by Jain Lemos for PhotoMedia magazine

With most photo news being handled by large wire-service and Internet conglomerates, some smaller independents, such as Polaris, WPN, and ZUMA, are making waves in the industry.

FOR MUCH OF THE LAST CENTURY, photojournalists have enjoyed a host of options for disseminating their images to the world. After World War II, several cooperative news agencies, such as Magnum Photos and Black Star, thrived and competed to promote the idea of presenting news through multi-layered photo stories.

As the millennium drew near, however, the number of agency choices shrank dramatically as a series of mergers and acquisitions whittled the photojournalism industry down to a handful of major players. Although the big three—the Associated Press (AP), Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP)—still dominated the world of global news-gathering cooperatives, Internet giants Corbis and Getty Images gained a stranglehold on the stock and news photography businesses by gobbling up vast photo collections.

Then a few small independent agencies, run by former photographers and photo editors, began to make an appearance on the grid of global news networks. One of the first was ZUMA Press, founded in 1995 by Scott Mc Kiernan in Laguna Beach, Calif., which recently relocated to larger offices in the nearby seaside town of Dana Point. Six years later in Manhattan, J.P. Pappis opened Polaris Images and Seamus Conlan launched World Picture Network (WPN).

All three approach the wire business passionately, specializing in news photos, but also aggressively promoting in-depth photo features in an effort to both resuscitate and preserve the sanctity of the picture-story model made popular by magazines such as Life and Look.

“We are journalists before anything else,” Pappis asserts. “We are very aware of the important stories that are going on in the world.”

“We don’t follow the pack,” Conlan adds.

Just as hard as these agencies work to project an elite, Magnum-like importance, market conditions continually force them to meet low pricing and high-delivery demands to succeed. To survive, they also sometimes traffic in the highly lucrative, sensational images sought by the celebrity press. From the outset, all knew that they would have to take advantage of the digital age and be prepared to fight toe-to-toe technologically with the big three and the Internet mega-agencies.

Making their marks.

As photographers, the three founders have earned their stripes. Conlan is best known for his coverage of the 1994 Rwandan civil war and his ensuing humanitarian project to reunite some 2,000 displaced children with their families through his photographs. Pappis also has paid his dues behind the lens — most notably as a Paris-based photographer covering France’s social unrest in the early 1970s — and behind the editing desk at Sygma and Gamma Press USA. Mc Kiernan was a prolific shooter in his day, although the subjects of his work were somewhat a mixed bag: take some pet photos for Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy magazines, combine a little Oklahoma City bombing coverage with a JonBenet Ramsey scoop, sprinkle on some of the altruism he picked up at Black Star while under president Howard Chapnick’s wing, and the Mc Kiernan shooting style emerges.

WPN and Polaris are structured much like most photographer rep agencies, with a 50/50 split arrangement on stock image sales. Initially, Mc Kiernan attempted to use the co-op model (see sidebar), starting with 40 photographers under the name ZUMA Images, named after his pet Labrador. That worked for about nine months, and then Mc Kiernan, voted most likely to succeed by the group, took the reins and incorporated.

Even with all of today’s automation and instant Internet access, the photo news business still requires a hands-on approach. Mc Kiernan is picky when it comes to making sure that his surname is written with the space between the c and K, and his fastidiousness extends to every aspect of his operation, even if that means he has to handle things himself. He boasts about being instrumental in building the first online database that keeps track of images; indeed, ZUMA’s server room in its new Dana Point headquarters cranks around the clock. Mc Kiernan maintains a close watch on his image transmissions and keeps abreast of who is claiming what territory. “Getty has Blockbustered this business,” he says. “Quality is important, but distribution is everything. I’m no MBA, but I understand the street . . . that kind of experience you can’t buy.”

Conlan needed to jump-start WPN with several million dollars of investment capital, and he has been relentless in his quest to get his agency out of his living room and establish it on his own terms. His vision for WPN is to create an organization in which the photographers are involved every step of the way. “We are not doing sensational news,” he says. “We are not selling our images for a pound.”

It’s unclear what funds Polaris, other than a lot of hard work and talent. Quietly, the agency is building its reputation through the excellent work of the star shooters whom Pappis has known for years, as well as the new talent he has signed up. On the phone, Pappis carries on several conversations at the same time, putting people on hold a lot. It’s a bit as if he’s running a semaphore relay line in the background.

“We are constantly moving photographers from one place to the other,” he explains. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast dominated the news in recent weeks, but the situation in Iraq is still today’s major ongoing story, so war coverage is crucial to the agency’s success. However, when crises break out in North Korea, the Middle East or Afghanistan, Polaris shooters need to be ready to move, and that is what Pappis does best. He does not yet feel the need to sponsor “big idea” programs as has WPN; rather, he prefers the old method of pounding the New York pavement when it comes to promoting his shooters and their bodies of work.

Let slip the dogs of war.

Terrible as it is, there is nothing like war to spur photojournalism. After the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the new independent agencies shifted into high gear.

