Max Colson: Tales

Photojournalism MA student at the LCC

Some thoughts on iPad apps & coffee table audiences Pt.1

with 4 comments

If photojournalism is about getting people to care about the stuff that the photographer cares about then the  ideal is to make sure that as many people as possible see the photos isn’t it? The more people that see the photos, the more people who can be potentially effected, which results in a higher number of people caring (and hopefully doing whatever it is that needs to be done for the cause). This is the ideal but obviously in the real world people have things called budgets and you have to be more strategic & targeted about it.

Previously I guess that there were two main tactics in getting people to see photos, with photographers probably siding with the first because of the various barriers to distribution (do correct me if I’m wrong):

a) Getting a small group of people to understand the facts (more of a tactical approach i.e. using select locations & print titles)

b) Getting a large group of people to understand the facts (more of a broadcast approach i.e. using national newspapers, TV)

The approach that you took depended in part on funds available + what the project objectives were I guess, e.g. The Red Cross in the aftermath of an earthquake has completely different targets from a project by Martin Parr on arms fairs (no pun intended).

This is all fairly straightforward. At the root of it it’s all about making sure you are hitting as many of the right people within the budget that you have. Right?

In light of all of this it was interesting reading the interview that Chris Anderson (the Magnum photographer) gave in the British Journal of Photography, which included an exchange over his new iPad app and its price. In the interview the BJP asks rather incredulously, “Why $4.99 [for the app]?”. The photographer responds,

That seemed to be the threshold for my when I buy an app. I think it is underpriced in this case, but I did want to lean toward underpricing rather than overpricing. For me, above $5, for an app and I want it to serve me coffee in the morning.” (my bolds)

Before the digital copy publishers were able to say that it cost a fair bit to print photobooks on paper. Colour inks and nice paper are really hard to source and produce and stick together and all that. So they printed the photobooks, made them hardcover, and then wacked a nice £40 price tag on them. With the digital copy you obviously can’t really justify that kind of price tag. Which is nice for everyone who isn’t able to afford those nicely polished coffee tables to display the books on just as yet.

Whilst the traditional print industry (newspapers & magazines) gradually ceases to become the main source of funding for project documentary photography, another opportunity is opening. Anderson in the interview acknowledges that

“I imagine that the audience will be slightly different than book collectors. I do imagine photo students, for example, or this might even be a way to easily incorporate the book into an academic curriculum. I also think that the price might allow people with a passing curiosity in the subject matter…people who are not even photography fans…to purchase it.”

Whilst we haven’t reached the point where the mobile screen has become ubiquitous I would conservatively predict that a large percentage of us will have a mobile screen thing in 6/7ish years , or whenever the prices go down. NB – it’s worth pointing out here that Morgan Stanley’s tech guru Mary Meeker has predicted that sales of mobile devices will surpass that of the PC in 2013:

The potential of this kind of photo distribution is significant not only because of funding potential but because of audience size. ‘Normal’ people who don’t buy photo books will actually be a potential audience for project photography. And they will probably expect to download a photo project for about £3 whilst they wait for the bus to take them to work. Now I don’t know about you, but if the point of photojournalism is to get as many people to see the photos as possible that’s a light at the end of the tunnel which shines more brightly than someone’s nicely polished coffee table and a £40 price tag.


4 Responses

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  1. Fascinating post Max. I’m equally excited and fearful of this approach to “reaching audiences”. I think the cost-effectiveness and accessibility of apps is great – but as to the quality of presentation that can be achieved, I’m doubtful.
    Photographs on a mobile screen with reflections, “jolty movements” when viewing on the move and flicking through with a mere swipe of the finger makes for a distracting and fleeting experience with the images/ issues/ discussion presented. That is to say, I think the level of engagement with the material is inferior to that of a book, in some respects.
    I actually think that viewing photographic projects in this way can diminish their impact significantly, even potentially trivialising the issue(s) somewhat, as a result of diluting the quality of the finished product.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s incredibly important to experiment with these new technologies and the access and audiences that can be reached are frighteningly exciting, but there needs to be a responsibility to the integrity of the work (on the part of the photographer, also a “project manager” of sorts, in this way) and a high degree of total control on the impact of the images and overall presentation.

