Of all the different industries you could try and start a new venture in, media is – as we know at htxt.africa – one of the least forgiving. It’s hard work, never sleeps and little happens that isn’t put under the immediate eye of scrutiny by your audience and competitors. On top of which, it’s doesn’t even figure in its own top ten listicle of routes to riches. There are better ways to make money, we’ll tell our children.

But it’s also easy to get started, with low initial overheads beyond a net connection and a computer and – if you’re both lucky and diligent it can pay off. And we caught up with the founder of local news photo library Africa Media Online, David Larsen, to find out exactly how one goes about being both successful and true to your ideals in the cutthroat world of modern media.

htxt.africa Please tell us about yourself and what you do?

David Larsen I am an African. My great grandmother may have been the first female of European decent born in Zululand – the daughter of Norwegian missionaries. So that makes me a fifth generation South African. If Barak Obama is an African American, then I am a European African. I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal but then went to the University of Cape Town for undergraduate studies and then to Vancouver, Canada, for graduate studies. I returned to Cape Town and became a freelance journalist and photographer producing stories in the environmental, development and outdoor adventure categories for publications such as The Sunday Independent, Mail & Guardian, Out There Magazine and Country Life. In 1999 my wife and I relocated to Pietermaritzburg and in 2000 I started Africa Media Online.

How did the idea of Africa Media Online come about?

Being a freelance photographer, by 1999 I had accumulated a significant collection of photographs. International picture agencies such as Getty and Corbis were just starting to embrace the internet at that stage and I wanted to get my own pictures online. I happened to be trying to sell my pictures to an advertising agency in Pietermaritzburg called The Blue Box. I shared my idea to create an online agency with Blue Box owner Paul De Villiers. The next week he called me up and said, can we do your idea together? Unknown to myself he was transitioning his business from an ad agency into an online software development house. He thought developing a system for us would take him a weekend. One whole year later we had the first system up and running.

The key idea behind the founding of Africa Media Online was “Africans telling Africa’s story.” I knew we inhabit a world where, more often than not, Africa’s story is told to the World by media professionals outside of Africa – in New York, Paris and London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Mombai. I remember at the launch of the African Union sitting in a room with online editors from the leading online newspapers across southern Africa and the question was asked, by Professor Guy Berger, what is your major source of news on Africa. A full 90% of the African editors sitting in that room said “BBC”. We get our news about ourselves as Africans from opinion makers in other parts of the World. So I wanted to create a platform that would enable Africans to tell Africa’s story in the global media. Of course the emergence of the internet made it possible, for the first time, for a tiny startup in Pietermaritzburg to even contemplate doing that. We haven’t achieved that yet, but we have made some good strides.

I founded Africa Media Online as a business and not an NGO because I wanted this entity to be self-supporting and not in the mould of so much else in the media and heritage landscape in Africa – dependent on handouts from the West.

David Larsen of Africa Media Online.
David Larsen of Africa Media Online.

How much experience did you have?

Well I had worked in the media world for 4 years as a freelance journalist and photographer. I guess I had won some awards as a journalist, but thinking back, very little experience. Certainly I had no experience with the digital technologies. Paul De Villiers had that, but I had the media brain.

What would you say was your biggest challenge when you started your business?

Capital. I think I had R80,000 from my family and along the way we have managed to get inputs from here and there, including from investors and from the Department of Economic Development through their European Union funded Gijima Project. In many ways we have been inventing an industry. What we do now did not exist when we started out. So the usual rule for business startups – that if you can survive for the first 3 to 5 years, then you will be okay – did not apply to us. Almost 15 years down the line we are still adding more income streams that can sustain our core operational cost.

You have stated that “AMO provides a Digital Trade Route” for creatives as well as organizations. Could you explain this concept in the simplest terms?

Media professionals and creative professionals produce collections of content – photographs, videos, objects, audio recordings manuscripts etc. So do organisations. A museum like the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, a newspaper like the Mail & Guardian, a political party like the ANC or a historic school like Michaelhouse all produce collections of media. In the past these photographs, manuscripts, audio recordings, videos and objects would be stored in a room somewhere where only a few people could access it. Yet it is these collections that tell the story of these organizations or tell the story that the media professional wants to tell. Digital technologies allow us to take those physical collections, digitize them and then present them on the internet so that people can access them. Some of those people who want to access those collections are members of the public, others are researchers and academics. But there are also some who want to publish that content in newspapers, books, magazines, on the internet or in broadcast media such as television and video documentaries. That is the digital trade route. We help you get your content from the wherever it is stored to whatever audience you want to reach.