WPN photographer Lucian Read began his military adventures in 2002, after Sports Illustrated photo editor Jimmy Colton introduced him to Conlan and his wife, Tara Farrell. Still working out of their home at that time, Conlan and Farrell were looking for photographers to start their venture. Read remembers those early days: “I’d sit on the living room floor playing with their children as they worked their connections to get financing.”

Soon enough, Read joined WPN and was sent to Camp Pendleton. He then left shore for Iraq with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, returning some nine months later. “I probably took more than 25,000 captures,” Read says. “My early photos, taken on the ship as we traveled to Iraq, were circulated by WPN. Response was good, but clients wanted to see what I had once I got back.”

Most of Read’s images were licensed as standalones, but MSNBC ran about 50 images in an online slide show. Despite some concerns from his family, the money was enough to draw him back to Iraq in September for another six months, this time adding an audio journal for broadcast applications to his technical gear.

Robert King, who joined ZUMA’s photography staff last year, has been covering news for more than a dozen years, cutting his teeth in Sarajevoin 1993 as a stringer for AP. Embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division, he did a tour in Iraq and then headed to Afghanistan in July of this year to cover that country’s parliamentary elections. Once there, he made his own travel arrangements and did his own assignment legwork, counting on ZUMA’s support in the form of commission checks.

So far, his photo stories aren’t selling that much, except to a few online magazines, including America Online’s Visions. He says that he is “pretty happy,” however, with the way that ZUMA has developed his stories, including providing him with credentials, moral support and financial advances when warranted. “They are eager to help photographers, and I get to own my copyright and my archive,” he says.

Like all overseas shooters, war correspondents must struggle with the time and costs involved in transmitting their photos back to their mothership servers in the United States. King figures that it costs about $10 per photo via satellite technology. “I spent three hours uploading 120 gigabytes,” he groans. “You pray the connection doesn’t snap.”

Read had it a bit easier; his military connections allowed him to transmit his images for free. “There are Internet cafes all over the base,” he says, “and I can just plug in and FTP or e-mail my shots back to my editor at WPN.”

Let the statistics speak.

Shooters in the field may be competitive, but news agencies today are even fiercer when it comes to gathering and transmitting news photos for sale. The number of photos streaming in and out of the servers at each agency depends on the editing process, both in the field and at headquarters.

According to their websites, AP processes 1,000 photos per day and Reuters 650, while ZUMA processes 2,000 and WPN 1,500. Mc Kiernan admits that ZUMA does not edit as tightly as other agencies, in order to give his clients more choices. According to an April 2005 profile of Mc Kiernan in Laguna! Life & People magazine, ZUMA is grossing $4 million a year licensing 1,000 images a week at an average fee of $80 per picture.

Perceptions in the industry seem to be nearly as important as distribution. Pappis categorizes ZUMA as a paparazzi and “red-carpet” outfit. Mc Kiernan says that he sells more news in one day than Polaris does in a week, a claim that Pappis questions. Pappis also insists that Polaris is a traditional agency of around 80 handpicked shooters, differing significantly from ZUMA, which Mc Kiernan says represents 900 photographers. “How can he have 900 photographers?” Pappis muses.

Conlan distances himself even further from the pack, aiming to nurture careers and build a family business. On a weekly basis, he receives submissions from photojournalists in Russia, Albania, China, Bosnia, Peru and many other countries. WPN doesn’t use a big network of subagents like the others, instead preferring the control of selling directly into foreign markets so that photographers receive a bigger slice of the pie. “We only have two partners,” he announces, “which makes us the most adaptable to change.”

Newspapers traditionally pay low space rates for news photos, considering that the torrents of images they have access to on daily basis have only 24-hour shelf lives. Web reproduction fees are all over the map, with subscription prices depressingly low for a three-month display license. Calvin Hom, deputy director of photography at The Los Angeles Times, puts it simply: “We pay a monthly fee to AP, AFP and Reuters, so the bill is the same whether we run one of their photos that month, or a hundred. We have a great deal with Corbis, too. We pay a flat fee for any usage.”

Hom, who has worked on the paper’s metro and features desks for more than 10 years, says that the independent agencies market themselves assertively, calling when they have coverage of breaking news. “In July, when bombs went off in London, Polaris had a photo that the others didn’t, and we ran it on the front page,” he says.

Gossip is golden.

One market segment that is buying with a newfound fervor is celebrity magazines, which appear to have no limits when it comes to publishing soft-news photos. Life & Style Weekly, InTouch, Celebrity Living Weekly, Us Weekly, Star and People, along with Americanized versions of the British OK! and Hello magazines, are just a few examples.

Insiders know that celebrity photos always have been the cash cows. Before being acquired by Corbis, Sygma once reported that celebrity shots accounted for 60 percent of the agency’s turnover, while their news photos earned less than 10 percent. Today, however, even the once-serious news magazines “are giving less space to more important news stories and substituting them for soft features,” such as entertainment industry gossip, Pappis complains.

