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Sarah Hogan (SH): Hello Isabelle. I’m excited to interview you today as part of the AOP International Women’s Day (IWD) newsletter.
Your past roles speak for themselves, the knowledge and skill-set that you bring are immense.
Your career in the Photography industry has involved working both as a client and a supplier. Having studied photography with a BA Hons in Photography at the Surrey Institute. You spent 14 years running an image library, 9 years at BAPLA – trade organisation at Board Level. Board director of the British Copyright Council and now CEO and advocate for the AOP. Welcome!
You have said the role of AOP to protect, promote and inspire, that it is more important than ever. Why is this the case?
Isabelle Doran (ID): I strongly believe that the role of the AOP as a trade association is even more important now than it’s ever been. It’s due in part to the continual challenges our members face, whether that’s dealing with bad practice or contracts from certain clients, copyright infringement, which of course is rife on social media, and recovering from a difficult couple of years due to the pandemic. The membership is both a haven and a place to showcase your talent.
SH: Where do you see the future for commercial photography, and what role would the AOP play in terms of career development for its members?
ID: In this digital age where we see a continual and rapid rise in new technologies, and an ever-expanding online marketplace. You don’t have to look far to see that even with social media, visual images play such a strong role in conveying what people want, aspire to, and relate to. Photography remains an extremely relevant way to communicate to the masses and at the individual level. Although we can all take photographs, to be a truly successful professional photographer, it takes a lot of skill, talents, dedication, as well as business acumen. It’s a difficult thing to master. I could see that very clearly at Magnum Photos when I was working there many years ago, you had an array of different talented photographers, but you could see those who perhaps, had less business acumen and struggled more than those who were far more business-orientated. It’s a particularly important part of the journey to understand how you can turn creativity, your love, your passion into something that actually pays.
SH: Turn your craft into a career and a paying one.
ID: Exactly, turn it into a long sustainable career. That business acumen has several different layers. It’s about connecting with your contacts; it’s about having that relationship with them.
In my career, whilst I may have started out in one of the larger picture libraries, I ended up in a smaller one because relationship building is, to my mind, far more essential. Especially when you first come into the industry, you can undersell your work or you oversell – it’s a delicate balance. Building up that knowledge base, including knowing your legal rights, is so important and I found it was never driven home enough at university or art college.
Contracts play such an important role in professional practice, especially now more than ever. There is a lot more rights grabbing taking place and what concerns me in particular is that social media platforms have ‘in perpetuity’ terms which I’ve never liked, and not really advocate at all. To my mind there’s no need to have such terms because, for most businesses you look to refresh your campaign or product marketing maybe within a year, maybe in three years, but certainly by five years. You don’t need an ‘in perpetuity agreement’ at all. Again the AOP provides lots of advice here.
SH: What advice would you give to students or access members about establishing good habits early on?
ID: To seek out professional photographers that you like and admire and talk to them about apprenticeships or assisting them. It’s so easy to rush into it to say right, I’m a professional photographer because I’ve graduated, but you learn so much from the experiences of others and I often think about my own professional journey and wonder if only I’d had a mentor.
SH: I still feel like that!
ID: You can never tire of having a mentor. In every stage of your life there’s always somebody that you can learn from, certainly starting out it’s pivotal. There’s no better way of building up your skills and your knowledge by seeing how somebody else works. It’s important to understand how professional photographers develop their reputation, their client base, their range of jobs and working collaboratively, you don’t have to be on your own.
SH: Establishing ground rules right from the start is so important.
ID: In terms of good ground rules, the AOP gives great support on how to structure your business. Mentors we’ve had recently speaking at our webinar on Career in a New Light have also been talking about this – establishing your network with people quite early on and don’t be put off by rejection.
It can be very difficult to reach out to people, don’t try to be over familiar. Seek advice – the AOP forums, like the f22 forum, are a great resource for that.
I know pricing is probably one of the hardest elements to get to grips with, but shop around, look at the different price ranges that are available – again the AOP has its usage calculator, which is very handy. Undersell yourself and the client may come back to you and say, we don’t have any budget. That’s always a dangerous step to take. It may seem like a painful thing to do but I wouldn’t recommend taking on a job where the client says “ we don’t have any budget but it would be great for your portfolio” – you have skill and talent, and therefore should be paid.
SH: Learn to say ‘no’…?
