MaWSIG PCE 2022: What does a picture researcher do, and how has picture research changed over the last 15 years?

In the second post in our series Looking back at the MaWSIG PCE, Belfast 2022, Sharon McTeir shares a summary of her presentation.

In my talk at the MaWSIG PCE in Belfast this year, I talked about the following aspects of my work:

What my work as a picture researcher involves

I search for and negotiate rights and fees for illustrations and photos from a variety of sources, including image libraries, newspapers, private individuals, organisations and museums. I also commission, brief and manage photographers and illustrators, and ensure that all the different rights are cleared (e.g. model release rights, where people appearing in photos have given written permission for their image to be used). After I have selected an image, or had one produced, I hand over a file of a suitable size and resolution (depending on whether it’s for a print or a digital project) with the correct rights and copyright information.

Recent changes in the picture industry

Over the last few years, many image libraries have either closed down or been taken over by larger companies. The benefits of this are that it can be easier to negotiate lower fees for images and we can create good relationships with the libraries. The downside is that there are far fewer specialist image libraries. While the large royalty-free image libraries offer cheaper, often good-quality images that can be re-used in other projects, they do tend to look quite ‘staged’, and so it can be difficult to find natural images of children, sports, workplaces, etc.

Recent changes in picture research

Possibly the biggest recent change in picture research for the publishing industry is that many companies no longer employ specialist picture researchers. Picture research is often added to the work expected from authors, editors, publishing assistants and interns, or by the publishing services companies associated with printers.

One of the issues that can arise from cutting the picture researcher out of the process is that editors often lack a good understanding of the current and changing copyright and model-release rules.

Another drawback of cutting out the picture researcher is that people in publishing who do not have picture research qualifications and those who work for outsourced publishing services companies may not be aware of the sensitivities involved in working with images for the specific market, particularly in relation to ELT products. Mistakes can sometimes be very costly, resulting in books being pulped, or even leading to bad press for the publisher in the form of a story in the press or on social media.

A further recent development is that publishers now often have subscriptions with a small number of royalty-free image libraries like Adobe or Shutterstock. These subscriptions are cost-effective for publishers, but there are fewer pictures to select from compared with the number available to a picture researcher, who has access to diverse image libraries, artists, designers, art galleries, museums, private organisations and photographers; as such, many books can now look very similar.

The benefits of using a picture researcher
  1. A picture researcher forms relationships with publishers, editors, designers and image libraries, and build up a good understanding of the different image types and libraries. For example, Shutterstock was a royalty-free image library, but has recently bought up a number of rights-managed image libraries. Royalty-free and rights-managed images are licensed, and can be used differently. A picture researcher will know about this type of development, and will check the image rights for the different types of images.
  2. A picture researcher understands the different types of permissions that need to be cleared for such things as branding, logos, identifiable people and property. For example, even though there are images available on image libraries showing Apple products and logos, a picture researcher will know that Apple does not allow its logo and products to be used in publications without permission from their media team. This is the same for many organisations’ images and logos. Using one of these images without checking could have expensive repercussions.
  3. A picture researcher will be continually keeping up to date with the copyright laws in different countries. This will be particularly important over the next few years as the UK government has plans to change the UK copyright rules following Brexit. The US government is also planning to change its copyright rules.
  4. A picture researcher will know when it is worth commissioning illustrations or photo shoots, as these can sometimes be cheaper than buying in lots of images from image libraries. And of course, once the publisher owns these images, they can re-use them in subsequent projects without any additional costs.
Current issues in picture research

All industries, including publishing and ELT, are trying to ensure that the material they produce is much more inclusive than it has been in the past.

New editions of books are now being updated to be more diverse in terms of gender, sexuality and race. Some of the issues that I’ve been dealing with have been:

  • Gender balance: it’s only relatively recently that we have had a semblance of equality in images of women and girls represented in publications, especially in terms of them being shown in positions of responsibility in the workplace and in sport. New editions of books are still being updated to reflect this.
  • Racism: there is an ongoing discussion as to whether we should include historic images in textbooks/teaching materials which may be triggering for students, even if they relate to a topic that is explaining changes in society.
  • Animal rights: should we be including images of animals in zoos and examples of animal cruelty or hunting when we are discussing these topics?
  • Tokenism: it’s important to be diverse without being tokenistic. This can be a tricky balance.
  • Diversity: different countries and cultures have different ideas about diversity. This has to be respected.

Sharon McTeir is a picture researcher and designer working in education, dictionaries and ELT. You can find more information about her work and the projects she’s worked on on her website www.sharonmcteir.co.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.