    I think books still play a vital role in showing work and getting work seen, regardless of the relentless, technological march forwards. Books allow for contemplation, moderate-paced digestion and careful consideration of a project. For me at least, it is incredibly difficult to substitute the power and physicality that books possess. I still get excited about going home after buying a book and look forward to “diving in” to it as soon as I get in.
    There’s a nostalgic and magical quality to books that I guess is slowly (and very sadly) diminishing gradually, as the younger generations interactions with information becomes more and more exclusively digital. And it must be stopped! Not really. But you get the point 😉

    It is also interesting to note how digital formats cannot ever fully extricate themselves from emulating and mimicking the functions and quirks of books when “publishing” information. With online photographic projects/ portfolios and even online “magazines” in particular, a “virtual” page an image has become a common standard; as well as having each project packaged as if it were a book, complete with lone title page and introduction, etc.

    Sadly though, you are right when it comes to the price point of books. Thank heavens for things like amazon and ebay then I guess?

    What next?


    April 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm

  2. Cheers Dan for the great response, I didn’t think anyone was going to read this!

    I see where you’re coming from but I’m not sure that tablet devices like the iPad mean that people view things in a absent minded or fleeting fashion. There’s some interesting research on how people are using their iPads & how their media habits are really changing, ie they are spending huge amounts of time with their tablets. A recent Google study found that out of the respondents questioned:

    1. 43% of respondents spend more time with their tablet than with their desktop/laptop.

    2. One in three respondents spend more time with their tablet than they do watching TV.

    People read their newspapers on the device as well!

    Check this page for more stats on tablets –

    The user experience on a tablet seems to be a pretty immersive one. I think this bodes well for books on the device and how audiences engage with information on them. If people will spend a long time reading their newspaper on their iPad, I think that does suggest that they’ll be in the right frame of mind to engage with the narrative of a photo story in a considered fashion…

    The other thing is that Photobooks on iPads is that they don’t just have to be about a simple picture arrangement. They can use text, images & video. I think the potential of this is immense for all types of documentary photography. There’s a real opportunity to experiment & control how the images are engaged with here…

    And then there’s the price of these photo apps. They’re just not going to be as expensive as old photobooks. I think that above all is the game changer. I certainly would like more people to see the work I’ve done and I don’t think photobooks offer that potential whether I like the feel of paper or not sadly!

    Max Colson

    April 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    • Hey Max,

      Perfectly valid points. I agree that peoples experience with media tablets and smartphones can be immersive, but whether that’s a majority or not, it’s hard to say. I’m only saying from a personal perspective that interacting with a photographic project/ essay holds far less allure on a mobile device than it does in good “old photobook” format. The only advantage I can see with mobile devices is video content, which can bring a far richer experience in some ways, if presented well.

      As far as the stats go, the link also provides the following:

      •Almost one-third of iPad owners have never downloaded any apps for the device, a recently released study suggests.

      •iPad owners are best characterized as selfish elites. Wealthier, older and more educated, they are sophisticated, highly value power and achievement, and are not very kind or altruistic.

      It’s hard for me to say definitively that photo essays are “better” in book format (not that this is how I’d phrase it) than on multimedia tablets, because the truth is, I haven’t viewed anything on a multimedia tablet. But the difference between them is clear – books serve a function as just that, books. Multimedia tablets do MANY different things, so they are engaged with in a completely different way.

      Ultimately, I have an obviously romanticised view of books and believe they demand something “more” of the user, in a weird way. They ask more of the reader/ viewer in terms of engagement I think. Whereas media tablets package things neatly, make things easily digestible, quicker to consume.

      I appreciate the idea of getting things viewed by a potentially vast audience, but surely you would ultimately want the “message” to be communicated and received loud and clear at the same time?

      Hope this doesn’t seem like I’m being deliberately argumentative – I’m merely expressing opinion 😉

      Interesting debate though. More views required – come on everyone else!!


      April 11, 2011 at 12:29 am

  3. Nope for sure iPad audiences are currently rich types, but I don’t think it’s going to be like that in the future once prices for the tech have gone down…as for the 1/3 of iPad owners not downloading anything, that’s not great is it? I reckon that’ll change however…

    I think with all of this we’ll just have to see how it pans out in the future but it’s an interesting time to be in. A lot of things are changing…

    Max Colson

    April 11, 2011 at 8:57 am

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