Rules Of Attraction – how the media machine works

February 20th, 1994Stephen Mayes

Commerce and creativity are often regarded as irreconcilable opposites in the work of photojournalists. This article takes a sardonic look at the rules for commercial success, but concludes that the best photographers can be both creative and commercial.

First published in the British Journal of Photography, 24th February 1994

In a parallel universe there is a print media which exist to publish pictures and stories on grounds of photographic merit driven by journalistic imperatives; this is a universe inhabited by the young, the innocent and the idealistic. But on this side of the star gate we encounter a different value system: Michael Toulmin (managing director of United Newspapers) spoke for nearly every title in print when he was reported as saying: ‘Our primary business is advertising.’ This may seem like a nit-picking point of semantic debate, but the implications are fundamental to all our activities and anyone crazed enough to seek access to the weird world of photojournalism should understand this basic principle.

The media exist to make money, and information (including photography) is regarded as a commercial product that is bought and sold to maintain a readership whose function is to consume advertising. Whatever our ideological aspirations, we are all links in this chain of commercial dependency: the publication that fails the advertisers will shut, an editor who fails the circulation department will go, the picture editor who thwarts the editor’s house style will not last long, and the freelance who sets his or her own agenda will not get hired. To a greater or lesser extent we all need a slice of the commercial action and we learn the unspoken rules very fast – or else we stay as photo-hobbyists with weekend dreams of the big time. Anyone with a serious journalistic mission to inform must first learn the rules before attempting any acts of subversion within the system.

Rule one
Starting with a list of ideas that are personally interesting (a bored photographer produces boring pictures), select several that may appear saleable. Then consider exactly who might buy the finished work and call a few clients to test their responses – identify your market before making an exposure: a piece on rural fauna will look different for the Meat Traders Journal and for Wild About Animals.

Rule two
The fact that millions of people may be starving somewhere south of Dover may not necessarily be a story if one man in London is found to like wearing women’s stockings, especially if the man is a Tory MP. Stockings have been proved to sell papers in a way that famine does not. Wait a month or two then try the story again and perhaps someone will be interested; the news may not have changed but the news agenda has and a sale can be made.

Rule three
Many young photographers are surprised to learn that magazines and newspapers do not appeal to readers because they supply information, but because they provide affirmation. In other words we do not buy a paper to be surprised but rather to confirm what we already know. The secret of successful publishing is to print the same story every day with slightly varying facts: no-one buys the Guardian on the off-chance of reading an editorial by John Junor, nor puts Hello on order in the hope of seeing photos of civil war in Burundi. The truth is that readers actually know what will be between the covers before they open them, and more to the point advertisers can plan year-long campaigns with titles without fear of being undermined by unexpected editorial. The smart photographer learns to make the same photograph every day in spite of what is in front of the lens. If in doubt about this point, compare any High Court photograph in The Independent (24mm lens, stand back and photograph the media pack) with the Daily Mail (80mm lens, at the front of the pack and photograph the grim-faced defendant).

Rule four
The problem with looking for exclusive angles is that you might miss the main picture, and it is much safer to stay in the cosy footprints of every other photographer than to risk failure on your own. In this way even if you fail you still have company. The disadvantages of being the only person to miss a photo opportunity far outweigh any potential advantages of scooping the world with an original photo that might not even be noticed on the contact sheets.

Rule five
A single contact sheet or yellow box can contain many stories or several versions of the same story, and here is the photographer’s main chance to do good work. No story is complete until it is edited and the photographer really stamps his or her character on a piece while working on the lightbox. Editing is often regarded as a process of eliminating (knocking out the bad pictures), but good editing is a process of building, with every reduction adding strength to the remaining pictures. Furthermore, some picture editors invariably select the worst photos and it is a good idea to avoid misrepresentation by making a tight selection.

Rule six
The principle is simple: pick up the phone and tell someone about the pictures. However, the reality is more complex, and it is worth considering that the telephone is the worst possible vehicle for conveying the visual impact of a photograph or photo story. Add to this the fact that you only have a few seconds to engage the interest of a busy picture editor about a story that may have taken weeks to compile and the problem becomes clear. Use every possible tool at your disposal: flattery, office politics, name dropping, stereotype summaries, and even a passing reference to the journalistic content of the work.

Rule seven
It is a sad fact that within the economic hierarchy of photography the freelance photojournalist comes close to the bottom (only slightly above the starving artist). Editors are all trained in word skills but are never recruited for their visual literacy, and photojournalism becomes lower than graphics in their understanding of how to make a page look good – photographs are used to illustrate text or to decorate a layout, but are rarely used to inform. At best a photo story might hope to provide a little colour between the more serious sections on shopping and celebrity profiles.

Rule eight
If the measure of success is the size of the bank balance then these rules are golden, but if the aspiration is to create significant work it becomes necessary to bend the rules. The greatest work is the product of personal motivation, often contradicting the direction of the current news agenda. There are many examples of photographers actually forcing the direction of the news agenda by the strength of their work and convictions. The great photographers are recognized by their personal vision, not by their ability to conform to a publication’s house-style. While it is always good to observe other photographers, do not copy them directly – absorb what is best and learn from their strengths.

As with any discipline, there is no purpose in producing work that is avant-garde to the extent that it is off the edge of the map. If no one can recognize what a picture means it has failed as a tool of communication; and if a project cannot be used by a magazine or a newspaper then it is necessary to take it somewhere else. As photographers we cannot change the system though we can occasionally hope to bend it to serve a serious purpose. Sometimes the most creative act is to mould ideological conviction into a commercial format.

It is always necessary to recognize the system within which we operate. The bottom line is that photojournalism does not sell advertising space, but with imagination and a bit of luck we can sometimes use advertisers to support photojournalism.

Stephen Mayes was Managing Editor of Network Photographers at the time of writing