by Christopher Whittle, Co-Founder of Atlantic Images
A Jerry Maguire-esque Mission Statement
*Warning long read
**All views are my own
Welcome to an inside look at the current state of the photo industry. Just how have we got here?
Starting in 1993, I’ve gone from a work experience runner to staff photographer and from a freelance photographer to now photo agency owner. Having listened to news editors, journalists, photographers, picture editors, video editors, operation managers, sales agents, content creators, and managing directors, I’ve been able to stand back and observe what’s happened to me and many others in the industry. Now with the Coronavirus pandemic affecting everyone around the world and causing huge uncertainty, the problems over the last ten years in particular are more relevant than ever before.
This article has been twenty-five years in the making. We’ve obviously come a long way from developing film, scanning in 36 frames and ISDN-ing a few of them across to picture desks. But when a professional photographer is told to use their iPhone for a Guardian  travel piece because it’ll be much quicker than using professional gear, then you know things are on the move. Maybe I’d better get onboard before I’m left behind.
To give some context to why I am writing this piece, you might want to know a bit about my background (if you don’t, skip to the end!). I’ve personally not seen anything from any other colleague or industry insider that is telling it as it is. This is a timeline of events, following the rise of technology, fall of sales, and why my company, Atlantic Images, has decided to give all our pictures away for free.
My dad, Brian Whittle, founded and ran Cavendish Press, an independent news and picture agency started in Worsley, Manchester in 1979. I grew up with all the newspapers piled up on the kitchen table every morning. Known even professionally as “Big Bri”, he was well known on Fleet Street in the late 60’s and 70’s. Big Bri worked on The Daily Sketch before it merged with The Daily Mail, The Sunday People, and was the showbiz editor of The Daily Star. Before he interviewed Dolly Parton in 1983, my mum’s famous words were, “Don’t embarrass the family”. The story ended up on the front cover with a double page spread! He then became a world correspondent for the National Enquirer, one of the biggest selling tabloids in the United States. After settling down in Manchester with three boys, he started Cavendish Press with just a telephone on the window-sill of our house on “Cavendish” Road.
My dad, Brian Whittle, with his notebook covering a story about The Bridge On The River Kwai in September 1979 for The National Enquirer, and Dolly Parton sat on his knee as the Showbiz Editor for the Daily Star in March, 1983.
Cavendish Press grew quickly, setting up an office in Parsonage Chambers, then on Whitworth Street West before settling on Bloom Street in Manchester in the 90s. One of Brian’s major scoops came in 1998. Before Harold Shipman was arrested in Hyde for mass murder, Brian had suspected the doctor of some serious wrongdoing after reports in local newspapers. Big Bri mobilised the entire Cavendish office to investigate. His photographer took the definitive and haunting picture of Harold Shipman still used to this day. Brian went on to use the image for the front cover of his book, Prescription for Murder: The True Story of Dr. Harold Frederick Shipman  which he co-wrote with Jean Richie for Time Warner’s Little, Brown and Company. Brian was often asked to appear as an expert on the BBC, NBC and CNN broadcasters to name a few.
Watching Cavendish first hand had a huge impact. I saw the leadership, determination, and hard work that goes into breaking a story worldwide.
A top-ten Times best-seller, Harold Shipman Prescription for Murder was written by Brian Whittle and Jean Richie after Big Bri sent the Cavendish Press team to cover Harold Shipman before he was even suspected of killing hundreds of patients in Hyde, England in the 1990s.
On weekends, I would clean the office for a fiver. One Saturday I spotted Robbie Coltrane out of the window shooting Cracker (1995). I phoned Big Bri and he immediately sent his photographers. Too late. I was instructed to use a camera in the office and lean out of the window. It had never crossed my mind that I would become a professional photographer, but that day I took my first candid shot. I went on to do work experience at Chris Johnson’s Mercury Press in 1996, studied photography at college and then at Nottingham Trent University. I had no idea at the time this was the very beginning of a huge digital shift in the photo industry.
But Big Bri was aware of this transition and invested in the first desktop G3 Apple Macs for the office and Nikon D1’s for the photographers. During a 2002 summer job, Big Bri insisted I “stop messing around working at the golf club and come and help us with these new computers”. Because Cavendish still had negative film SLR cameras (back then the digital cards could only snap a few pics) and I knew how to develop film, I was initially employed to scan in the negatives on the new Macs and ISDN the pics to all the national UK newspapers and magazines.
Me on the left scanning in some images on the picture desk in the Albert House, Bloom Street office wearing a Gazza World Cup 2002 face mask. Right, Brian Whittle, owner of Cavendish Press, in the old Whitworth Street West office sometime in the 1990s.
One day, after staff shortages in the photography department, a Nikon D1 camera body and lenses were placed in front of me at the scanning desk. I was now officially a trainee staff photographer at Cavendish Press, working under my Dad and news editor Jon Harris.
Cavendish did a lot of court reporting but suddenly there was a launch of new celebrity print magazines and newspaper supplements: OK! Hotstars, Heat Magazine, Closer and New Magazine to name a few. Piers Morgan was the Editor of the Daily Mirror at the time and launched a new Page 3. Instead of The Sun’s topless girls, Piers aimed to make his Page 3 more entertaining with picture-led celebrity stories. With this new approach, the Daily Mirror had a new budget, could spend big and was very successful.
Manchester was also becoming quite the celebrity city. Manchester United had David Beckham which meant Posh Spice was knocking around. Cristiano Ronaldo signed for United when I was there, and the MEN Arena was the opening venue for most European World Tours. Justin Timberlake, Prince, Beyonce, Kylie, The Rolling Stones and other big acts were consistently in town. Cold Feet could be seen filming around the city, as well as the ongoing British soap staple Coronation Street. Rather than covering news stories, I was suddenly sent on more celebrity assignments.
One day there wasn’t much going on in the office so I went “out and about” (without knowing this would later be a technique in Los Angeles called “Trawling”). This approach wasn’t really favoured by the office, but I stumbled into a film set in Castlefield. “Tricky Dicky” was trying to kill Audrey Roberts in a upcoming cliff-hanger in Coronation Street. I only snapped a dozen pics as SD cards were so limited. The price for the set was around £3000. Not a bad earner. It ended up on Page 3 of Piers Morgan’s new-styled Daily Mirror. The training was over and I could now be considered a professional photographer.
Left, one of my first big hits in the nationals on Piers Morgan’s new Page 3 in the Daily Mirror. On the right, Ronaldo signs for Manchester United. Cavendish were banned from all official Manchester United press conferences so I stood outside on my own while all the national press were inside. Then Ronaldo popped out the front door of Old Trafford and I snapped the first pic of him as a United player.
In the early 2000’s Manchester didn’t actually have that many snappers. This shortage meant you were more likely to get exclusives meaning higher rates for pics. Brian had been chatting to a former Cavendish reporter, Paul Tetley, who was working in New York for an agency called Splash News & Pictures. I had no idea who they were but was told to FTP any sets over to them that would be of interest in the USA.
In 2003, Jude Law was shooting the remake of Alfie in the Northern Quarter. I snapped a few pics on the film set and with some cropping I soon realised there was a good set of pictures there. It was also exclusive.
After sending out the pics round the UK publications I then FTP’d them to Splash. I didn’t think much else of it. The next day the Metro published the image on its front cover (picture below) with all the other tabloids running several images inside. All the mags used it the following week and I was called into the office. Big Bri wanted to see me. He said well done and I’d be getting a bonus that month. I was chuffed. In fact, the one thing Brian used to always do is say well done if you had done a good job. Unfortunately, being congratulated for your good work seems to be a thing of the past.
This picture of Jude Law on set of Alfie did extremely well for Cavendish Press and caught the attention of Splash News & Pictures who sold it in the States. It would lead to being offered a job in New York and then before you knew it eleven years in Los Angeles.
A few weeks later I answered the phone and it was Gary Morgan, one of the bosses at Splash looking to talk to Brian. He knew I had taken the Jude Law pics and apparently they had done well in the US. He joked I should be out there working for them. That stuck in my mind and I started to find out more about Splash. I mentioned this to Brian and he was fine with me making the next step forward. Cavendish has always been an agency to recruit new talent, train them and see them move on. Even though it was hard for my boss and Dad to see me go, he also wanted me to take on a new experience and I was given the green light. The next thing I knew I was being interviewed by Gary and the other owner, Kevin Smith, and was offered a job. It was November 2003 and I was to start in the new year.
At twenty-three years old I became a Splash staff photographer in New York. I was flown to Los Angeles for training. However, in March 2004 New York was hit by a huge snow storm and I was told to stay in sunny L.A. for a while. Eleven years, six apartments, hundreds of In&Outs, and Kings Head parties later, I was still in Los Angeles.