Sizwe Mnculwane, a photo retoucher at Africa Media Online working the African Image Pipeline project in 2009. Funded by the European Union through the Department of Economic Development in KZN, the project saw the digitisation of 24,000 images from over 30 master photographers and heritage instutions ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in order that South Africa's history could be made available to publishers all over the world.
Sizwe Mnculwane, a photo retoucher at Africa Media Online working the African Image Pipeline project in 2009. Funded by the European Union through the Department of Economic Development in KZN, the project saw the digitisation of 24,000 images from over 30 master photographers and heritage instutions ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in order that South Africa’s history could be made available to publishers all over the world.

What excites you mostly about the opportunities that you help create for creatives, agencies and media experts?

Apart from Africans telling Africa’s story in the global media, I think what excites me most is that we have been able to make some contribution to sustaining the voices of those who are telling Africa’s story from an African perspective. We find the income from our service in representing collections to global publishing and broadcast markets means that money goes back into the pockets of Africans producing the content helping them to keep doing their good work.

Is there a system of curation for the work that is available on Africa Media Online?

When a media professional or an organization approaches us to have their media (mainly photographic) collections represented by Africa Media Online, they are carefully vetted to see if they will produce the kind of content our buyers are looking for and that they are producing it in the right quality and quantity that makes working with them viable. Once accepted, though, the contributor is free to contribute at the required standard. We do curate content as it comes in particularly around historic events in our African Calendar and around topics or stories in our Compilations and Features respectively.

Are there any prevalent issues or concerns that you currently perceive in the South African digital industry?

Globally the picture industry specifically and the media industry generally have been under significant pressure. The advent of the internet and digital technologies has meant that the media industry has undergone a revolution and advertising revenue streams that once sustained newspapers, for instance, began to leave the newspapers in favour of online publications. The media world has taken a long time to adjust to this and to discover how to retain such income in diversifying their offering. For instance, many newspapers now offer an online version as well as the traditional paper version. The picture industry and professional photographers have been particularly hard hit because digital has put smart cameras into the hands of amateurs and so the global market has been flooded by a glut of imagery. It is a vast oversupply of quality imagery that drives prices down. And for professional photographers, that has often meant that they cannot sustain their career, particularly for photographers focused on editorial content – telling the truth!

As an organization we have been affected by this too. We have been unable to sustain our work simply on the basis of running a picture library. We have been forced to diversify to help media and heritage clients build digital trade routes for their content. And more recently we have been branching out into a more commercial space helping organisations take physical products and place them in a digital space for sale.

President Jacob Zuma with ANC Chairperson Baleka Mbete and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Dr Mvuyo Tom at the launch of the ANC Digital Archive. Africa Media Online's Managing Director, David Larsen, got to present the ANC digital archive to the President at the soft launch of the Archive which was part of the celebration events held in 2012 to commemorate the centerary of the African National Congress.
President Jacob Zuma with ANC Chairperson Baleka Mbete and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Dr Mvuyo Tom at the launch of the ANC Digital Archive. Africa Media Online’s Managing Director, David Larsen, got to present the ANC digital archive to the President at the soft launch of the Archive which was part of the celebration events held in 2012 to commemorate the centerary of the African National Congress.

What is the most common issue you find with South Africans when you’re in the process of providing them with skills to create sustainable digital trade routes?

The inability to delay gratification. I find so many photographers and media professionals in Africa live hand to mouth and so both need and want immediate gratification. The stock picture industry, however, does not work like that. It is very much about sustained effort over the long term – that is what generates the return. Helping my fellow photographers understand that has been a constant challenge. Many give up before they have even started. They end up giving their attention to income streams that give short term gains but don’t build them any long-term asset. It is a large collection of well-tagged quality digital imagery that becomes that asset. But that takes patience and a vision to invest for the long-term to build.

How important is the role for the gatekeepers of Africa’s creative works and heritage in the preservation of South Africa’s history and future?

The gatekeeper is the market itself. If there is no market for what is produced, then producing it cannot be sustained. So it is vital to be able to identify what markets need, and to supply that need without compromising truth of the stories we tell. This is something of a conundrum because what the markets want is not always the balanced story. So the World (and Africa itself, for that matter) has a great appetite for African stories of tragedy, neglect, corruption and disaster, but not much appetite for African success. We have to create such markets. This is where African curators, editors, funders as well as us as members of the public (with the power to buy), have a great responsibility to support a fuller telling of Africa’s story, and not simply the stereotypes that generate the returns for aid agencies.