ID: Learn to say ‘no’ more – but always respond with an open invitation to suggest that when they do have a budget, to get in touch. Use your network to begin with. Also try to obtain a general understanding of the value of your work in the marketplace. That’s the difficult part because you may believe artistically that your work should be at this rate, and the client may come back to say we’ll only pay you at a lower rate. And you may think, well, how do I find that happy medium between these two points?
SH: So how do you marry that?
ID: That’s why taking time to research fees, the type of job you’re offered, and your client, is so important, and not being overly familiar with them. Making sure that you present yourself professionally, trying to gauge that middle ground – again the AOP can provide lots of advice on business practice. Don’t be afraid of disappointments too and just keep pursuing. Maybe also trying something slightly different. You think you might be found on social media, but there are so many photographers plugging their work on the same platforms it’s not easy to be found by the clients you want.
You can also contact people and maybe not hear from them and think oh well that’s it, but keep persisting. If it’s not getting anywhere, try a different approach, maybe sending something in print or a simple pdf, it doesn’t have to be very big.
SH: …Or expensive.
ID: Just be creative.
SH: Another way of making income is libraries but is it sustainable for libraries to sell images for 40p?
ID: It’s something that I never believed in and certainly never advocated. I would never go below a certain level just because it wasn’t worth it, and it was important to retain this value because the perception of the value of an image can be so different, I’ve always been very strong about that. Specialist libraries that can’t deliver on volume but they can uphold the value of an image when they licence.
But this market pressure is where we have seen that denomination come down to the likes of 40p, and where we find photographers saying “I used to sell it at a much higher level”, and that this pressure on price exists in part because of the significant volume of images available to licence these days.
SH: And online they are just appearing for 10 seconds…
ID: Yes, it’s a supply and demand challenge, because the larger libraries and agencies will have a million sunsets in their collections, in terms of value it is very difficult to say it’s worth X. The issue then lies with this perception of value, especially when many AOP members invest heavily in creating their images. So from an external perspective I suppose, this perception of worth can be misunderstood, unless perhaps they look at a historical photograph like an Ansel Adams landscape, where he really did…
SH: …walk and wait for hours to get the shot.
ID: Exactly so there’s a value immediately associated with it. And this is where the smaller specialist libraries can differ – you can see the investment, you can see the creativity and the skills that have gone into the imagery and so therefore retention of that value is important and relatively sustainable.
Clients, particularly in editorial publishing are image hungry, and as such the value can be driven down simply because images are licensed en masse. Specialist small libraries still exist because they can push back and say, you can’t get these images anywhere else, and therefore clients need to pay the rates these libraries set.
I’ve always been a great advocate of choice. The marketplace is always going to be a big influence on value and there’s very little we can do about reversing what that value is perceived to be. You should have the right to choose what you do – hence the importance of retaining copyright where and when you can. If you do want to be able to exploit your library, or your archives that you’ve built up over many years, whether that’s for primary rights (such as your own work or commissioned shoots) or secondary rights (collective licensing) you should have the right to decide what you do with your copyrighted work.
SH: Do you think there’s still going to be a market for image libraries long term?
ID: Absolutely. But even they’re challenged in this marketplace because they’ve been superseded by social media platforms. If we were looking at who’s driving down the value of an image, I would lay the mat at their front door and basically say that they’re the ones who are really driving the value down because they’re transferring the value away from rightsholders.
I think we’ve got to look beyond the libraries. Social media platforms are the biggest culprits of transferring that value away from us. Look at the billions that they’re earning by selling advertising opportunities alongside uploaded content.
SH: I see so many images on feeds where photographers aren’t credited, or permissions weren’t asked for and it’s promoting brands.
ID: It’s a double-edged sword with social media because on the one hand, you have to use it to market yourself to let people know you exist, but at the same time, their terms of service have these egregious worldwide terms. You can’t negotiate those contracts. And that’s the difference with a picture library, at least you should be able to negotiate those rights. It is limited and you get paid. Whereas with social media platforms you don’t have the opportunity to challenge their terms. They’ve got third party rights in perpetuity. It basically means they can sell it on to a third party, and you can do nothing about it so they could set up a picture library themselves – this was the concern with Google Images, which still exists.
Therefore, it’s important for us to pull together and keep that strong unit because that’s the other thing about a trade association such as the AOP – we’re a collective. With a collective voice we have much more impact, much more say, and can protect each other more than you can do as an individual.
