Stocksy United: the stock photo agency where photographers are in charge

Stocksy has invented a digital system for every member of the co-operative to take part in decisions

Hazel Sheffield
Friday 11 January 2019 19:31 GMT
A stock photo by London-based photographer Julia Forsman sold through Stocksy, a co-operative photo agency
A stock photo by London-based photographer Julia Forsman sold through Stocksy, a co-operative photo agency

Julia Forsman, a London-based photographer, hadn’t thought much about selling stock photos until she heard of Stocksy. Forsman had been working as a photographer for a while, but she had only had a few stock images listed on Getty, one of the biggest stock photo agencies. In 2014 she learned about Stocksy, a platform co-operative, which puts the photographer in charge of their own work.

Professional photographers find it much harder to make money out of stock photographs since smartphones and social media have opened up the field to amateurs. Many aspiring photographers now sell stock photos at a loss to try and make a name for themselves. Agencies have a steady flow of this under-priced content, making it harder to professionals, who are stuck in one-to-one relationships with little bargaining power, to command worthwhile fees.

“Photographers can't act as a group for their interests against exploitative agencies,” Forsman says. “The co-op model makes the photographers organised as an agency, which means that there is nobody to exploit them.”

Mike Cook, acting chief executive of Stocksy, says putting the workers in control of the business was “a no-brainer”.

“Why don’t all businesses work this way?” he says. Stocksy has high-standards for artists that means it can command higher fees, avoiding a race-to-the-bottom in the industry. At Stocksy, photographers get between 50 and 75 per cent of the proceeds when their stock photos are used, significantly higher than the 30 per cent or less offered by other agencies.

Forsman says: “This makes it much easier for me to depend on stock for revenue, because the co-op does not exploit contributors but instead seeks to make their work financially sustainable.”

Co-operatives have been around since the 19th Century, but technology has opened up new possibilities for how they are run. Next-generation platform co-ops, which bring together global communities of traders in an industry, have been seen as one answer to the problematic gig economy. They are an alternative to top-down platforms like Uber and Airbnb, where executives profit from gig workers who may lack the security of a proper contract and benefits like holiday and sick pay.

Platform co-ops are growing in popularity in the UK. In December Equal Care Co-op, or Eccoo, started recruiting care workers in the Calder Valley for a new kind of social care, where those receiving and giving care are in charge of the business, including how much they work and for how long. Rather than changing a commission and extracting value from the workers and those receiving care, Eccoo provides a platform for workers and those receiving care to choose one another and gives them control over how how and for how long they are supported.

Eccoo is offering a vital alternative to care agencies that pay minimum wage to employees who have little say over their hours and may be fired on a “one strike and you’re out” system. “The biggest issue for me was having the reassurance of getting enough work and having the

right amount,” says Fran Watson, a founding member of Equal Care and an independent care worker. “I know of no independent care workers who do 15-minute slots. You just can’t do it. The options are either to go with an agency or go it alone.”

“The co-op model makes the photographers organised as an agency, which means that there is nobody to exploit them," says Julia Forsman, a London-based photographer

But a major hurdle for these co-operative is how to give workers or members a meaningful say in how the company is run, especially when those members are in different timezones.

In 2017, New Internationalist, a magazine dedicated to social justice and equality, raised £704,114 through community shares. It became a multi-stakeholder owned co-operative, offering its readers the chance to own the magazine in return for securing its future. But editorial staff are still working out how readers will contribute to decision-making at the magazine without compromising its editorial independence.

“The feelings range from anxiety about what ceding control would look like to excitement about what that represents,” says Hazel Healy, an editor of New Internationalist. “I think it would be hugely beneficial to us and a great experiment to deepen the democracy further but it’s going to need to be cleverly done.”

Stocksy might have the answer. New Internationalist has been talking to Stocksy about software it has invented to support decision-making among artists from all over the globe. When Mike Cook first joined Stocksy, the business was making decisions the old-fashioned way, by members submitting motions that were voted on at an annual general meeting.

This model had its limitations for members that were based in different timezones and speaking different languages. So Stocksy created a system where a contributor can submit an idea, however vague, into a forum for discussion. Members are sent an email to vote if the idea should be advanced. When a minimum quorum of 10 per cent of members have voted yes to a proposal, it is advanced to the board where it can either be approved, or go to a vote.

The system has already been used to give members the say on whether the membership cap at Stocksy should be lifted. Cook says the decision was one of the most contentious the co-operative had ever faced. “We have customers who love our content but tell us that we don’t have enough. We have worked with our members to create more content where we can, but we have a bell-curve of members, from stay-at-home parents who take photos part time, to full time photographers, make their living from stock.”

The membership cap of 1000 artists was forcing Stocksy to prioritise more productive photographers. “It’s hard to say you must produce more or we cut you off,” Cook says. “This is what the cap was making us do, we realised when we got close to the cap we might have to replace some users with more productive ones.”

At the same time, longstanding Stocksy contributors were worried that lifting the cap would “open the floodgates” of contributors, Cook says, watering down the agency’s reputation for quality. Sara Wager, a hobbiest astrophotographer who creates one or two images of the stars each month, joined Stocksy in 2017. She worried that lifting the cap might stop photographers with a smaller output from contributing. “I reached out to the Stocksy folk and they understood that I have niche images that can take many months to complete and so my uploads will be sporadic,” she says. “They really put my mind at rest that I was as valued a member as anyone else.”

Sara was also able to participate in forums discussing lifting the cap. When the proposal was voted through, the board reached a compromise where members could vote to freeze membership each year, depending on how many contributors have been added. “This combination of informal talk, transparency and more formal processes of voting means that I feel a belonging and co-ownership to the co-op,” says Forsman.

Stocksy, which employs 29 people at its base in British Columbia and several more in the US, sells photos to larger agencies, tech companies and other business. It had revenues of $10 million in 2018, making it much smaller than standard industry agencies like Getty and iStock. But its business model means that the photographers can command a fairer price than they might at much larger agencies. Cook says that while their decision-making processes might take longer, the transparent process means that photographers feel a sense of loyalty and community at Stocksy that is missing elsewhere.

“I realise in the wrong company I’ll sound like a raving socialist,” Cook says. “But the reason we have a business is the contributors, so why shouldn’t they fairly profit from that? It’s not socialism, it’s fairness.”

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