An Interview with Thomas Hawk

Thomas Hawk is the reigning blog guru of digital photography, has posted 7,000 of his own photos online, and now evangelizes for the photo-sharing service Zooomr.

And that’s just in his spare time — when he’s not doing his real job as an investment advisor. I spoke with Tom recently about current issues in photography, the future of stock and photographic rights, and other topics.

Scott: When did you start blogging and why?

Tom: I started blogging in July of 2004. Originally I started blogging because I was looking for an outlet to talk about digital media and especially home entertainment systems. I enjoyed new technology as a hobby and had been having a lot of fun with things like TiVo and Media Center PCs and the blog seemed like a natural way to express myself on these topics.

I had edited my college newspaper and blogging represented for the first time since then an outlet to write and express myself without any large economic barrier.

Scott: Why the pseudonym? Can you discuss your decision to go with a pen name in the context of the emphasis on transparency in the Web 2.0 world?

Tom: I use a pseudonym because I have a day job in the investment business (in a non technology related field). Because the investment industry is highly regulated and because if I used my real name I would have to have my boss review everything that I write, I have chosen to blog under a pseudonym. Many people know my real name and it’s something that I openly share with friends. I state that I’m blogging under a pseudonym publicly on my blog and it is the only pseudonym I use. I don’t particularly hide my identity (anyone can do a “who is” search) and if I were ever to leave the investment business I would be more open about my identity. I feel that I’m pretty transparent about my situation and have found most people accepting of that. My salary at Zooomr is $0 as we try and build it out so I still need to pay the bills somehow.

Scott: Tell us a little about your background – your upbringing, career, etc. Did you have an interest in photography from a young age?

Tom: I grew up in Southern California in a place called Tujunga. It’s kind of a rougher, lower class neighborhood on the East end of the San Fernando Valley. I was the oldest of 7 kids. My parents always wanted to provide one major life experience for each of their children. For me they paid for me to ride my bicycle from Oregon to Delaware cross country when I was 15 with an outfit out of Taylor University in Indiana. As part of that trip they bought me my first 35mm camera to document my trip. It was a Sigma film SLR and I instantly fell in love with it. The following summer I took a photography course at the local community college ( Glendale Community College ).

I shot with that Sigma for many years through high school and college.

In high school I was on the yearbook staff and so I had access to a dark room. In college I worked on the student newspaper and had access to a dark room then as well. I bulk loaded my film to save money.

After college I went graduate school to study political theory at San Francisco State University but dropped out to go to work in the investment business instead. I’ve worked in the investment business for about 15 years. It provides a good living and an income for my family.

I’ve got four kids ages 5, 4, 3, and 2. Ever since my parents bought me that Sigma camera I’ve had an intense interest in photography.

Scott: When did you become interested in digital photography specifically, and in the Web 2.0 applications of digital photography? What attracts you to the subject matter?

Tom: I became interested in digital photography pretty early on. I think I bought my first digital camera, a Sony Mavica, in 1999. You had to load floppy discs into the side of it and you could fit about 10 images on a floppy disc. The images weren’t very good. I upgraded cameras as better technology came around. When I bought my Canon 10D in September of 2004 I gave up on shooting film altogether. I had a couple of Fuji point and shoots between the Mavica and the 10D. I now shoot with a Canon 5D. I became interested in the Web 2.0 aspects of digital photography in 2004. I had incorporated a photoblogging section on my site and began to get very interested in photo sharing.

I joined Flickr in 2004 and then Roudybob, a flickr user, used a free Pro account upgrade that he’d been given by Flickr to upgrade my account to Pro and then it got very intense for me from then on out.

I think photo sharing is something very, very powerful. I think that a photo can communicate in universal ways that words cannot. I think that it breaks down walls and barriers and allows a platform for a whole new generation of artist to emerge. As intensely as I feel about photography, I feel equally intensely about the technology used which allows individuals the power to distribute and amplify that which they create.

Scott: What issues related to digital photography are most interesting to you today?

Tom: The issues most interesting to me today with regards to photography are broad and diverse. I’m interested in meta data, things like geotagging and tagging and documenting aspects of a photograph that can be used in search. I’m interested in tools to digitally manipulate photographs to make art. Tools like Photoshop. I’m interested in the actual hardware technology and where that is headed. What will the digital camera of tomorrow look like? I’m very interested in night photography. I’m interested in building the most amazing social photography experience in the world through Zooomr. I’m interested in how photography can serve as life documentation. How it can be applied to work like mylifebits that Gordon Bell is doing over at Microsoft. Or how it can be applied to facial recognition technology like Riya is doing. I’m interested in the economics of the stock photography business and trying to figure out a way to improve access to this market for the advanced amateur.