SH: I’m interviewing you as part of the International Women’s Day newsletter. Looking at the statistics 80% of students on courses are female but commissioned professional female photographers are @ 20% of the market or less. You studied a photography degree. Do you consider yourself one of those 80%?
ID: Absolutely. I considered myself one of those 80%. Of course I don’t know the statistics back when I was studying, but certainly I know the feelings that I had when I graduated, which was that wow, I’ve come into the big wide world here, and I’ve got very little experience and very little professional knowledge to be able to move forwards. I really did suffer from a lack of confidence, although prior to undertaking my BA I did a HND course in portrait photography and followed that with a Foundation course. So, I had studied for five years in total in terms of photography, before beginning my professional career.
Women want to go into the professional practice of photography, but we feel we ought to do it the right way and follow the educational path, thinking, this is the route to go. But when we reach the end of that path we hit a certain disillusionment with “okay, well, I’m here now, what happens next?” Some of us are lucky if the university provides the opportunity to connect with a professional photographer, or part of the photo industry. I undertook my work experience at the V&A – my tutors may have looked at some of the essays I produced and thought maybe she would be a good candidate for a curator. I didn’t have any confidence in writing then, but came back to it later on in life, completing a Masters.
The success of the f22 group is brilliant. It would be great to have members of f22 to say right I’m going to give some of my time over to help those graduates get into the industry. I say this because one of the interesting conversations I had with one of the newly established working groups is in relation to assisting photographers and that there are very few female graduates who go into assisting – why is that? Are the role models missing?
SH: A lot has been achieved by the f22 group and we’re very positive about moving forward and looking at what we’ve all benefited from and how we can benefit the next generation.
Are you still shooting? What type of genre would you shoot?
ID: Storytelling has always appealed to me hugely. I admire that, but I don’t think I could ever emulate it and it will make sense when I mention a couple of my favourite photographers, although still life is probably the style I’m happiest photographing. Studying the art of photography, I think it’s what your eye is trained for? You can’t help but look at something with a viewfinder, visualise the shot and capture it that way. In terms of my favourite photographers, I mean, Lee Miller was a huge, huge inspiration for me. Massively so and she’s still. I always think that maybe if I had been born several decades previously, she is the photographer I could have been. There’s also Gerda Taro (Robert Capa’s girlfriend, also documenting the Spanish Civil War), who is hugely influential to me as well. Both were very brave and put themselves into really challenging situations as women, as well as being female photographers. I was very aware of Nick Knight and Nadav Kander, Sebastiao Salgado, as well because they were very striking photographers as a young student. Later working at Magnum Photos, I got to work for an amazing cooperative of photographers, two that stood out personally, whose style is both graphic, moody and colourful are Lise Sarfati and Gueorgui Pinkhassov.
Lise loved abandoned buildings, there would often be people photographed in them, but her work was very artistic and thought-provoking. Gueorgui has a cinematic style to his work, he basically tells a story with colour and contrast.
SH: What’s your hope for the next six months/year ahead?
ID: Of course there’s a lot of planning to do. One of the initial things to do is to undertake an overview of the membership, and I’ve just completed a strategy document as a first step. You’ve got to go through a process of self-reflection and really look at what the organisation is, and I can see there are so many good things. How can we do better with what we have? Obviously, we go back to the purpose of the organisation – to protect, promote, and inspire, making sure that we are there for photographers at any stage of their practice. With promotion, we have various ways to do that, for example, the Awards, which is a brilliant opportunity to showcase the talent within the membership. Similarly we have our Open Award (closing on 18 March) and Open Projects which enables those who are not members of the organisation to be able to submit their work on an equal footing. Later this year we’ll have the f22 Open Project to be working towards as well. It’s all about highlighting different parts of the organisation using different approaches to showcase the talent that comes through, and inspire those who look to the AOP as a trusted source for commissioning photographers and image-makers. Also, what we need is two-way communication between ourselves and the membership – we need you to tell us what you’ve been photographing, and we can tell the rest of the world what you’re doing so brilliantly.
The AOP Photography Awards are known as the ‘Oscars’ of the photography world. They celebrate excellence in the creative photography and image-making industry. This year’s Awards will open in October 2021 and close in January 2022. This is your chance to be seen by leading commissioners and names within the photographic industry.