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Interview with Jonathan Worth

Jonathan Worth is a freelance photographer whose client list includes among others, the New York Times, Vogue and GQ. For the past two years he has taught a class on the BA photography degree course at Coventry University called Phonar that encourages photography students to use digital media to find and build audiences to allow them to make a living. The ethos of the course, which can be accessed online by non-attending students and observers, has drawn widespread attention and even been discussed in the European Parliament. Here he talks to Eleanor O’Kane about his revolutionary approach to training the next generation of photographers.

Eleanor: How did the Phonar course come about?
Jonathan: I’ve been teaching for two years, which is also how long the Phonar course has been running as a 10-week course within the BA photography degree. The photographer Jonathan Shaw is associate head of the media & communication department within the school of art & design at Coventry University. He had seen my work and wanted to develop a course which had, at its heart, the development of a sustainable practice. He didn’t want it to be a fashion or a documentary course, nor did he want it to be based purely in the arts or 100% commerce-oriented. The idea was to develop a photography course that would resolve the contradiction between art and commerce. That’s how we got started and every class I have written and taught for the past two years has tried to deal with the question, ‘What is a sustainable practice?’ in a different way.

Eleanor: Explain what you mean exactly by a sustainable practice.
Jonathan: I mean how do you get people to pay you to do what you want to do? So, as a photographer, how do you get someone to pay you to take pictures? That was a very simple thing when I trained to be a photographer. If someone wanted a picture to illustrate someone else’s text, then as long as I could go along and deliver that, it was fine. Now we are in a completely different world. There is an abundance of people who can make images; it’s not technically exclusive any more and you don’t need to go to college to learn how to use a camera. My nine-year-old has a camera and she knows how to use it, so the idea that you can train photographic suppliers is vaguely outmoded. I feel guilty as a lecturer training ‘photo suppliers’ knowing there are no jobs for them to go out and get.

Eleanor: How does the Phonar experience compare to your own experience of studying photography at university?
Jonathan: I left university 12 years ago and I didn’t go back and graduate. The day after I finished the course I moved to London and thought: “How on Earth am I going to do this? How will I make a career out of this?”

 Eleanor: Is that because you thought you hadn’t been taught to think commercially enough?
Jonathan: What does ‘commercial’ mean? It means you are a technician, but I had more than that, I had ideas, I wanted to work out how I could get people to pay me to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer. All the other courses I looked at then were either very arts based or very commercial and no one was thinking of the idea of resolving art and commerce. This idea of a sustainable practice has become quite trendy now, it crops up in a lot of places.

 Eleanor: On the Phonar course you espouse the idea of photographers allowing a certain amount of work to be freely distributed for little or no payment, yet the idea of the course is to train photography students to be capable of making a living. It seems paradoxical.
Jonathan: It is a paradox, isn’t it? The word ‘free’ is misleading and it’s the thing people get most pissed off about, especially photographers. Traditionally I priced my pictures according to pages, ie full page, half page, quarter page, and I still do that. If someone is going to charge somebody else to look at my images I expect to be cut into that deal. That hasn’t changed. However, if a blogger is using my images I can’t charge for pixels in the way I charge for pages, it just doesn’t work. Most of these bloggers are time-rich, cash-poor kids in their bedrooms who aren’t making any money out of using my image. Using a traditional copyright setup I would criminalise this use of my images, but what I have learned is that you can swim with this tide. Ironically I often only know if one of my images has been used by the rise in traffic to my website, although often the image isn’t credited so I don’t quite know how they find me. I’ll go back and as long as they aren’t charging anyone to look at the image, I’ll just ask them to put a credit on it. Usually they are just so relieved that you’re happy to let them use it.

Previously, when I went to these websites – usually fan sites of someone I’ve taken a portrait of, say actor Heath Ledger or singer Alicia Keys – I’d ask them to take it down unless they paid me and inevitably they would agree but, actually, what did it achieve? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to charge for bloggers using my pictures on their site, so I embrace that and look at the good side. It raises my profile and when this occurs I have to focus on giving people a way or level at which they can buy into my ‘product’.

