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Stiffed By Staffs: It's Bubble Gum Nation

Education is a good thing, of that we have no doubt. Broadens the mind, and in the case of a good university education, can set one on the path to a glittering career. Sadly, professional photographers are often critical of the standards – especially the business standards – set by UK universities when it comes to the teaching of photography. So it’s heartening this week to learn of an award-winning university-funded scheme that seems set to teach photography students some business realities.

Education is a good thing, of that we have no doubt. Broadens the mind, and in the case of a good university education, can set one on the path to a glittering career. Sadly, professional photographers are often critical of the standards – especially the business standards – set by UK universities when it comes to the teaching of photography. So it’s heartening this week to learn of a university-funded scheme that seems set to teach photography students some business realities.

Jane Louise Green certainly understands the value of a good education. For after over twenty years at the BBC, Jane returned to college to, ahem, ‘study the internet’. We can already hear you sniggering at the back over the idea of needing to study something that every pre-teen in the country spends hours a day using. Whatever next? A three-year BA Honours course in walking and chewing gum at the same time?

But you are wrong to mock: Jane’s time was not wasted.

For during her studies at Staffordshire University Jane came up with a completely radical concept, a brainwave breathtaking in its originality, something that had never been attempted before: a scheme that we believe will change the face of the photo business forever. She would set up an online picture agency, with contributions from amateur photographers, and sell the images really cheaply.

Wow! We bet that blew your socks off. Why did nobody think of it before? Of course Jane did have an advantage: twenty years at the Beeb to spot this market niche, about which she observes ‘when I worked as a web producer for the BBC, myself and my colleagues had difficulty getting snaps to illustrate stories.’

Perhaps she should have taken advice from a colleague?

But Jane has higher ambitions than merely scamming freebies from Flickr. Picture Nation is touted as a full-blown image library, licensing photographs to paying customers, albeit customers paying as little as – wait for it, take a seat and reach for the smelling salts – 28 pence a time. ‘If Getty is the Harrods of image providers,’ she declares, ‘our business will be the Tesco’s equivalent.’

Now, Jane’s certainly the first person we’ve ever heard draw the Getty/Harrods comparison. The standard Getty analogy we hear time and again from both picture buyers and even Getty’s own photographers is Tesco, or even WalMart. But since Jane compares Picture Nation to Tesco, we thought we’d do the same: so we fired up the EPUK Porsche, revved out to the Consumer Paradise Mall, and went shopping. Our mission: to discover the true market value of a Picture Nation image in a Tesco-defined world.

It’s hard – believe us, really hard – to find anything at Tesco for 28 pence these days. We tried to cut Picture Nation a break and avoided the high-end stuff: instead we headed straight for the junk food aisle, but even there we were disappointed. The best we could manage was a packet of KP Discos Salt & Vinegar at 31 pence: tantalisingly close, but just out of our price range. Even Tesco’s own-brand Roasted Salted Peanuts clocked in at 39 pence. It’s true: Picture Nation’s images really do cost less than peanuts.

We’d just about given up and were slumping through the checkout with an empty basket when we finally saw it: Hubba Bubba Maximum Strawberry & Water Melon bubble gum, at 25 pence. So the approximate market value of a single Picture Nation image is the equivalent of one pack of Hubba Bubba gum: mind you, that’s a five-piece pack.

Of course even then it’s not a strictly fair comparison. Picture Nation’s images are Royalty Free, so your 28 pence buys you re-use indefinitely. You’d have to be very cheap indeed, not to mention pretty grungy, to re-use a single pack of Hubba Bubba for life.

The Photo Nation site itself is pretty much what you’d expect and what we’ve all seen before: perhaps Jane should have named it Deja View. Lots of use of the C-word [that’s ‘community’ to you], forums where contributors tie themselves in knots over the usual shibboleths like file sizes, sharpening and model releases, and the inevitable photographer profiles in which star contributors share their wisdom.

At least the latter are funny, albeit unintentionally. Like Troomp, who ‘hasn’t read any photography books in recent years’, but muses on how technology has made it much more difficult to be successful as a photographer. On total payments of 24 pence so far, it does seem that Troomp is lowering the success bar somewhat.

Or Paul Hebditch, who in his profile looks forward to ‘making millions’ but on the forums admits to clearing 36 pence to date: only £999,999.64 to go Paul.

As another contributor put it after four sales: ‘I got quite a shock when I looked at my sales report. Now what to spend my 32p on?’

All of which leads to a very obvious question. Given that Picture Nation themselves state on their forum that ‘Image libraries cost a fortune to build, run and market’, what kind of photo agency business model can survive on sales of 28 pence a time? Picture Nation’s maximum advertised price is £75 per image – which nobody appears to have achieved yet – and even at that any picture agency would need a pretty hefty sales turnover to pay the bills each month.

The answer is: a business model that relies on somebody else to pay the bills each month. Picture Nation is largely built on, as Jane herself has written, bursaries and grants, including £12,000 from Staffordshire University. She then managed to top these off by selling shares in Picture Nation to – you guessed – Staffordshire University – in return for ‘large premises and staff’.

Jane was short-listed for the Enterprising Spirit Award at the Lord Stafford Awards last week for her work at Picture Nation, and His Lordship, coincidentally an Honorary Doctor at – go on, take a wild guess – Staffordshire University, describes Picture Nation as ‘an innovative and commercially viable business’. ‘Commercially viable’ is a very odd way to characterise a business that apparently cannot generate enough revenue to pay its contributors, staff and running costs without such extensive outside help. Perhaps the judges agreed, since in the end the award went elsewhere.

Despite this minor setback His Lordship keeps the faith: ‘Staffordshire University will also have a perfect online platform to promote and develop their thriving photographic department.’ Doubtless this will be interesting news for the students paying Staffordshire University between £3,000 and £8,650 per year to study photography there for three years: a total of up to £26,000, give or take a couple of hundred Photo Nation sales.

We constantly read of the problems graduates face paying off debts incurred as a result of tuition fees when they enter employment. So what chance do Staffordshire University’s photographic alumni have of ever recouping their tuition fees when their Alma Mater is investing in a business that will pay them a return of eight pence per image?

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