From scarcity to ubiquity: digitisation in photography

rebecca swift

This is a guest post from Rebecca Swift, Director of Creative Planning at iStock (speaker at BookMachine London this Thursday)

Last year Facebook revealed that users uploaded 350 million images every day. The 2014 Internet Trends report from analyst Mary Meeker published in May states that internet users are sharing 1.8 billion images every day (thanks to the visually based apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp as well as Facebook.)

These numbers were unfathomable even 5 years ago and it was only 15 years ago that digitization of imagery was really starting to take off.

I started in the photography industry 20 years ago when the number of images available was small and getting hold of the pictures you wanted involved working with a group of image “experts” – professional photographers, editors, image buyers, retouching and print houses. The art of photography and the language of imagery was something that did not have an impact on most people’s work or home lives. Fast-forward to the present day and you very rarely meet a person (young or old) who has never taken a photo and in fact doesn’t photograph regularly either. Words such as composition, cropping, filters, and exposure are now part of popular culture.

What does this mean for the photo industry? What does this mean for the industries that rely on photography to sell stuff?

The massive increase in production of images has happily occurred at the same time as the increase of platforms where images can be placed – print media still has its place (and I remain convinced of this) but the digital world has opened up the opportunity for further storytelling – websites, microsites, social media, apps, on-line advertising and editorial. The list continues to improve. We have yet to see the peak in mobile platforms, which bring images even closer and more regularly to viewers.

My own personal experience of the increase in image production has been in the way that we, as a stock agency, have sourced images. We used to accept approximately 50,000 images a year but now we are able to accept over 800,000 images per month. Those images are mostly crowd-sourced; they come from people like you and me. Some are shot specifically with an end-customer in mind; many are simply snapshots from people’s daily lives. This brings an endless supply of real situations, real emotions, diverse lifestyles, local flavours and inspirational creativity.

My role at iStock (the original crowd-sourced business according to author Jeff Howe in his 2009 book “Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business”) is to guide the crowd, or community as we call them, to shoot the content that our customers want to buy. I spend my time working with individuals and groups (the great thing about our iStock community is that it really is community-spirited with photographers helping each other with practical knowledge and moral support) in planning and in implementing their ideas. I run webinars and write articles with advice and subject themes to help anyone who wants to get involved and shoot. Some of the guys I work with have been able to become full time photographers whereas others supplement their incomes from careers as lawyers, architects, design agency owners, dentists, builders, civil servants etc. They are all fun and fascinating people to be around.

Possibly the most interesting and yet exhausting part of my job is to organize meet-up events around the world for our community. We run at least four every year and encourage local photographers as well as anyone who wants to travel to attend. This year we have held events in Hong Kong, Brazil and Istanbul. At the last event this month in Istanbul, we unleashed 140 photographers on the city; it was quite a sight to see. As well as the social, community aspect of meeting up, we run seminars full of practical advice as well as tours of the city and the chance to shoot on location with professional models for a few days.

Talking about making images, using images and the purpose of images is the thing that really fascinates me. Whilst I am able to spend my days working with people who are equally as interested, I am also pleased to see that the discussion about the content of images has become more mainstream. The depiction of women in photography has been an on-going debate for many years. Advertising imagery especially has attracted a lot of attention by academia, there is a wealth of publications available.

As the world becomes more demanding of images, the old clichés are being challenged. It is fascinating how, despite there being billions more images available for use that there is still room for more and despite thinking I have seen ideas presented in a hundred different ways, there are still opportunities for new ideas and interpretations.

I will be talking about just this phenomenon at the BookMachine event on Thursday 6th November including the collaboration of Getty Images/iStock and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization further to Sandberg’s bestselling 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”.

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