 Eleanor: So you believe you actually can make money by giving things away for free?
Jonathan: Hah, yeah if you like. A very practical illustration of this was when I did portraits of [science fiction author] Cory Doctorow last year. I read that he had given away his book for free and yet the predicted income on the book he was just about to publish was £60,000 and I thought how the fuck does that work? My work goes out for free, the same as Cory’s, and I can’t do anything about it. How do I get the £60K? So I asked him and we tried to work out how it might work for a photographer. I have to stress that this isn’t a silver bullet but it applied to this way of working.
I took a picture of Cory and did 110 prints. Cory gave me copies of the manuscript and signed every one, 110 pages. We referred to this as ephemera, it’s something that happens very briefly as opposed to the infinitely reproduced digital object. I signed every print so we had 110 signed manuscript pages and 110 signed prints. The book was freely downloadable and I took a high-res version of the image and uploaded it to Flickr so you could download that too. Then we put the signed prints on sale, with the first in the series costing £125, and they went down in stages until the last 50 cost just £5 each. I put them on sale to see what would happen and the most expensive ones went immediately. There was a clamour for print one and the first 10 all went to the same buyer. All the cheaper ones sold out and there was a gap in the middle that remained unsold. I thought: “But all these people know they can download this image for free.”

Eleanor: So why were people willing to pay for something they could get for free?
Jonathan: They wanted the ephemera, they wanted something closer to the magic and that’s what they paid for. I was selling to people who were really into Cory Doctorow. At that time he had 30,000 followers on Twitter, now he’s got 60-odd thousand. The point being he had a community of followers, as did I, albeit a smaller one. They liked the pictures but they wanted Cory because they loved him.

Eleanor: How are other photographers using this theory?
Jonathan: I had a conversation with my friend [the New York based, British photographer] Steve Pyke about two years ago and he was talking about a book that he wanted to do. He had a great project on at that point and he said he wanted to get to a place where he could make it into a book. I asked him if he was ever contacted by people about his work and, obviously, he gets emails every day, so I suggested he give them a forum where they could get together and ask him questions. I told him if he allowed those people to follow him publicly, then he could design his own book, and print on demand so he wouldn’t have to worry about the costs of a large print run, or storing then or getting them into shops. For Steve, the first step was building a Twitter following so he could engage with his followers directly. [For more on Steve Pyke read our exclusive interview in last month’s issue.]

Eleanor: You have an impressive list of contributors from the world of professional photography. How did you get them involved in the course?
Jonathan: I had a hit list of people who are changing the world of photography and I rang them up and went to see them. They were interested because of the nature of the project, because of the other people in the group, and got very excited. Again I was putting a community together, one of passionate and committed people.

Eleanor: You’re seeing it from both sides, as you’re still working as a commercial photographer. Are you enjoying the experience?
Jonathan: Yes, this is only a visit to academia but I’ve been given a really long leash. My remit is provide an answer to the question, ‘what course would I want to do?’ I’m at the point in my career where I feel quite comfortable ringing up Simon Roberts or Steve Pyke and asking them to get involved in the course. These photographers come on their own terms and each class is the type of thing I’d love to do if I were the age of my students.

Eleanor: Twitter has become a major part of building your community.
Jonathan: Twitter is a brilliant research tool. It’s about tuning the network so you gradually flush out the people who are only tweeting about what they’ve had for breakfast. And that’s at the heart of Phonar, how do you become the reliable source?

Eleanor: Why is it vital to be the reliable source?
Jonathan: Because this is our currency, if you’re not a reliable witness, someone ultimately worth listening to, then how can you expect to command authority? How can you expect someone to believe your stuff is worth buying ?

Eleanor: Do you feel your students are well prepared to face the real world?
Jonathan: In lots of degree courses you go in, the door is closed behind you and you stay inside for three years. Then on graduation day they open the door and spit you out again. We don’t do that. The first year is an incubation year where the students are closed off. In the second year we introduce this idea to the students of a broader community and by the third year the students are engaging dynamically with the broader community.

Eleanor: So the real world is opened to your students rather than hitting them right at the end?
 Jonathan: Precisely. One of our students got an internship with Annie Leibovitz last year. Another has been nominated for a Luceo [student project] award – that is a year’s funding.

Eleanor: You teach that it is important to have context to your work.
Jonathan: Let’s take the stalwart cliché of an ‘interesting face’. The one I get shown most often is of a homeless person. That’s all well and good but anyone can work a camera, document someone and justify it as an ‘interesting face’, but let’s think beyond that. Let’s think about homelessness and its causes. It could be mental illness, family breakdown or financial reasons and each time you think about one of those issues you find a whole other bunch of people who populate the issues. Gradually you come to an understanding of what your subject might represent beyond being just an interesting face. If you do that, then next time you show me your portfolio you provide a story for the original picture and more importantly – with regard to this idea of the sustainable practice – you can tap into this community of context. An informed and substantial portrait of homelessness in your region would be a great project to take to all of those interested parties, the creative directors of the advertising agencies commissioned to represent the charities, for example.

Eleanor: But sometimes it seems that a background story caption can become more important than the image itself.
Jonathan: Well, then you need to tell the story with pictures rather than words, you need to create better pictures! You need to be informed to know what to point your camera at in order to best tell the story. Words can be handy for telling the story but they are tools in your tool bag, along with podcasts and moving images. You make a photograph and the photographic print is the pinnacle of that but that doesn’t work on an iPad and it doesn’t work as a podcast. So why not use a podcast to get other people interested in your work, people interested in buying a fine print? Why wouldn’t you do all these things when you can?

Eleanor: Is there a danger that all these tools can distract from the image?
Jonathan: People come to me and show me their pictures and start to tell me what their project is about. I stop them and say: “No, I’ll tell you what the story is about after looking at your images.” And if that doesn’t marry up with what you wanted to say, then go away and tell the story better. The extra bells and whistles aren’t crutches to carry a bad picture, they are tools for doing different aspects of the job.

Eleanor: The course has attracted quite a lot of attention.
Jonathan: I had a phone call out of the blue from the Royal Society of the Arts saying they’d like to make me a fellow. I thought, that’s great, I get access to the bar and restaurant! They are probably sick of me now. And shortly after that I got another call from someone saying the European Parliament was discussing a change in copyright legislation and was interested to hear what I had to say about it. They also wanted to talk about the Cory Doctorow project and how that worked. I told them all about it and put all the details online. I was quite honest about what I felt I hadn’t done well, and what I’d do differently next time. However, the bottom line was that two years previously I’d taken a picture of Cory Doctorow for Wired magazine; the resell on that image was about £200 in two or three years whereas with this project I made £2,000. So as a traditional supplier [photographer] I’d made £200, but as a publisher I’d made £2,000 and I’d given away the picture for free, apparently.

Eleanor: I suppose we’re talking about multi-layered projects. Photographers are starting to work to these principles already, making films etc.
Jonathan: Of course, I don’t think any of this is new, just that we now have different ways of distributing that make us more efficient with a bigger reach.

Eleanor: You’ve put most of Phonar’s content online too.
Jonathan: There’s very little I’ve held back. There’s nothing to stop people using the online material elsewhere but they can’t have me look through their portfolio, they can’t sit in a room with 10 other students and they can’t hang around with Simon Roberts. So you still have to pay for all that analogue stuff. The idea that we are giving our classes away for free is utterly terrifying for some. People think, “Well, students just won’t pay to go to uni” but within two years this course is the hardest to get into at the university. We only accept one in 10 of the students that we interview.

Eleanor: What’s been the response from the outside world?
Jonathan: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. All of a sudden the network started to tune and people started contributing ideas. Suddenly the course is full of the type of content that I would have loved to have followed.

Eleanor: The course content is constantly honed then?
Jonathan: It doesn’t stop and it’s getting better all the time. Once people have bought into it they want to see things through. Not many photography students will have Jon Levy, the director of [photography company] Foto8, reviewing your work and talking one-on-one with you.

Eleanor: Can this work across different genres of photography, such as fashion, where photographers are working in a traditional way?
Jonathan: Take the fashion example; let’s be realistic about it, I worked for iD magazine for years and they would only pay £150 a page. I was never a fashion photographer, I was a portrait photographer, so I was very often doing single-page pictures for £150 and it cost me more than that to do a shoot. I did keep the rights to my images so there was the resale factor but I keep the rights to my images now. If you do want to be a fashion photographer it’s likely you’re going to work for free for years before you get paid. Could it work for them? Well, the Cory Doctorow example won’t work, but yes, I can think of a bunch of ways one could tune that approach according to a person’s particular way of working – wasn’t this an agent’s role once upon a time? I imagine this is exactly what the good ones are doing now – hustling.

Eleanor: The Phonar course is coming to an end for this academic year so what’s next?
Jonathan: Now that they’ve followed this course, the students would normally be spending the next two terms preparing for their degree show but our guys, they could be talking about books, magazines, newspapers, viral strategies... hopefully something I haven’t even thought about.

For more on Phonar visit  http://phonar.covmedia.co.uk

To visit Jonathan Worth's website click here.

This interview appeared in the January 2011 issue.

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