects.
- Greater control of marketing your work.
- Complex group dynamics during decision-making take time and energy.
- Need to reconcile photographers’ differing goals.
- Time commitment to the cooperative.
- The risk some members fail to carry their share of the workload.
- Competing needs of photographers.
- Responsibility for and accountability to other members of the cooperative.
- Sharing in failure, as well as success.
Questions to ask
- Who can join?
- How many can join?
- What is the cost to join?
- What are the ongoing fees?
- What are the terms of contracts and/or operating agreements?
- How are jobs generated through the cooperative assigned?
- How is assignment revenue split?
- Who controls rights to images created on a cooperative assignment?
- What specific roles will the photographer take on for the cooperative?
- How are decisions affecting cooperative made?
- What happens if members can’t agree on an issue?
- How will any profits be spent and/or disbursed?
- What happens if a member leaves (particularly relevant for small cooperatives)?
- If cooperative idea fails, what’s next?
Some Cooperatives and Collectives
Photojournalism, Documentary, Editorial Photography Focused
General Photography, Fine Art, Project Focused
Janet Smith is a freelance writer based in Colorado. Formerly, she was the editorial page editor and managing editor at the The Island Packet in Hilton Head Island, S.C. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in business administration.