Time For A Fresh start

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If you’re a mem­ber of the AIPP you’ll be well aware of the re­cent up­heavals which saw the ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion head­ing for fi­nan­cial col­lapse. If you aren’t a mem­ber then, in a nut­shell, the AIPP has re­cently been haem­or­rhag­ing both mem­bers and del­e­gates sign­ing up to events, re­sult­ing in a near-fa­tal loss of vi­tal in­come. What’s gone wrong? Be­fore we get to that, the back­ground is that the In­sti­tute is es­sen­tially run by a Board of Di­rec­tors (who are vol­un­teers, but un­der cor­po­rate law, are also, in le­gal terms, com­pany di­rec­tors) who then in­struct a Na­tional of­fice which is run by paid staff, headed by an ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer (ap­pointed, it should be noted, by the Board). The of­fice does all the cler­i­cal work (mem­ber­ship fees, etc., etc.) and im­ple­ments the wishes of the Board, al­though in prac­tice it’s of­ten been more of a col­lab­o­ra­tive re­la­tion­ship. In his­tor­i­cal terms, the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Pho­tog­ra­phy dates back to the late 1930s and the orig­i­nal In­sti­tute of Vic­to­rian Pho­tog­ra­phers (IVP) – or even ear­lier if you con­sider the first in­for­mal gath­er­ings of pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers – with a na­tional body com­ing into be­ing in 1963. Now, in what has to be a his­tor­i­cal oc­cur­rence, to avert dis­as­ter, the cur­rent Board has been dis­solved, the head of­fice closed down, the eo’s po­si­tion made re­dun­dant and ma­jor events – in­clud­ing the na­tional con­fer­ence – can­celled.

The one con­stant in pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phy has been change, gen­er­ally driven by tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances which in­evitably have a pro­found im­pact on other as­pects of the busi­ness. un­doubt­edly the most pro­found changes have taken place over the last two decades, a very real man­i­fes­ta­tion of the term ‘dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion’ if ever there was one. Right from the be­gin­ning, the AIPP’s main ob­jec­tive has been to as­sist its mem­bers op­er­ate more ef­fec­tively in an ever-chang­ing mar­ket­place by im­prov­ing their abil­i­ties as both pho­tog­ra­phers and busi­ness op­er­a­tors. This has been done mostly through con­ven­tions, work­shops, sem­i­nars, an ac­cred­i­ta­tion pro­gram and the an­nual Aus­tralian Pro­fes­sional Pho­tog­ra­phy Awards (APPAs), which em­ploys a points sys­tem so par­tic­i­pants can progress to higher lev­els of achieve­ment. The idea here is that po­ten­tial clients are as­sured of cer­tain lev­els of com­pe­tence and skills, but over re­cent years the APPAs have be­come rather more self-serv­ing than any­thing else – a means in it­self, rather than a means to an end – as, in re­al­ity, has the AIPP. Herein lie the seeds of the cur­rent prob­lems, as the AIPP has been in­creas­ingly per­ceived by many pho­tog­ra­phers as hav­ing lit­tle rel­e­vance to the very dif­fer­ent de­mands of be­ing a work­ing pho­tog­ra­pher in 2018. If it’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted that there are around 6000 pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers op­er­at­ing Aus­tralia (i.e. those who earn at least 50 per­cent or more of their in­come from pho­tog­ra­phy), then the AIPP – with around 2900 mem­bers at present – rep­re­sents less than half of them. It has never been very suc­cess­ful at at­tract­ing prac­ti­tion­ers from, for ex­am­ple, the ar­eas of fash­ion, news-gath­er­ing, pho­to­jour­nal­ism and doc­u­men­tary, sports, sci­en­tific and med­i­cal, fine-art and ed­i­to­rial. This is not to say that there haven’t been se­ri­ous at­tempts to at­tract these spe­cial­ist pho­tog­ra­phers in the past, but al­ways at is­sue has been rel­e­vance – which, in turn, goes to the very heart of the In­sti­tute’s func­tion, which fun­da­men­tally hasn’t re­ally changed much since the 1960s. In con­trast, the prac­tice of pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phy has com­pre­hen­sively changed out of all recog­ni­tion… tech­nolo­gies, ed­u­ca­tion, mar­kets, clients, bud­gets, ser­vices, prod­ucts, pro­mo­tions, ad­ver­tis­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

When in­ter­nal con­flicts and dis­agree­ments es­ca­late – in truth, a not un­com­mon oc­cur­rence – they fur­ther high­light the ques­tion of rel­e­vance, es­pe­cially when pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers are fac­ing more chal­lenges than per­haps ever be­fore. Hav­ing been in­volved in this mag­a­zine since the late 1980s, my ob­ser­va­tion of the AIPP over the decades since is that it has al­ways been too in­ward-look­ing – which, of course, is not en­tirely un­avoid­able with a pro­fes­sional body – but when it’s more about “the In­sti­tute” than the needs of its mem­bers, let alone the po­ten­tial re­quire­ments of would-be mem­bers, then there’s a big prob­lem in­deed.

In­dus­try stal­wart John Swain­ston – who is one of four mem­bers of the ‘old’ AIPP board co-opted to stay on to run things un­til new elec­tions can be held – says, “Cul­tur­ally, some­thing had to change. We had lost touch with our roots. We need to re­fo­cus on the needs of mem­bers and add more value to mem­ber­ship”. He em­pha­sises that the cur­rent cri­sis – much mag­ni­fied thanks to the rip­ple ef­fects of so­cial me­dia – is the re­sult “… of a se­quence of events rather than a sin­gle episode” and he ex­presses con­fi­dence in the fu­ture, not­ing that the de­ci­sion to es­sen­tially start all over again with clean sheet is al­ready hav­ing pos­i­tive re­sults. “Peo­ple who have been dis­en­gaged in the past have re-emerged and re­ally now want to be in­volved… so I’m op­ti­mistic, I re­ally am.”

What­ever hap­pens, it can’t go back to be­ing the same old AIPP. ev­ery­thing must be rethought, reap­praised and re­con­sid­ered in the light of to­day’s re­al­i­ties for work­ing pho­tog­ra­phers. The op­por­tu­nity for a to­tally fresh start is too good to be squan­dered… longer-term sur­vival de­pends on it and a stronger, more co­he­sive in­dus­try is the po­ten­tial out­come.

Paul Bur­rows, Ed­i­tor

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