Scott: What trends and issues related to digital photography and Web 2.0 do you think U.S. corporations are ignoring – perhaps at their peril?

Tom: There are several trends that I think U.S. Corporations are ignoring today. I think by ignoring them though that this gives small nimble companies the ability to capitalize in these areas. This is part of what we are trying to do at Zooomr. First of all, I think that U.S.

companies are amazingly U.S.centric. The major photo sharing sites could be doing much more to try and capture more of the international market. Key to this is localizing in more languages than just English.

At Zooomr we have our site translated into 17 languages now for instance. I think that as fast as photo sharing is growing people are missing the international opportunity. They are missing both these consumers but they are missing something more. They are missing the opportunity to create a truly global experience through photography.

Getting a locals interpretation of China is very different than getting a U.S. tourist’s interpretation of China . I think that by making your photo sharing site in other languages that you help facilitate adoption by locals in these countries.

I think the other major thing that U.S. corporations are ignoring is the quality of work that is being produced by what I like to call the advanced amateur. This work is as amazing as anything that the stock pros are putting out these days it just doesn’t have any marketing mass behind it yet. So these great photographers but squeezed into the micro stock sites (if at all) selling their work for far less than they should.

Scott: Do Getty and Corbis “get it”? Why or why not?

Tom: Getty and Corbis do “get it,” to the tune of billions of dollars a year. And they want to keep getting it. They definitely have recognized the legitimacy of the micro stock business. Getty bought iStockphoto and this tells you that they see this segment of the market as important. I’m sure there were a few Pros grumbling when Getty bought them.

The more lucrative segment of the market though is the Pro images that get sold for $300 or more per use, not the micro stock business. I think that they “get it” here but probably want to guard it as closely as possible while they have it. They very much are gatekeepers here.

Not just anyone can join Corbis or Getty. They end up excluding a huge and growing body of work by the advanced amateur.

Once this huge body of work finds its way to market they will have to contend with it. Right now though between Getty, Corbis and Jupiterimages they pretty much have most of the stock business out there.

Scott: What do you think the stock photography market will look like in two years? Five years?

Tom: I think that by two years from now you will see the advanced amateur take a huge chunk of the stock photography market away from people like Corbis and Getty. You are already seeing companies that are working to empower the individual photographer. Digital Railroad, Smugmug, Alamy, companies like these are trying to create paths between smaller photographers and markets. This is super positive. But in the next two years more and more avenues will be created for the advanced amateur.

Most likely within two years you will see people like Flickr and others come out with platforms for their members. We are working on this at Zooomr as well.

How the stock industry looks in five years will depend largely on how Corbis and Getty react to these changes in the market place.

Jupiterimages has probably been the most aggressive company with regards to change and has been on an acquisition tear over the course of the past few years. I think that you will begin to see collectives of talented photographers joining together and marketing their images. New sort of creative stock agencies built around the photographer as an artist. The major stock players will probably buy some of these talented teams and companies or risk competing with them as the tools that they have at their disposal only serve to further level the playing field.

The stock business though always will need to contend with issues beyond creative output. Images need to be marketed. Someone needs to pick up a phone and answer questions for buyers. Payment needs to be collected, etc. I think companies that offer business solutions for creative types will do well in all this. This very well could be the Getty or Corbis or Jupiterimage’s of the world.

Scott: What do you think about the issue of photographic rights in the Web 2.0 world? It seems that with print content as well as with images, the standard that has developed is that this content is used by bloggers without payment – with a credit or link back to the content source effectively considered reasonable compensation. Of course, the music and movie businesses have not accepted this model and have fairly successfully fought it; what do you think will happen with print and photo content rights?

Tom: The issue of photographic rights in the Web 2.0 world is complicated. It’s complicated because everyone feels different about their work and artists can frequently have strong and varied views on issues like this. To simplify it right now you have your basic all rights reserved collections and your Creative Commons collections.

Personally all my stuff is licensed Creative Commons non commercial use only. This allows me to let people enjoy my work legally, and allows me to gain broad exposure, while reserving my right to profit economically from my work in other contexts. It works best for me. Certainly blogging, photo sharing, etc. is in many ways about attention. But rights will be important in ensuring that artists are compensated for their work. I believe though that this can be done within a less restrictive Creative Commons world than in an all rights reserved world.

