Today’s news = Tomorrow’s Documentary
Cyber hackers seeking to extort millions shut down a major U.S. oil pipeline. A trial full of political intrigue concludes by sending a celebrity lawyer to federal prison. Classified documents are stored in an American president’s private office and home. These are three stories that were in the news over the last couple of years, and none of them are directly related to each other with one exception: Each of them is rich with opportunity for the enterprising stock photographer who knows that today’s news is likely to become tomorrow’s documentary. If you’re looking to elevate your stock media portfolio, read on.
Inspiration in the Headlines
Some of my best sellers on Pond5 are shots of buildings, facilities, and locations that were briefly in the news for a few days, then quickly forgotten by a competitive media seeking the next big story. These types of locales intrigue me because they have the potential to generate exponentially greater interest in the future. This process plays out in nearly every major news story with historical significance: news media breathlessly saturates the airwaves with real-time news that, while sensational, is repetitive and short on details. Then, after some time (months, perhaps years), the story is investigated with discipline and reflection. The specifics become a multi-layered story compellingly told via four episodes on Netflix and watched by millions.
Leverage Current Events
As a Pond5 artist, you can leverage this current events cycle by paying attention to the day’s news, then deciding which stories will have legs well into the future. For example, in May of 2021, a well-publicized ransomware attack occurred on the Colonial Pipeline. The oil pipeline is a hugely significant piece of infrastructure that delivers fuel to energy-intensive industries from Texas to New Jersey. Its disruption had substantial implications for the U.S. economy and national security. In the early days of this mini-crisis, I sensed this attack was a watershed moment. Ransomware on this scale had never been attempted, and the implications for the future were sobering. In the following days, I grabbed as much “B Roll” stock footage of anything “Colonial” that I could see from a public area. I licensed the following “b roll” footage of Colonial Pipeline facilities in New Jersey several times on Pond5.
It took a few months, but the strategy has paid off. I have licensed the above clip several times. What’s even more astonishing is that only one other Pond5 contributor has (at this writing) made a submission featuring Colonial Pipeline facilities. Another benefit to getting this type of footage is the potential to sell every year when the anniversary comes around and news companies need visual content to accompany their stories.
Leave the Politics Behind
Another example of how I leverage current events is to pay close attention to thorny issues without resolution. Marijuana/drugs, abortion, immigration, climate change, and other topics are in near-constant political battle raging in the news daily. If it’s talked about every day, then it will likely require some visual component that you can provide for outlets covering the story. I should preface this by emphasizing that as an effective content provider, you must leave your political ideology at the door when gathering footage related to politics and history. Instead, you’ll want to ask yourself, “How likely is it that a sizable audience, regardless of political persuasion, will find my content compelling?” That was my frame of mind when I set out to gather footage of the D.C. Jail in Washington, D.C., during the winter of 2022.
The Washington, D.C. Jail is where dozens of inmates were held awaiting trial for the January 6 (2021) trespassing and disruptions at the U.S. Capitol. There had been several stories in print media about the poor conditions within the jail and the length of pre-trial detention for the accused. I sensed that this story would be a topic of discussion and review for many years, probably for decades, as law schools, the justice system, the press, and the public evaluate the significance of the 2021 public incursion on the U.S. Capitol. I gathered about 10 minutes of B roll footage of the D.C. Jail, then spliced and edited it into digestible bits for Pond 5. Here’s a sample of one clip that was licensed:
It’s remarkable to me that (at this writing) I’m the only contributor to Pond5 who has posted video content depicting the D.C. Jail. The facility is a crucial part of a major political story that future documentaries and multimedia lectures will almost certainly feature.
Tips for Getting Started
If you think your portfolio might benefit from similar content, start with this crib sheet of ideas:
Shoot exteriors of prisons and jails
Some of my best sellers are exterior shots of the notorious Rikers Island Jail in New York City. Tons of documentaries feature protagonists and villains who end up incarcerated. Film archivists love accessing existing prison shots rather than sending expensive film crews on the road to gather eight seconds of a prison exterior. Sometimes you need to get creative. Rikers Island is, well, an island. It’s hidden from the public. I got some good shots of it riding a public ferry that cruises the waterways nearby.
The prisons you film don’t need to be famous; they just need to have housed notable inmates or have been in the news for some reason (corruption, etc.). Pay particular attention to where celebrity inmates are headed. If such a facility is nearby, grab some footage of it! As an example (and a free tip for those in Southern California), celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti is currently housed at Federal Corrections Institute (FCI) Terminal Island near Long Beach, CA. At this writing, no Pond5 artists have submitted footage of that prison. In my estimation, that’s almost a guaranteed sale in the future. One important caveat: Remember to always film from publicly accessible places. I shot this clip of Rikers Island from a ferry, one of the few ways the general public can glimpse the jail.
Get footage of places the media talks about extensively but rarely shows
As I write this piece, there is a developing story regarding classified material found in a civilian office connected to a U.S. President. I guarantee the story is likely to generate interest and analysis for years to come. One location that is key to this story is the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. Currently, few images of this building are available across all social media (including Pond5). In my estimation, this story has Watergate potential, and imagery of the building will be in demand soon. For those Pond5 artists near Washington, D.C., you should consider filming this building from creative angles in various lighting.
Pay attention to arrest locations
If a nationwide search ends with the arrest of a prime suspect, gather footage of the arrest location and surrounding area. For example, the arrest of a high-profile suspect in Pennsylvania for capital crimes committed in Idaho. Given the extensive media coverage of this case, it’s reasonable to assume it will become the subject of a future documentary. With a little research, Pond5 contributors in Pennsylvania have access to locations and law enforcement resources used to make this arrest. If I were in Pennsylvania, I would retrace the steps of law enforcement and the suspect to accumulate archival footage before the sites become dated/renovated.
Get footage of the mundane
If you’re relatively confident that a current events story has legs (likely interest by documentarians in the future), and the opportunity cost is low, gather footage of “the mundane.” Using the Pennsylvania example above, collect footage of landmarks the suspect would have frequented: restaurants, toll booths, hotels, gas stations, etc. (if known). Gathering this footage is important because landmarks change over time. Restaurants go out of business, trademarks change, etc. Filmmakers will look for faithful representations of the scenery at the time of the story. Years from now, it will be much harder to collect footage that accurately represents this era/decade. It’s also essential to accurately keyword your submissions in a way that can link them to the story.
Try to imagine yourself 30 years from now, looking back at today
One of the things I LOVE about Pond5 is that the income is passive. By passive, I mean that once I post my content, I can forget about it (for the most part) and let Pond5 do the work. When thinking about my Pond5 portfolio, I sometimes wish I had the foresight to film more content from my youth. I realize (now) that quality content of newsworthy items and trends from the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s would have been a cash cow today. From the perspective of tomorrow, today is a novelty. I try to keep that in mind when I shoot content. Cars, buildings, people, and styles, will all look dated 30 years from now.
Right now is your chance to archive these things for posterity. Remember this when filming your newsworthy locations. Be sure to include passing traffic, people engaged in routine activities, and supporting scenery that will likely change in the future. All the content I have described in this article is editorial. Therefore Pond5 will not prohibit those items.
As a Pond5 contributor, you can be a citizen journalist. Through the power of high-speed internet and your creative vision, you can become an integral part of the storytelling world. Arm yourself with these tips, and you’ll open up a whole new world of revenue potential.