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Can brands save photojournalism? Picture agency Verbatim shifts focus from editors to marketers

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Only a very few years ago photojournalism still seemed like one of the coolest, most rewarding ways imaginable of making a living.

When Aidan Sullivan set up Getty Images Reportage in 2009, the commissions for his team of topflight photographers came rolling in. “We were getting assignments left, right and centre,” he recalls. “We were working for Paris Match, CNN, Time magazine, the New York Times, National Geographic, you name it.” Reportage’s currency was visual imagery but the mere presence of the names on its roster –including Tom Stoddart, Lynsey Addario, Brent Stirton among a hallowed three dozen – was a guarantee of excellence in picture-based storytelling.

Then, with alarming rapidity, the work dried up. A harsh economic environment that had already claimed the jobs of staff photographers and picture editors on newspapers and magazines moved upstream and editorial assignments became scarce for even the most recognisable names on a photo credit.

“By 2012 the revenues that were coming in from assignments and syndication had all but disappeared and the editorial markets pretty much overnight dropped off a cliff,” Sullivan recalls. “Here I was, a photographer’s agent representing some of the greatest photojournalists in the world, and I was unable to get them any editorial work. It became obvious that Reportage assignments division just really could not survive. It just wasn’t sustainable.”

Sullivan, 60, a former picture editor of the Sunday Times who began his journalism as a 17-year-old copy boy, has worked close to the pinnacle of photojournalism for decades and counts some of the world’s best news photographers as personal friends.

He now believes he has found a way to reward their efforts through a model that will appeal to marketers and brands without compromising the integrity of the photographers. Verbatim is a new agency, still attached to the giant Getty Images Inc and embodying the spirit of Reportage but set up to make money from commercial rather than editorial partners.

Brand-backed photojournalism

Sponsored content has become a beacon of hope for the news industry, with publishers believing that they can earn new money by bringing to the art of brand storytelling some of the trust, qualities and characteristics associated with their news titles. Such material is, theoretically, generated by commercial studios strictly separated from the newsroom to preserve editorial impartiality.

Verbatim wants to offer something different by allowing its photographers to continue to work as journalists. It hopes that commercial partners will be prepared to relinquish any editorial control by understanding that the resulting content will have greater authenticity, meaning that audiences will engage with it more deeply.

So, for example, if Stirton was to continue his photojournalism covering silverback gorillas in the Burundi national park, that could be paid for by a brand sponsor, provided it accepted that it could not have “any editorial input whatsoever”, Sullivan suggests. “Five years ago I would have been pitching that to National Geographic and they would have been giving us some money. Why is it any different because a car manufacturer or somebody else is paying, so long as journalistically they have no input? This is not advertorial, this is editorial photojournalism.”

Verbatim’s early projects include Gillian Laub’s astonishing portrait series 'As American As', showing the eclecticism of the United States in images of cultural, ethnic and sexual diversity. Released before the presidential election, it showed there was more to US identity than apple pie.

The work was commissioned by advertising agency SS+K for an ad campaign by Fusion, a US cable and satellite TV company. But Sullivan says it retains its editorial integrity. “These are real people that Gillian went out and found and photographed,” he says. “Gillian is a first rate journalist. There was a deadline, she had her assignment and she created some remarkable work.”

In another Verbatim project, the Israeli filmmaker and photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has produced a 30-minute documentary designed to change perceptions on mental health by telling three real life stories. The compelling film was supported by the pharmaceutical company Sunovian and championed by the singer and mental health campaigner Demi Lovato. “It’s a true documentary, literally interviewing people about their lives,” says Sullivan. The film now forms part of the wider mental health campaign Be Vocal.

The real opportunity for Verbatim, Sullivan believes, is in the need for organisations to demonstrate their good intentions. “Everybody wants to see that the companies they bank with, the cars they drive, the shoes they wear, are actually giving back in some way. And the brands know they have to do that.” The new agency was inspired by a comment made by WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell: “Corporate social responsibility is now front and centre to the strategy of the world’s biggest brands.”

Sullivan took the view that brands often had stories with editorial merit and that there was a role there for photojournalists as visual imagery becomes the dominant medium of communication. He chose the name Verbatim because “the literal translation from Latin is the exact replica of a piece of text, but the play on words is that photography is the new lexicon which everybody uses to tell their own stories through Instagram and social media”.

He has had to make his case to the photojournalists. Whereas Reportage had a roster of 35, only a “handpicked” team of 10 photographers represent Verbatim. “Not all of the Reportage photographers were appropriate for this,” he says. “Some of them either didn't want to be involved in the commercial world or didn't have the discipline required to work in that sort of environment.”

Funding photography's future

Verbatim relies on a long history of trust between Sullivan and the photojournalists. He admits that he “can’t just come up with a crazy idea and expect [a photographer] to accept it”. But part of the agency’s mission is to support photojournalism by allocating part of its profits to funding additional projects which its photographers wish to pursue. It was this policy which enabled Sullivan to provide $30,000 in seed funding for Addario’s year-long Finding Home project in which she followed four pregnant Syrian refugee women as they coped with childbirth and raising their babies under the most difficult conditions. The work, which has also been supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, has been published by Time magazine.

For Verbatim, the “golden scenario” is when it comes up with an editorial idea and a brand agrees to sponsor it without seeking to exert influence. But Sullivan says the agency will also do more traditional commercial work and that many leading photojournalists are comfortable shooting advertising campaigns. Stoddart is “a master at it” and Stirton is currently making a car ad in South Africa, in between assignments for National Geographic. The distinctions are clear enough, Sullivan argues. “You just have to know where the boundaries are and you have to adhere to them.”

These are strange times for photojournalism. Its traditional business model has collapsed but the appreciation of photographic techniques and telling stories in pictures has never been greater. The great photojournalist co-operative Magnum Photos is confronting these same challenges.

The Seattle-based Getty Images – whose CEO is the former Channel 5 boss Dawn Airey – makes the vast bulk of its revenues from selling rights to its photo archive but its corporate reputation is bolstered by continued association with some of the world’s leading photojournalists through Verbatim, Sullivan says. “Getty very much wanted to keep the halo effect and kudos of working with these great Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers.”

But he is convinced he is onto something bigger. Verbatim, based in New York and London, is now proactive in looking for brand stories that have editorial merit, studying initiatives by Starbucks, Apple and other corporates. “Rather than just waiting for a brand to come to us and say ‘Can you provide a photographer?’, we are scanning the news as journalists every day and seeing what these brands are doing that would create a story that we can help communicate.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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