Time For A Fresh start
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