The setup at Splash was great. You got a staff wage but also 25% in commission from every sale. All equipment was provided as was a company SUV and health insurance. The first three years I travelled all over the States and the sales were through the roof. I helped open the Miami Bureau with Dave Leigh and we were featured in the UK’s Press Gazette  (below) after covering Hurricane Charley, the first week Splash Miami opened.
Myself and Dave Leigh covered Hurricane Charley in Florida, 2004. We were asked by the Splash bosses to pose for a picture so the Press Gazette could do a story on the new Splash Miami Bureau opening.
Splash and Cavendish were similar in many respects. The owners had British tabloid roots and operated accordingly. The company had a laugh and no one took themselves too seriously…so long as you got the job done. After three years I went freelance and a new bunch of younger snappers were given the staff jobs we vacated. My brother, Peter Whittle, was one of them.
This conveyor belt of talent was both a winner for Splash and Cavendish. Both companies were happy to train and support and see their staff to move on. Splash would let freelancers keep the camera equipment and even put you on a higher commission of 60%. This policy was a great incentive to keep freelancers putting their content through Splash. It worked. From 2007 to 2011, things were on the up as were as our incomes.
Like Cavendish, Splash also pushed technology. In 2007 I helped test the first online uploader which ended up revolutionising the industry. Instead of emailing contact sheets and using FTP, now all high-res images were uploaded to the Splash system for clients to view, download, and use within minutes. Eventually, nearly every celebrity photo agency in the world followed in Splash’s footsteps.
Splash were the big players in celebrity photos and video during the late 2000’s. Some sales figures were crazy. Reuters  even covered the half a million dollar sale of the video of Anna Nicole Smith being carried out on a stretcher. Splash started selling to fashion brands with one of my non-exclusive pictures of Jared Leto selling for $12,000 to Kangol. A fellow photographer and I randomly snapped Nick Lachey wandering out of a music studio. It turned out he was divorcing Jessica Simpson that very day. The pics made over $120,000.
My Sets Left to Right: The first pics of Adrian Chiles and Catherine Tate, Nick Lacey divorces Jessica Simpson and German/Italian actress Michelle Hunziker filming a Baywatch scene on a beach in Los Angeles. Combined, these three sets totaled around a quarter of a million dollars in sales.
There was a downside during this period. At the “Farewell to Ancoats Street” party in Manchester, which marked the final departure of the Daily Express, Sunday Express and the Daily Star from Manchester, Big Bri also made his own departure. Brian Whittle’s obituary in The Guardian  newspaper can be read here. Cavendish Press continues to be owned and operated under Jon Harris.
In July 2011 Splash was acquired by Bill Gates’ Corbis Images. Adweek even stated “Bill Gates now owns a piece of Angelina Jolie”.  The billionaire had created Corbis in 1989 and the sale was pretty exciting. Most photographers thought it would open lots of doors for us: accreditation for all the events Splash were turned down for/banned from, thousands of more customers and tons more day rates. In fact, for the first year it was business as usual. The Splash office stayed on Abbot Kinney, a celeb hotspot in Venice Beach. With tips coming in everyday from people in the office, it always made sense to have an office where the celebrities frequented. It certainly helped when Prince Harry walked into Gjelina restaurant days after stripping off in Las Vegas. An office member saw him and six figure sums were made from that simple spot.
After a year or so came the changes. Splash was moved to a corporate building off the 405 freeway. This meant no more tips on Abbot Kinney. Lots of people left, including most of the sales team that had been selling our pics for over a decade. They brought in a directive for staff photographers to take a minimum of 30 sets a month and restricted any expenses on away jobs. Not good for the guys in Miami flying to the islands. For freelancers most of this didn’t matter, but for staffers the restrictions were difficult. It was hard to work for several days on a decent story that would make proper money. They now had to submit a set every day. Many experienced staff photographers left and no one asked why. At one point Splash had some of the best celebrity photographers in the world under their roof making millions. They were never replaced.
Then came the dreaded subscription deals. For those who don’t know what they are – it’s where a publication pays a set amount per month or year for access to mainly non-exclusive material. This started out for just website usage but then extended into print. It wasn’t just Splash who were doing this. It became commonplace amongst nearly all photo agencies. However, any photographer who’s good at editing will know you can turn any set of non-exclusives into a decent set of images. Before subscription deals, I shot Audrina Patridge on Santa Monica Beach. I decided not to send my images out immediately despite other photographers’ pics being rushed out and appearing on the MailOnline immediately. I went home and edited them meticulously. Splash sold my non-exclusive pics for $16,000.
Turning non-exclusives into worthwhile sets and sales was a skill that many of the trained and experienced photographers had at Splash. These types of non-exclusive sales are now nearly non-existent. The content management systems are all automated and any publisher can simply grab the high-res non-exclusive pics and publish them within minutes. The subscription deals were not pretty reading when your sales reports were emailed to you. I’m not sure agencies really understand that a photographer doesn’t want to see all these tiny sales.
Then there are foreign sales agents. A photographer has no idea what percentage the foreign agent takes before they get their cut, and quite often all we saw on our sales sheets were low numbers. In South America there weren’t any sales as we were told the publishers would just get all the un-watermarked images from other websites and wait for the takedown notice.
An Exclusive set I shot of Big Little Lies star Shailene Woodley and Divergent co-star Theo James. Despite being told these sorts of sales will add up, they didn’t. There just aren’t enough clients for this to happen and as a photographer I just didn’t see the point in letting content sell for so little.
It was clear there was only a limited number of core customers. We saw the same publisher names on the sales sheets. We thought a big corporate company like Corbis would bring in thousands of new customers. It just didn’t happen. We were making the same sales to the same publishers, but with lower and lower rates.
As more websites used our images, came the question of re-licensing fees. The music and film industries seem to abide by this model. For some reason agencies let website clients almost have a “lifetime license” on publishing our images. For some reason they seem to be able to publish our images on their website forever. As far as any terms and conditions state to a freelance contributor, there is usually a two-year license to that agency to sell their pics. So why aren’t there any repeat fees after two years? Ten years later our images are still on hundreds of major websites with no additional payment to the photographer. The main answer is they don’t want to upset their clients. This baffles me, and another indicator that something had to change.
At the same time as the Corbis takeover in 2011 it can’t be downplayed that the game was changing online. We all know the story. Technology was dramatically improving and eventually celebrities would let you into their world without you having to buy a magazine or a newspaper. From the late 2000s, websites became more and more important to publishers. In a blink of an eye, every website had a subscription deal and our pics were being sold for pennies. When websites first started to use our content, it was £50 per picture.
Then came camera technology. Professional cameras became much better; larger digital cards, better ISO, video features, plus they were much cheaper to buy. “Mobile” phones became “Smart” phones. This saw a huge rise in the number of photographers out there on the streets snapping the same celebrity content and creating mass competition.
Then Social Media appeared. Now consumers don’t need to wait for a magazine to see pics of their fave celebrity. If the websites haven’t already published the images, they can get behind-the-scenes images and video from the celebrity themselves. The rise of social media gave celebs the chance to take back a bit of control with how the public perceives them. It’s also free. One sales exec showed me some UK magazine covers around 2016. All of them had Instagram images on the front cover. This costs the publishers absolutely nothing and is what the sales teams were, and still are, up against. Never before have fans or the general public had so much free access to a person, brand, company, movie, project, or news story.
In one instance, a colleague was asked to do a travel feature for The Guardian  website around Florida. They asked him how long it would take to send the images. He said probably an hour or two depending on the shoot and wifi connection. Too long. They asked him what phone he had and was asked to do the whole shoot on his iPhone. He didn’t use his professional equipment once.
This clearly was, and still is, a tough time for photo agencies. How does any media agency adapt to the digital revolution? That was on my mind when I decided to do something about it. The companies I’d been with were doing nothing to fill me with any confidence. In my twenty-five years or so of being in the industry I was able to see from first hand experience the highs and lows of being a photographer trying to make a living and what the digital age has done to our industry.
In 2015, I left Los Angeles for London and creating my own bespoke media company, Atlantic Images.  To be honest, I didn’t know where it would take me, or how I would actually change anything. We had no set plans, but with other like-minded photographers and colleagues, we started to discuss trying to do something different.
At first we did follow the standard model: direct sales via a content management system, distribution to all the main publishers in the world. We tried to address the low fees by ruling out subscription deals and wanted print fees and web fees to be separate. Not just all bundled together in one low price. It was extremely hard work and unrewarding. We were mostly given rate cards by publishers and found that most prices are non-negotiable, even exclusives like the ones below. It was pretty shocking first hand. Web usage was more or less thrown in as a given. We soon discovered we were a tiny fish in an ocean and maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
Left to Right: We were given a low set price for the front cover of Star Magazine and the price for our Exclusive pics of Christian Bale dressed as a Gorilla on the MailOnline did not fill us with any optimism. We then decided not to give any web rights to any outlet to our Exclusive pics of Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry and saw our new website Celebrity WotNot gain some great traction.
I’m told 90% of all agency content doesn’t ever get sold. There’s just too much content being uploaded. Picture desks are overwhelmed. Then there’s the fact nearly all agency uploaders are closed off behind a username and password to the general public. It’s a B2B model. Agencies have a small number of key clients. This was clearly evident on my sales sheets, as mentioned earlier, with the same publishers popping up over and over again. Outstanding pics will always do well, but what about ALL the other pics that are still high quality content? If only a limited number of clients can see what images or video we have, what chance do we have in getting them used? Not much.
We wanted a platform that distributed to all the major clients, but also be open to new clients, customers, and the general public. Not too dissimilar to Getty Images and Shutterstock. The problem was they look too much like a B2B platform. We needed something that appealed to everyone, whatever their needs were.
We decided that there were three categories that our pictures could be split into: Celebrity, animals, and general stock content. We decided these categories needed to be separate from the business-sounding “Atlantic Images Ltd” and given their own identity. After many meetings we finally decided on the name Celebrity WotNot to host all our celebrity content. Then came the big task of creating the look, logos, banners, organising content, sorting social media channels, creating workflows, tackling all the new technical jargon and generally learning by error.
While we created Celebrity WotNot, we were still trying to sell our celebrity content directly to the major publishers. But if nothing sold we were now able to put any unused or unsold images or video onto our Celebrity WotNot website and channels. In 2016 we covered the Will & Kate’s Royals visit to Canada. We shot a lot of video, but were told by many newspapers that they had their own teams out there and didn’t need our content. The video below earned £0 with traditional publishers and broadcasters. We uploaded it to our Celebrity WotNot YouTube channel and it now has over 4.3 million views. Obviously we are by no means the first company to use YouTube, but it’s created revenue we couldn’t generate down the traditional avenues. Not all videos do as well as this, but it was a sign that at least we were doing something right with our Celebrity WotNot brand.
With 4.3 million views and counting our video footage of the Royals Trip to Canada made us more revenue than any content we submitted to traditional publishers.
In 2017 we ditched the traditional agency model. We ditched sales and stopped distributing any content to sell to publishers. There were two main factors. One was the simple fact that the numbers didn’t add up. Despite producing great content and exclusives it was almost impossible to break even. The high percentages for photographers didn’t match the low rates of sales dedicated to us. We still wonder how other agencies are continuing in this model? Then there was the simple fact that no one at Atlantic Images was actually enjoying working in traditional sales. We love creating content, editing the images and video to stand out and seeing it used. We were doing less and less of this, and in mid-2017 we decided to concentrate 100% on our online brands.
We are not the first photo agency to go along the online route, but being able to publish any content we create across our own websites and online platforms has given everyone a boost both financially and personally.
Our Superhero footage from the Marvel, DC, and CW TV shows is another good example of using our content down new avenues. Despite the huge following worldwide it seems newspapers and magazines are just not that interested. Below are four superhero videos on our Celebrity WotNot YouTube channels that have over 2 million views. Finding this new fan forum market is something we were crying out for working for other photo agencies. It’s not just the new stuff. Being able to re-use and monetise archival content is hugely rewarding. Our hard work over the past fifteen years is paying off…again.
Supergirl and The Flash are two hugely popular CW TV shows which are getting some great views on our Celebrity WotNot YouTube channel despite not much interest when trying to sell to publishers. Fandoms are also a great new avenue for exposure.
We’re also looking towards more digital-based companies for inspiration rather than traditional photo agencies. One company, for example, is Barcroft Media / Studios which was recently acquired for £23.5 million by a publishing and digital media group called Future.  It’s early days for us, but having production companies like the Discovery Channel and Métropole Television in France use our content after seeing it online, is a good sign.
It’s not all rosy. By putting our content online we opened ourselves up to an gigantic entity that we’ve never had to deal with directly ourselves. Copyright infringement. This would end up being an issue that would define our business and put us in a completely opposite direction to nearly any other company out there.
Taping TV shows on to VHS, making cassette mix-tapes off Radio One or using Limewire to watch movies. If you’re from a certain generation these things seemed pretty harmless. Now, music and movies are heavily protected and the majority of people (mostly) abide by the rules. Streaming has made it easier and cheaper to download your favourite songs or shows without using a pirated copy. The artists and companies creating the content are making a fortune. What we found out very quickly, is that our images are not very well protected online. When we posted anything on the internet it is copied, downloaded and used without our permission, every single hour, every single day. In fact, we asked a number of our photography colleagues what their biggest problem is at the moment and the answer was clear: Having their content used without permission.
The big tech companies help protect music and video content, but when it comes to photographs, it seems anyone is allowed to download and publish whatever pics they want, whether they own them or not. YouTube actually has a pretty good system called “Content I.D”. This helps the copyright owner of the video identify any other usage and also lets you take over monetisation.
Outside of YouTube, we soon found that the only way to get our content removed was to either issue a cease and desist email, or takedown notice. But then on social media you often need to fill out a copyright infringement form. If you take Instagram as an example, it takes me about ten minutes to fill out the Instagram “Copyright Report Form”  from start to finish. By the time I’ve completed one take down notice, another 10, 20 or 100 infringements have occurred in that time. It’s a complete waste of time and effort.
We also discovered that most of the non-permitted uses are just normal people, kids and fan accounts that have no idea of copyright infringement. They aren’t out to make money from the images or video and are usually more than happy to take the content down. However, some of these fan accounts have millions of followers and they do make money from merchandise. Often we have tried to reach out and be friendly but have been subjected to abuse. For anyone else who’s in charge of requesting content to be removed, they will have also experienced the backlash from the person or account that is stealing the content. The abuse we have had aimed at us for simply asking accounts to either take down our copyrighted content, pay for the usage or just credit us, has been offensive and bordering on criminal.
This seemed a losing battle until quite a few “Image Tracking” companies contacted us. They have developed systems for ID’ing any of our digital assets with improper use and get them taken down. If they then saw big companies using them without permission, they would start legal proceedings. This came at a cost. One quote was $25.00 per Instagram take down. We worked it out. If we did just 10 Instagram take downs, it would cost $250 a day, $91,250 a year…for just ONE social media account and without them ALL being taken down! I mean, should I be billing Instagram these charges? Good luck with that I told myself.
Several photo agencies have gone down this route and employed third party tracking companies to chase any use of their content without permission. Having discussed this at length we just don’t want to be tied up in legal proceedings all around the world. We were only just starting out and needed to concentrate on developing our brands. To do this we need to be on the fans side. They would be the one’s visiting our websites.
Then came a surprising and controversial issue of copyright infringement. Celebrities themselves using our images without permission. They would take them from popular websites (who were actually paying for the content) and using them for free. I guess they think if a publication can use their Instagram pics for free then why can’t they use pics of themselves from these same websites? We kind of see where they are coming from. However, copyright law is a grey area and not only can it change from country to country but in the U.S, from state to state. Below are four fairly recent examples of celebs using our images without permission or payment. They include NBA star LeBron James, actor Orlando Bloom, actress Melissa Benoist and actor Grant Gustin. All of these non permitted usages were on Instagram with a combined following of 73.8 million people.
Left to Right: LeBron James used our image of himself and his wife at the Floyd Mayweather Jr Vs Conor McGregor Fight in Las Vegas, while Grant Gustin AKA The Flash used our image of him hugging Stephen Amell AKA The Green Arrow on set in Vancouver, Canada. No one sought permission but they have nearly 2 million likes so at least people like our images!
At the same time as our images being used by celebrities, we read about several instances of photo agencies trying to sue certain superstars for using their pics without permission. Kim Kardashian, Odell Beckham Jr, Jessica Simpson and Gigi Hadid are just a handful of celebs who were sued by agencies. There’s a good article about this on The Hollywood Reporter  which has all sides of the argument detailing the complexities. They also mention Inkifi  a website that calculates the cost of a paid post for celebrity/influencers: $5.70 per 1000 followers. If you loosely go by that metric, that means we are owed somewhere in the region of (73,800,000 / 1000 X 5.70) $420,660. Nearly half a million dollars.
Left to Right: Even Katy Perry thought our image was pretty funny commenting “meme-able” on her husband Orlando Bloom’s Instagram account. Melissa Benoist AKA Supergirl could have used the official on-set photographer’s pics to announce filming had begun for a new season but used our image without permission or credit. We’re still glad they chose our great pics though!
We had several choices. Pursue the legal route, reach out to credit us, or just leave it and try to move on. As mentioned above, there are a whole host of daunting factors trying to go up against a celebrity with deep pockets. Plus, like with the fans, we wanted to build our celebrity brand in a positive way rather than aggressively pursue the celebs we are writing about.
After we politely got in touch with NBA star LeBron James, he actually changed the caption on his Instagram post to credit us “photo c/o @celebritywotnot” – Thanks King James!
We decided to reach out to LeBron James, Orlando Bloom, Melissa Benoist and Grant Gustin. Easier said than done. But to be fair, with 60.1 million followers, LeBron James (or his social media team) were more than happy to credit us and went back adding our brand @celebritywotnot to the post above. For us this was a great step forward. We’re still waiting to hear back from Orlando Bloom, Melissa Benoist, Grant Gustin, and many others!
There’s also the ever-evolving legal side of snapping celebrities without their permission, especially in the UK. I once ended up having a chat with Justin Timberlake (below) about the dangers of photographers chasing after himself and then fiancée Jessica Biel. He was concerned and rightly so. We brainstormed what we can do to stop it. As for why he was driving a VW Jetta – that’s another story!
Justin Timberlake stopped for a chat after I’d taken these Exclusive pics on the right. He was very friendly and relaxed but wanted to talk about the dangers celebrities faced with being followed and snapping children. He’s not wrong and my company Atlantic Images are now going down a more celeb-friendly avenue.
This is why another decision we have made is to not use any unauthorised images of celebrities’ children on our websites. The only time you will see any pictures of children on Celebrity WotNot is when the parents have consented to having their children photographed and published. Working with celebrities has brought huge success to agencies over the years and now it is much more prevalent with all the laws and regulations.
After deciding to go down the more fan/celebrity-friendly route we started uploading our archives. We created a gallery area called “CelebritySessed” which offers our images for free personal, editorial or education use. We simply ask users to credit us. That’s it.
Our Celebrity wotNot Gallery Website “CelebritySessed” where we are letting blogs, publications, websites and social media accounts use any of these images for FREE.
With links being the online currency to a successful website, we realised working with the fans was key. We soon discovered that we were weirdly on the same page as Kim and Khloe Kardashian. In 2018, after responding to fans on her Twitter account Khloe Kardashian  was asked:
“@khloekardashian are you going to post photos of your Versace look?”
Two days later Kim Kardashian  posted:
An article on BBC News even tackled the Kardashian tweets in a news story titled “Why celebrities are being sued over images of themselves”.  We understand both sides of the argument. We know exactly why a photographer would want to sue someone for using their image without permission or payment. We also now understand the frustration regarding the fan accounts being shut down. But it was Kim Kardashian’s tweet about starting her own celebrity picture agency to help fans that made us think; funny, that’s what we’ve actually done.
By creating a positive website, all followers of celebrities, movies, music or TV shows can go to our websites and use any of the pics for free. We have removed the fear of fan websites or accounts getting shut down, posts being removed, or of legal action. We obviously realise there are plenty of other successful stock sites such as Canva, Pixabay, and Unsplash that give away images for free. But on closer inspection, all these companies have very little in terms of celebrity content. Just search “Jennifer Aniston” on any of these three sites and they have zero images.
After starting this free picture give-away journey from a very different position than that of the Kardashians, we’ve arrived at the same destination: Free celebrity images available on a large scale. This gives us the opportunity for millions of people to see our images that had previously been behind a client-only wall accessed by very few clients. Millions of pics that have never seen the light of day can start to generate new avenues of exposure, and revenue.
Some might say this is careless or naive, but to be honest we have nothing to lose. If we continue to upload content to other agencies they can’t generate anywhere near the revenue we once earned. Plus, their archives get bigger and bigger until they are acquired by some industry giant. Having been through several acquisitions as a photographer, my compensation or split, even though my archives have gone to a new owner, has been $0.
With all this said, we realise that it’s going to be a while before photos are protected like iTunes music, YouTube videos or Netflix Films. Not so long ago Google added “Images may be subject to copyright” to their image search area. I’m sure the technology is there to protect photographers, but that’s about as far as it goes. Every photo has its own digital DNA, even if it’s slightly altered, cropped or flipped, and we have chatted to several people about using images with the same blockchain technology as digital currencies. However, being able to easily screenshot anything on a device makes the next steps forward to developing a worldwide photo-protection service extremely challenging. Then there’s compensation, which could be a billion dollar decision in the tech and media world.
I’m sure there are loads of positive developments going on but the general feeling amongst professional photographers isn’t a good one. Over the past five years I’ve seen lots of professionals give up completely and work in different industries altogether. Some photo agencies are sticking to the bread and butter, while others have quit completely, or are still trying to figure out the future.
Photo Archive News (PAN), a daily update on what’s going on in the photo industry, has published numerous articles on several agencies who have either closed their doors recently or merged with other media companies. Wemark “The Future of Stock Photography”, Lens Modern, Soevermedia, ReflexMedia, Pacific Coast News, INF, Digitalstock, Landov Photo Agency, Dollar Photo Club, and Image Brief have all closed in the last few years or been merged into other larger companies. ReflexMedia owner Michael Symanowski, who ran his media company for over 25 years, summed it up pretty well on PAN  explaining why they were closing their doors:
“All the big players collected smaller agencies and merged and this made it possible to offer their ‘content’ (nobody speaks about photos any longer, just content) for small fees, even for monthly flat rates and so on. As an old fashioned agent I have always set the focus on the photographers who supplied us with their work and I refused to give it away to the publishers for ridiculous fees.”
As for my former employers, Corbis sold Splash to Silverhub in 2016 only for it to be acquired by Flynet and RCapital in 2018 according to the UK Press Gazette.  My experiences (and views) at Splash are all pre-2016, but I actually hear quite good things about the new ownership.
It’s not just photo agencies, the large media companies are at a crossroads too. Even the BBC Newsroom announced this year that it is cutting 450 jobs with the director of BBC News, Fran Unsworth, stating “there has to be a move away from traditional broadcasting and towards digital”. One Reuters community article even explained “how complex and difficult it is to transition to digital monetisation”,  but then publications like the Guardian’s donate model  have seemed to turn this around and make a profit.
Even as I published this article two news stories cement the uncertainty of the media industry. The Australian Associated Press is set to close after 85 years with CEO Bruce Davidson stating “the business was no longer viable in the face of increasing free online content.”  and The Smithsonian, one of the world’s largest museums, has released 2.8 million images for the public domain under a creative commons zero license. 
One agency that has been listening to us is The MEGA Agency, who were formed in 2016 by several ex-Splash employees, including former president and founder, Kevin Smith. Chatting to MEGA we can see huge potential and are looking outside of the photo agency business for inspiration. Even Influencers are giving us insights into how they use and monetise content to huge success.
I started writing this article a year ago and even in that time much has changed. This is an uncertain time for any image or news company, massively exacerbated by the Coronavirus outbreak . The pandemic is having a huge impact on the media industry and it’s hard to predict what will happen. Internet usage has gone up by 20% to 40% in some countries according to Cloudflare  with breaking news via people’s devices more important than ever. Clearly online usage will continue to grow with emerging technologies so it seems more important than ever to position ourselves towards a completely digital business model.
Our aim to get ALL of our images online for the world to see is now a reality. We still have a long way to go to upload all our content but we’ve already had over 2 million views of our gallery website “CelebritySessed” and 40 million views on our CelebrityWotNot YouTube Channel. In fact, our 75,000+ subscribers has already taken over other major photo agencies channels who have been on YouTube for over ten years.
All that being said, I wish any company trying to do something different in this digital age all the best. I fully appreciate the hard work that goes into trying to run a successful photo agency, publication or media company. We have no idea where this will take us, but with a focus on trying to enjoy what we do for a living, we refuse to be left behind.
Co-Founder of Atlantic Images
If you would like to get in touch, find out more, or work with us, then please reach out to Atlantic Images on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or email me at: [email protected]
Article first published on 20th April 2020.
*Updated on 30th April 2020. I had originally written that several photo agencies had been reported as closing down on Photo Archive News. One agency, INF, had not closed down but merged with another company to create a new agency. I re-wrote the paragraph to clear this up.
*Updated on 4th June 2020. I included Parsonage Chambers as Cavendish Press’ first office. Also there was a typo. I wrote “ob” so I updated it to read “on”.
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