There are, of course, many gatekeepers for the creative work produced in Africa as anywhere. Perhaps the greatest gatekeeper is the market itself. If there is no market for what is produced, then producing it cannot be sustained. So it is vital to be able to identify what markets need, and to supply that need without compromising truth of the stories we tell. This is something of a conundrum because what the markets want is not always the balanced story. So the World (and Africa itself, for that matter) has a great appetite for African stories of tragedy, neglect, corruption and disaster, but not much appetite for African success. We have to create such markets. This is where African curators, editors, funders as well as us as members of the public (with the power to buy), have a great responsibility to support a fuller telling of Africa’s story, and not simply the stereotypes that generate the returns for aid agencies.

Scanner operator, Francis Ntsikithi, at Africa Media Online prepares a transparency to be scanned by the companies Fuji Lanovia Quattro scanner. The scanner has a true optical resolution of 5,000 dpi. Because of the sensitive nature of the materials with which they work the operators use gloves while handling images. Since starting a specialist archival quality digitisation service, Africa Media Online has captured hundreds of thousands of images on its specialist digitisation equipment.
Scanner operator, Francis Ntsikithi, at Africa Media Online prepares a transparency to be scanned by the companies Fuji Lanovia Quattro scanner. The scanner has a true optical resolution of 5,000 dpi. Because of the sensitive nature of the materials with which they work the operators use gloves while handling images. Since starting a specialist archival quality digitisation service, Africa Media Online has captured hundreds of thousands of images on its specialist digitisation equipment.

Where would you like to see Africa Media Online in future?

I would like to see us with multiple stable income streams that will allow us to take risks on projects that will only bring a return in the long-term. So many of Africa’s most valuable collections do not see the light of day because the capital to get them digitised and online and available is just not there, or is only there from foreign funders who can buy it out or take rights. This is why many of the most significant collections of African artifacts sit in museums such as the Smithsonian or the British Museum. We would love to be able to do projects that keep African collections in Africa for the benefit of Africans. We have the technology and we have the experience. We have proved that in projects like the digitization of the ANC Archives that we carried out for Multichoice two years ago. We just don’t have the capital or the support at a national or continental level right now.

Any advice for anyone who would like to follow your career path?

Defining what career path I am on is no simple task. I am not sure there is a career path to follow except maybe that of digital media/heritage entrepreneur. I guess we find ourselves at the intersection between understanding the media world well and the technical characteristics and requirements of digital media, understanding the heritage world and the need for long-term archiving well, and understanding IT and IT systems well. There are very few who understand all of those well enough to bring them together. So a starting point would be to do some studies in each of those disciplines.

The Africa Media Online digitisation team digitising museum artifacts at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum Services in 2013. Africa Media Online works with many organisations including museums, archives, media organisations, media professionals, corporates and NGOs to enable them to get their valuable media collections to whatever audience they want to reach.
The Africa Media Online digitisation team digitising museum artifacts at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum Services in 2013. Africa Media Online works with many organisations including museums, archives, media organisations, media professionals, corporates and NGOs to enable them to get their valuable media collections to whatever audience they want to reach.

Where would you like to see Africa Media Online in future?

I would like to see us with multiple stable income streams that will allow us to take risks on projects that will only bring a return in the long-term. So many of Africa’s most valuable collections do not see the light of day because the capital to get them digitised and online and available is just not there, or is only there from foreign funders who can buy it out or take rights. This is why many of the most significant collections of African artifacts sit in museums such as the Smithsonian or the British Museum. We would love to be able to do projects that keep African collections in Africa for the benefit of Africans. We have the technology and we have the experience. We have proved that in projects like the digitization of the ANC Archives that we carried out for Multichoice two years ago. We just don’t have the capital or the support at a national or continental level right now.

How can we find out more about Africa Media Online?

You could visit our media blog  and our heritage blog. If you subscribe to either you will be kept informed of what we are up to.

[Main image – Participants at a workshop run by David Larsen of Africa Media Online and hosted by the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia in Maputo, Mozambique. The workshop was organised by Henny Matos, Director of Kulungwana in association with Merritt Becker of Shanti Shalom a cultural events company that was hosting the 2010 World Press Photo exhibition. David was invited to give input to professional photographers who are part of the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia]