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‘There’s a person behind the camera’: NPPA’s financial needs are ‘urgent’

Akili-Casundria Ramsess, Executive Director of the National Press Photographers Association on August 9, 2016. Self-Portrait. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/NPPA)

News organizations have been cutting costs for a long time, and visual journalists have been harder hit than almost any other members of the journalism community, said Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, in an interview Tuesday afternoon. Ramsess, who celebrated her fourth anniversary with the organization on April 4, was underscoring the ‘urgent’ need to help NPPA financially so that it can continue to serve photographers, photo editors and all the visual journalists who depend on them for training and community.   

“People honestly feel that we’re here for them and we’re trying to keep our profession and our industry alive and appreciated,” she said. “It is urgent because we don’t want to exist just to exist. The money we need is to execute the programming people value … and also just to have a community to connect with is very important … particularly as the field is more isolating as we’ve worked more remotely.”  

Over 80 percent of NPPA’s membership used to work as staff in a media organization. But even before the pandemic, over half had become freelance. Much of the programming NPPA does is to help them with career development, business development, and skills development, Ramsess said. 

This is an edited version of the conversation.

Did you apply for a stimulus loan? 

Ramsess: No, we didn’t. The PPP, in and of itself, excluded us because we’re a 501(c)(6). While we were trying to figure out, going back and forth, on what the EIDL represented to us … by the time we finally came to a decision — let’s go ahead and apply for it — they ran out of money and closed applications. It’s supposed to be opening up again, but I visit the SBA page every day, and that application process is still closed. As soon as it’s open again, we will apply for that portion of it. We still have hopes, but I’m not counting on it, that the second stimulus package or relief package part two will have options for (c)(6)s in it.

Prior to this, was something else going on that was affecting NPPA’s finances that the pandemic exacerbated?

Ramsess: It was exacerbated by the pandemic. We were already experiencing the downward turn of membership, which was a major impact simply because the shrinking of the industry impacted visual journalists harder than almost any other group within the journalism community. 

For a lot of photographers, in particular, who were used to having companies pay for their fees, that became another hardship. So, on one level we were starting to execute recruitment plans. We had broken down our membership payment options to monthly payment plans to make it a little more palatable for those and just to really highlight some of the benefits continuing even if you were under hardship. So that was a major factor. But the revenue from our workshops was really the thing that hit us hard. Basically, our only source of revenue outside of membership are our workshops and conferences. 

What’s the financial impact of the postponed workshops/conferences?

Ramsess: The majority of our revenue actually comes from membership for both operating costs and everything else. But the fees from workshops represent probably a good 30% of consistent cash flow. 

Membership numbers kind of ebb and flow because some lapse, but then they come back the next month. … But the bulk of our revenue [is] based on membership, which is why we were already trying to diversify our revenue stream even beyond our conferences because we only really have like six workshops in a given year, and one major workshop that a bulk of the revenue comes from. The majority of our workshops are fairly modest. We’re not operating in the red at all, but they … keep us from being in the red. … They essentially fund themselves and bring us in a little extra money for operating costs.

How much do you need to cover the next six months?

Ramsess: Minimum, I’d like to see us raise $100,000. At minimum. We haven’t put a target number out there yet … but I think we have to put it out there. We’re aiming for this just for stabilization. To put us at a real comfort level? Ideally, I’d like to see $200,000 come into the base. 

What will happen if you don’t raise the required amount of money in the next three months?

Ramsess: I am a glass half-full person and very confident of my own ability to marshal forces to raise that money… I am also working with our event chairs to invent other, not-in-person, virtual workshops for alternative revenue streams. … The launch of the funding initiative today is just one of many that we have going on. This was just an open appeal to our general community, just like we did for our relief fund. We have different proposals we’re working on in approaching corporate sponsorship as well as photo community-related grant funders and just people who have the resources who could actually make that bridge for us. It’s just not a general open appeal. We have a couple other strategic points we’re going to be hitting specifically. 

Can you talk about the ways people can help if they’re not visual journalists?

Ramsess: We actually just created a new supporters membership field. … Our last emergency board meeting was actually to change the bylaws that would allow it. As it stands now, you would have to be an actual visual journalist or in the field — whether it’s education or a tangential field — to become a member. We just changed the bylaws to allow those who want to support us with a membership, but without the other benefits related to it, on a couple different levels. And that was launched also today. 

Are there other ways in which there’s support outside of visual journalists or organizations that support visual journalists? 

Ramsess: We’re trying to engage with tech companies and their foundations. That’s a process we’re just beginning and developing relationships within those realms so we can get into those circles. … Before I took on this position, we actually never even had a funding strategy per se, because very much like the journalism industry at large, we were also very stuck, essentially, and used to being supported by the traditional resources. And when that dried up, we were basically flat-footed on that. So part of my process, developing as an executive director, was learning the process of fundraising. … I was part of an institutional organizational management training program and have also been in the process of consulting with professional funding strategists. So as an organization, these were things we had to absorb and learn and figure out we had to take a new direction. So even before, if this pandemic hadn’t hit, we still would have been rolling out various fundraising efforts.

For people who are on the bubble about whether or not to become supporters, what’s the message in terms of how NPPA matters in the journalism world, and in the world?

Ramsess: First and foremost, we are a truly unique photo organization. We are the only organization specific to visual journalists. … This organization was started to be the voice of visual journalists. … Our mission has been to educate our fellow colleagues in how important, why visuals matter in the work of journalism. … We bring a depth of storytelling that would just not be able to happen without visuals. 

There is still the quote that a picture’s worth a thousand words, much to the resentment of some of my writing colleagues, [that] is still very true. We’re more than just something to break up space, type on a page. We actually add depth and layers and bring a visceral response to readers when visual journalism is done right. …

Anyone with a smartphone or a high-end camera can take a picture, just like a person with a pen or typewriter or computer can write, but it doesn’t make them a visual storyteller or writer … What a professional can do with an iPhone is very different from what an amateur can do with an iPhone. … One of my biggest pet peeves is when people come up and say, ‘I bet you that camera takes great pictures.’ And I like to respond, ‘No, I’m the photographer who used this camera to take great pictures. This camera is just my tool.’ There’s a person behind the camera. That’s what we represent.