PERSPECTIVES: CHRISTINA FORCE @ THE COLLECTIVE FORCE | by Phillip Simpson
Christina Force is the founder and director of The Collective Force, a photographer's agency based in Auckland, New Zealand. The agency was set up in 1996 when, after working for several years in the advertising industry in London, Christina arrived in New Zealand and saw the potential to work with great photographers who had also chosen this beautiful country as their home.
Phillip Simpson: You were recently a judge on the inaugural AIPA Student and Assistant Scholarship competition. What was your impression of the emerging talent you saw?
Christina Force: There were standout winners. Interestingly, the judges arrived at different times and did not influence each other, but we were all drawn to the same shots.
We were looking for an idea that held each series together and excellent execution of that idea. Those who had worked on a clearly defined project and edited properly stood out a mile.
In the assistant category, Kristian Frires' project on cataract patients in the Solomon Islands made a coherent series and the quality of the imagery was stunning. The student winner, Rebekah Robinson, had shot amazing locations that reveal aspects of care given to domestic pets. There was an intellectual aspect to her photography, which she had clearly put a lot of thought into, and the shots work.
Overall, it was very apparent to me that the assistants had progressed further than the students. The students generally had a lack of understanding around editing. They had been asked to submit 6-10 images. Some had done a coherent series of six pictures which had everything that the judges were looking for, but they had felt the need to chuck in another four to make it up to 10, which let the whole thing down. So certain people could have made it through if they'd had more understanding about quality over quantity. An understanding that less is more.
What does that say about the importance of assisting as a step toward becoming a photographer?
The commercial photographers I have represented who have had the experience of assisting have accelerated their development massively. Assisting provides an opportunity to observe different photographers finding solutions to many different situations.
What became clear from looking at the assistants work in this competition was that assisting experience was helping young photographers to develop their photography as well. I assume they are being influenced by the people they are working for.
So the advice I would give assistants is to work for several good strong photographers in order to develop a broad skill base and develop your own unique style, without being influenced too much by one person.
How important is it for clients to see a distinct visual style when considering a photographer for a job?
I think it influences them more than they think. In New Zealand photographers have always needed to be diverse. The key is for them to develop a consistent look and feel in their work regardless of the subject matter.
Obviously photographers are often hired on the basis of an existing trust relationship, but the agency still needs to sell that photographer to the client. We are lucky to deal with creatives who appreciate what we do, but photographers tend to forget that agencies have to educate their clients and they often have to jump through hoops to get you the job. A recognizable style will help clients to see how ‘the look' can hold a campaign together.
What is your main role in that part of the process?
It is my job to tailor the portfolios in a way that reassures the clients and creates the impression that the photographer only shoots what they want.
You are known for having established business networks in overseas advertising markets. How do the criteria used in selecting a photographer for a commission vary between different territories?
They used to be more different than they are now. The agencies in Asia have traditionally been much more commercial, wanting to see the ads to ascertain the context of the work. Now they are looking for more personal work to see what gives the photographer a point of difference.
The Asian agencies were the first to be happy to receive E-folios. This would have been unheard of in New Zealand at the time the technology emerged, but that has changed now.
In the USA and UK there is usually a dedicated art buying department which facilitates the sourcing of photography, illustration, etc. The art director depends on them to shortlist a selection of potential candidates. They know what they are looking for and make it their business to know who is suitable to shoot any given job. The art buyers will then contact the agents to pull in suitable portfolios on behalf of the creatives.
In Asia however true art buyers do not exist, as those given that title have to do a lot of other work that art buyers in the USA or UK would not have to do. They are more likely to ask my opinion, so the relationship between advertising agency and photographers agent is very strong.
The same is true in New Zealand, although here they will often simply pick up the phone and contact whoever the art director has requested. This is partly due to the smaller size of the market here and partly because many here have never had a full art buying service and are just used to doing this job themselves.
As the global economic downturn is being felt around the world what changes are you seeing in art buying behaviour?
Agencies are coming to us and telling us how much they can spend and asking if we can do it. Staff are becoming redundant in some agencies and freelance creatives are not being employed as much. It doesn't feel as bad here as I know it is in the States and England though.
Is there a danger that the general standard of photography will be compromised simply through a lack of the resources that are sometimes required to produce outstanding work?
Yes, but this is countered by the fact that it is very competitive out there. Photographers won't get away with not doing excellent work now.
I am an optimist. I believe that if you can get through the worst of it you will be fine. In fact some companies thrive in times of recession. IBM was developed during a recession and became massive. As long as you are the best you will get through.
Where should the buck stop when it comes to being flexible over fees?
That has to be treated on a job by job basis. Photographers will need to find ways to keep overheads low and work smartly to offer more for less. Unfortunately there will always be photographers who will do things for nothing and undercut you. The key is to be flexible but maintain a sense of pride and value in what you do. Believing in your product is essential.
Your career as an agent has spanned the film and digital eras. What impact has digital capture and the increasing role of often complex post-production had on the relationship between photographer and advertising agency?
Advertising has always been about making the impossible happen and retouching from scanned originals was part of the process as soon as that technology became available. Now we are just capable of more.
The battle I fought when I started out was getting the retouchers to involve the photographers in that part of the process.
Later, the move to shooting digitally came not so much from photographers, but as a result of pressure from clients, particularly magazines. It was driven by financial considerations and speed of delivery.
Clearly there are many benefits to digital capture, not least of which is that the photographer can shoot more and provide the client with more choice. And in some cases have more control over the final result. Even now though, some photographers have difficulty adjusting to the fact that the client can see the images appear on screen before they do. Some can feel that they are being reduced to camera operators.
I do hate it when I hear of photographers saying ‘I'll sort it out in post'. Experienced art directors can get very annoyed with this attitude when they request a change that can easily be made on set and then find they have to clean things up afterwards instead, often at the agency's expense!
Conversely, photographers can feel that because agencies are increasingly taking over post-production, they as individuals don't have ownership over the final image.
How do you view this trend towards agencies dealing with retouching in house?
It actually makes business sense for agencies who are dealing with a large volume of imagery to have staff who can deal with post production. I think the key for photographers is to find clients with whom you can work collaboratively toward creating the final image, even if the retouching is being done in house.
Initially there were not that many good post-production people out there, but over time there has been a merging of experienced people from the retouching houses and the good agency retouchers. So the standard of retouching in both has improved generally.
How have the roles of advertising creatives changed in recent years?
Traditionally copywriters would start the process by coming up with the concept. The art director was purely a designer. What then happened was that teams began working together because they found two heads were better than one. Now the distinction between art director and writer is blurred as creatives take an increasingly multidisciplinary approach.
What is the most outstanding piece of imagery, commissioned or otherwise that you have seen in recent months and why does it work for you?
When I was in Singapore recently I saw an amazing exhibition by Robert Wilson. He had shot portraits on moving film which were looped and displayed on huge plasma screens. The winner for me was a shot of a crazy looking old guy, beautifully lit, sitting at table with a cup of tea. If you walked past it you would have thought it was a still photograph. It took a while to realize he was moving slightly. I just wanted to look at it and look at it. Every tiny movement he made told me more about him.
Did that say anything about the limitations of stills photography as a medium?
No, I think it emphasises that one single moment can tell you so much about a person.
What keeps you passionate about photography and your role as a photographers agent?
I love the process of putting folios together and seeing the looks on people faces when I show them the work. I like the relationship side of things - going into agencies and meeting new people. The buzz of getting the jobs is great too, but mainly it is developing the content of the books and the responses we get that motivates me. When people love the books then all the time and effort involved feels worth it.