Legal issues will persist with regards to clearances, personal photo releases, etc. — and some people will always steal images. But by and large I think that the Creative Commons license represents the best way for someone who wants to promote their work and still profit from it to pursue. I believe that this is a superior model to the one that Hollywood and the film and music industry are pursuing.

Scott: Tell us about your relationship with Flickr. What do you think are the next steps in its business model?

Tom: I love Flickr. I’ve spent countless hours inside of it. I’ve explored virtually every inch of it. I’ve made friends there. I’ve made contacts there where I’ve sold my work (I regularly shoot freelance for San Francisco Magazine, they found me on Flickr). I’m very much a part of the Flickr community. Oddly, even as a competitor, working for Zooomr now, I still could not imagine not having Flickr in my life. I think they are a fantastic site run by fantastic people. Flickr is pretty tight lipped when it comes to their business plans. But I would think you would see two big things happen there over time. I would expect to see Flickr’s content continue to be heavily integrated with other Yahoo! properties (most especially search) and I’d expect that you see Flickr develop some kind of a strategy with regards to the stock business.

Flickr will make money for Yahoo! Real money. It’s interesting. If you go through the 55 pages of the last 10Q that Yahoo filed the word “Flickr” does not appear once. But Yahoo is pinning their hopes on Flickr and other Web 2.0 companies to build smarter and more intelligent search. Delicious, Upcoming, properties like these will be used with Flickr to make search better and this will be worth a lot more money than people realize today.

Scott: Tell us a little about Zooomr. And – without going into confidential territory – give us a hint about where Zooomr will be going over the next year or two.

Tom: Ok, Zooomr, with three “o’s” and no e (yes I know, it’s not the easiest name, but we do have 50% more o’s than Google or Yahoo). At Zooomr we are trying to build the best photo sharing site in the world.

Simple as that. I’m fortunate to be able to work on Zooomr with Kristopher Tate, an 18 year old genius who gets on these coding binges and comes back with the most amazing things. As a photographer, being able to help influence the direction that Zooomr takes is a dream.

Zooomr is small and fast and nimble. We have lots to do but should have the site built out to the point that we want it to probably within the next 3 months or so. We’ve been very rapidly developing new technology for the site. In the past two months alone we’ve added portals, zmail, social based profile pages including friends and a one degree of separation “friends of friends” concept. SmartSets. And many other things. We’ve refined our geotagging platform and combined with Google Maps now have the best geotagging system of any photo sharing site. We just partnered with jUploader to develop a bulk uploader for Zooomr, etc.

Zooomr already being localized in 17 languages is poised to have a huge advantage over other photo sharing sites beyond the English speaking borders.

We still have so much work to do though. We will very shortly be releasing personal favorites, adding groups, and building much more of the social networking side of the site. Ongoing we are committed to quickly rolling out the features that our users want. The site is written largely in Python and because Kristopher has built it very modularly we can very easily add new things to the site.

I would guess that at some point we will need to partner with someone much larger like Flickr did with Yahoo. We will need to do this to get the money that we need to truly realize the potential of the service, accommodate user growth and to open the door to key strategic partnerships that will be very important. There are things here I can’t talk about obviously.

Scott: What advice would you give to a 71-year-old photo agency like Black Star as it moves forward in the digital age?

Tom: I would say that from what I can tell you are in two powerful niches that I think will continue to do well over time. First of all you have an amazing archive of old photographs. Although much of the stock market can use current photos, old photos will be rarer and will contain a certain time element that is impossible to recreate. There is huge value in an archive of images like this. The other thing that I think Black Star has going for it is the emphasis on news related photography. Again, this is very specific stuff that has value that amateurs might not always get and not with the level of quality that is necessary. Anyone can snap a shot with a camera phone but to have stock quality work of important historical events will also be of value.

My advice to Black Star would be to find ways to distribute your story and images as broadly as possible. Open up your archive. Promote your archive. Worry less about illegal use and more about the potential to more broadly market your images to an international audience. Assume that some illegal use will take place but that the business you gain through promoting your library will offset this. You have a great history and a great reputation. Use that to your advantage.

Scott: Anything else you’d like to add?

Tom: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about photography, the technology of photography, photo sharing etc. Oh, and if you know any bloggers, we are offering them free Pro accounts at Zooomr. Thanks much Scott.

[tags]thomas hawk, scott baradell, photography, digital photography[/tags]

2 Responses to “An Interview with Thomas Hawk”

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  1. [...] Thomas Hawk talks about why he uses a “pen name”.  Read the full interview at Why the pseudonym? Can you discuss your decision to go with a pen name in the context of the [...]

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