ZUMA, which co-ops photos with hundreds of newspapers, stuffs its coffers with the Jennifers and Jessicas of the world, and Mc Kiernan is not afraid to be in the middle of controversy himself. His agency credit certainly was noticed when ZUMA distributed images depicting flag-draped coffins as they returned from Iraq, drawing consternation from the Bush administration and bringing tears to the eyes of many a soldier’s mom.

Shooting tabloid-style sometimes may paythe mortgage for five months, but it does not come without the occasional misstep. Veterannews and documentary photographer Anne Day, who took a high-profile, work-for-hire wedding assignment for WPN earlier this year, had a less than ideal experience. “The WPN editor they went to the location downloaded my flash cards and handed them back to me empty. After I got back home, I had to go down to the grocery store to see my photos in People,” she laughs. She was not amused by the lack of credit next to her photos, however, which were circulated to practically every Sunday paper around the world within hours of the event. “Seamus apologized, saying it was a mistake,” Day offers, and subsequent usages did include her name on the credit line.

Polaris works hard to maintain an old-world profile in a new-world environment, Pappis says. In order to compete, he admits, “we have to cover the universal stories, too.” This means that Polaris photographers often shoot the more trivial novelty or Americana events, from dog shows to hotdog-eating contests. “The red carpet stuff we shall leave to others,” Pappis says, “but if the tabloid story will make money for the agency and the photographers, then we can fund the more serious stories we want to do.”

Picture stories in peril.

Although single news images and celebrity fare are selling relatively well, some agencies are lamenting the decline of the cohesive photo feature in U.S. publications. Tabloids may reproduce six virtually identical frames of one celebrity, but that kind of spread is hardly considered a photo story, to Pappis’ way of thinking. “It’s different in Europe, and we are still selling many features there,” he says.

Some European magazines that are still photographer-friendly include Paris Match, Stern, Geo, Figaro and the Sunday Times Magazine. Asia, too, is seeing a resurgence of multiple-image outlets, Conlan says. “Assignments are going through the roof,” he reports, with much of the demand originating from Japan.

“Time used to be this thick,” Mc Kiernan reminisces as he holds an invisible, hefty copy in his hands. “Even National Geographic had to rearrange how their photography department was structured to keep up with the times.”

Whole story packages are selling at ZUMA, but not as robustly as he would like, he admits. “We sell our share of sensational news, but we also do things we want to do,” Mc Kiernan says, including publishing DoubleTruck, a vanity-press magazine that won’t take any advertising dollars. His ZReportage division produces attention-grabbing, web-based title pages to announce features to clients through e-mail teasers on Tuesdays, provided that he has a story to sell that fits the format that week.

Staying independent has helped ZUMA help other photographers, says Mc Kiernan, who has been known to partially fund and help provide credentials for promising shooters who are low on resources. “Things can change on a dime in this business,” he says, “and ZUMA doesn’t have committees for committees, so we can stay flexible. We will consider submissions from any photographer who has a compelling photo story, or even a well-developed idea.”

Survival of the fittest.

At the end of the day, volume sales, subscription deals and staying ahead of the digital curve may be the factors that keep these and other new independent agencies humming. US Presswire is one new agency looking to become a quality alternative to the big wire services, and more are cropping up every year. Splash News, Picture Agency and WireImage are picking up steam on the celebrity front, as well.

As for mainstream news, AP’s “Electronic AP” initiative—a new interactive network that will allow members to categorize, search and distribute vast amounts of multimedia news content, including photos and video feeds—is taking time to launch, but because AP controls such a large share of the business, it doesn’t need to rush, Mc Kiernan says. “AP is the 800-pound gorilla in this industry and anything they do is important, but basically they are a decade behind and are now trying to do things we started doing 10 years ago,” he says.

“Broadcast is the way to go, and that’s the way WPN is going,” says Conlan, who is premiering FilmLoop technology this fall, a continually updated tickertape filmstrip that will run across the bottom of subscribers’ computer screens to share WPN’s breaking news images. Clients will be able to click on any frame to get caption and licensing information; advertising revenue will foot the bill, he adds.

Mc Kiernan insists that a lateral move in the marketplace is what is needed to survive, and that means putting ZUMA’s fingers into a lot of pies. Recently, ZUMA acquired the 100-year-old Keystone Press Agency as part of Mc Kiernan’s long-term strategy to revive the influence that photo agencies had at their peakduring the 1940s and ’50s.

Be it hard or soft, news isn’t going away, and neither are the photographers who are willing to pursue good, solid picture stories. Pappis reviewed the portfolios of a dozen graduates of the school at the International Center of Photography this year and was impressed by half. “The material I reviewed was very high quality,” he says. “I’m very optimistic for the future of photojournalism. I’m not worried about finding new talent.”

Launching an independent photo agency is not just about investing in the latest broadband global area network equipment and perfecting digital workflow; it’s also about truly representing the best interests of photographers. Talent, and being in the right place, still has a lot to do with what gets published in the end, but photographers and reps know that pictures alone don’t make sales, good agents do.

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