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Tokyo Photojournalist

by Ricardo Bilton

Journalists everywhere are facing the twin challenges of recession and rapidly changing technology. With his blog, Tokyo Photojournalist, Tony McNicol showcases his work as a Japan-based freelance journalist and discusses photojournalism in the age of Flickr and Twitter. In this interview with The Japan Times, McNicol talks about freelancing from Japan, the ease of photo theft on the Internet, and why anime legend Hayao Miyazaki would make a wonderful prime minister.

What came first for you — words or photos?

I started as a writer and I gradually began taking photos to accompany my articles. And now, I try to do illustrated articles but sometimes I only do writing and, now, sometimes, I only do photo jobs as well. So when I say photojournalist, I don’t mean just a photographer — I’m a journalist who also does photography.

As a photojournalist, what changes have you seen in the field over the past few years?

Journalism is going through a very difficult time now, but even before the recession, newspapers were under pressure from the Internet. In Tokyo, every year there are fewer correspondents. Newspapers don’t have money for Tokyo offices so they close their bureaus down and the journalists go to Beijing. So, in a sense, it’s tough. On the other hand, I’m freelance, so if some major newspaper or magazine closes their bureau, they still occasionally need articles from Tokyo. There is probably more freelance work now than before.

What inspired you to start Tokyo Photojournalist?

A lot of bloggers comment on stuff in the media or they write opinion pieces — and people are very good at doing that. But I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to write original stuff. So I blog — when I have something and when I have time — about the articles that I’m writing. Say I go somewhere and I have 500 photos, I’ll just put a few of the photos on the site and just explain where I went. I just want to give people an idea of what it’s like being a photojournalist in Japan.

How is the reception to Tokyo Photojournalist? Do you get a lot of comments?

I don’t get a lot, but people comment now and then. The same people are commenting, and lot of them are photojournalists themselves or people who want to be photojournalists. I think I’ve had probably had a hundred times more comments on my blog than letters written to newspapers or magazines that I’ve worked for. And that’s fantastic. As a journalist, if people actually comment or contact you directly, it’s really good. That’s why I do it — it’s because of that feedback.

What has been the most popular post on the blog?

One of the most popular posts that I had was about Hayao Miyazaki. He spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan so I posted some pictures I took at the press conference and wrote something on 10 reasons why I think Miyazaki should be prime minister. For one,he cares about the environment. He’s independently rich so he doesn’t need the kickbacks. He’s got an imagination. It was a joke, but I was also quite serious.

So within this community of photojournalists, do you talk about things that are important to that profession?

Yeah, that is one of the things I’ve been doing on the blog. For example, I introduced the James Whitlow photography exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. I write about each new exhibition at the FCCJ. I also write about copyright issues, and about people who take photos from other blogs or Web sites and use them in their own blogs.

It’s becoming easier and easier for people to take work that is not theirs. Where do you stand on the issue?

I know a lot of photographers in Tokyo and most have the attitude that “here’s my photo, if I sell it to a magazine, they are going to pay me hundreds of dollars to put the photo on the front page or inside the magazine. Why would I put that for free on the Internet where anyone could steal it and put it on their blog?”

But my opinion is that the actual value of photos on the Internet is relatively little. You can buy photos from an archive site to use on a blog and it costs cents. You can’t sell directly to those bloggers — it’s not feasible. So rather than keeping them all hidden, it makes more sense to share the photos around, raise your profile and maybe someone will give you an assignment.

Do you watermark your photos?

I put my own photos on my blog and I watermark them. I embed them so there is a direct link to my photo archive. People can buy the photos by clicking on them if they want. If you watermark your photos, you should actually be hoping that people will take them, because then people will come to your Web site.

I’m not really trying to make money directly from my blog, but I’m using it to build a community, to raise my profile and because it’s fun. And there are side benefits. People have seen my blog and asked to interview me, or asked me to do articles.

I’m making a gamble that that’s the way business is going to go. There are photographers out there that receive a big part of their income from stock. Those photographers don’t really want all their stuff flying all over the place and different people using it for free. But in my case, I get most of my income from assignments, so it’s slightly different.

So is it becoming harder for photographers to make a living when it’s so cheap and easy to use a digital camera?

Yes. The bottom has dropped out of the market for photos of random things like a photo of Tokyo Tower. There is no money in that anymore. The biggest stock sites now have literally millions of photos, and there are probably hundreds of good photos of Tokyo Tower whereas a few years ago you would have had to go a stock library and physically borrow a slide of Tokyo Tower.

So you have two choices: Either you sell photos that are very, very special indeed, or you have a huge number of ordinary photos on a huge number of Web sites — and then you make a tiny bit of money from each photo. I’m trying to have really quite unusual photos, but luckily the thing about journalism is that it’s supposed to be new and unusual.

One of the trends in journalism is the pressure on journalists to master multiple media. As a photojournalist, would you say that it’s difficult to be both a writer and photographer?

It’s physically hard to carry both a notebook and a camera, and to interview somebody and take photos at the same time, but frankly, that’s the way journalism is going. That’s what’s expected. If it’s hard, you still have to do it. At the moment, I’m only doing writing and photography, but I know people who are doing writing, photography, podcasts, video and a blog.

You also have a Twitter feed. What inspired you to use that?

I only post (on my blog) a couple of times a week, but I can Twitter every day. Quite a few people follow my Twitter feed. I’m also on Facebook, so I use the same stuff on Facebook and Twitter and try to keep people’s attention when I’m not posting regularly.