Thoughts on Pros vs. GWCs

One of the constants on any Flickr group that features large numbers of “pros” in it’s membership is the constant rants about/against GWC (Guys/Gals With Cameras) ruining the business with their low rates. As a proud GWC my counter-punch is usually, ‘if you can’t tell the work of a GWC from that of a “pro” then is there a skill or level of workmanship there that deserves more money, genuinely deserves to be it’s on trade?’ At which point people usually start spewing their credentials and where they’ve been published rather than answering the question. This isn’t unique to photographers; I think by and large as a society we’ve become massively over reliant on credentials rather than actual knowledge or output. A lot of businesses are starting to realize this, and favoring experienced workers over the ones with the most degrees/education. But this is especially problematic in the arts. Regardless of credentials, ultimately you produce work, and the quality of that work (subjective as such quality judgements are) should be the arbiter of your skill/worth as an artist. Yet that’s not what happens. When art meets commerce everyone’s looking for CYA, which credentials provide. I once knew a girl who was getting a Masters in theater arts (or whatever they call it); went away to London, yadayadayada… When she came back I said “Show me some acting…” This of course, was a joke. Nonetheless I expected, well somethingthat the average person wouldn’t have access to about performing. Yet I was informed that the theater curriculum wasn’t really designed to make you a better actor. They taught set and stage design, some of the financial aspects of operating a theatre company, etc. It was a glorified carpentry course mixed with some first year business school classes. Acting ability you had to have or obtain, pretty much on your own dime. So why the massive student loan debt? So you could have the credential, which got you into a company, which eventually got you the experience/ability. Or finds you a waitress at 35, understudying the Blanche DuBois role in a community theater production of Streetcar. Essentially it’s the old European guild system, creating barriers for entry into a profession (and increasing the cost to the consumer for the end product) on the pretense of protecting it.

 Now read this: Have Microstocks Hurt Stock Photography? Microstock is pretty much the eye of the storm when it comes to the “Pros vs. Joes” of photography in the digital age. It’s widely touted as the ultimate proof of the damage that GWCs are doing to pros. Yet noted stock photog Russell Kord says, basically, that it hasn’t hurt his business and that real pros shouldn’t have much to worry about. “Photography created by crowdsourcers has been predictable and adequate at best. There is a low price market for it, and some money to be made by those doing the agglomeration. But it hasn’t put me out of business. Chiefly because the quality just isn’t there.”So in other words, in the ultimate pass/fail test, the quality of the images produced, pros should have a unique edge, and be able to produce recognizably superior product. This is just one data point, but I think ultimately it’ll turn out to be true across the board. As one of the post’s commenter’s notes one of the big consumers of microstock is small business. That’s not income lost to traditional stock photogs, that’s new business altogether. Smaller businesses have traditionally been priced out of the stock photography market in the first place. I know that my first chance at published work came because a graphic designer I know couldn’t afford stock photos for a project, and I could generate the images he needed on a budget of gas money.

But will it ever be settled? Not likely. The wheel always turns; new techniques and technology have a steep learning curve and a high price, early adopters come by their knowledge at a significant cost. Not many people are welling to bear that cost, keeping the early user pool fairly limited, and costs high. That was the case with photography during it’s early years. As more and more people either want to enter the profession or possess the skill, or at least the work that the skill produces, the pressure to lower the barriers to entry go up, solutions get created, the barriers drop, and the craft has an influx of new users, destroying the previous pricing model. Undoubtedly “pro” photographers were appalled by George Eastman’s goal to allow  “anybody, man, woman or child, who has sufficient intelligence to point a box straight and press a button” to take photographs, even more so when his roll film and Brownie camera started allowing the average person to document their lives without have to pay/consult a pro. Yet it was good for the industry, as thousand upon thousands of future pro photographers started with a cheap Brownie. By the 60’s and 70’s the wheel had turned again, as state of the art became 35mm SLRs, with the cost of equipment and processing once again separating the professionals from the amateur (that gap has always been a bit more nebulous). But this days, when PC’s have pretty much replaced the darkroom and the processing costs, the playing field is level again, at least for now. This pattern is why it’s ridiculously short sighted to rail against GWCs. Because all signs point to sooner or later some paradigm shift in the nature of photography pushing the advantage back to the pros, at least for a little while.

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~ by junyo on December 26, 2007.

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