How Do You Make a Living, Niche Sport Photographer?

For John Todd: by owning a database of photos of the United States national soccer teams.
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The United States Women's National Team in 1999. (Photo: John Todd/ISI Photos)

The United States Women's National Team in 1999. (Photo: John Todd/ISI Photos)

John Todd always wanted to be a photojournalist. He just didn't think it would be in soccer—or that he would one day own a small business with designs on building a database of soccer images useful for the next 100 years. Today, Todd and his wife run ISI Photos, which is contracted by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to shoot images of the men's, women's, and youth national teams, and more. Todd, who has seen his work published in outlets including Time, USA Today, and The New York Times, talked to Pacific Standard about building the ISI brand, the value of half a million images, and changing consumer demand.

You started in newspapers. Did you always want to be a photojournalist?

My main goal was photography. I took classes all through high school and college, and fell in love with photojournalism, specifically sports photojournalism. I got a history degree from St. Lawrence University, but the goal was to work for a large metropolitan newspaper as a photojournalist. I got my start at the Brooks Newspapers in Connecticut. There were five bi-weekly newspapers, so the chain produced a paper every day. It was kind of like working for a daily paper because we had daily deadlines even though they were bi-weekly newspapers.

"I love producing work, but I also get a huge kick out of seeing our photographers published."

The first real estate crunch happened in the early 1990s. That affected all the newspapers and no one was hiring. I moved back to Palo Alto and was freelancing for newspapers out here, little dailies and weeklies. I started freelancing with the Associated Press and became the San Jose Clash [of Major League Soccer] photographer when they started.

How did the Clash connection happen?

In 1994, I was trying to volunteer to work for the World Cup, and I serendipitously ended up working for Palma beer, a Brazilian beer company that was doing a guerrilla marketing campaign. I made some friends through that who ended up going to work for the Clash. They had an opening for a photographer, I tried out, and I got the job. That was my intro into soccer.

When did you get involved with ISI?

Through soccer I met the U.S.'s team photographer, J Brett Whitesell, who had worked with the federation since 1994. I ended up going to the World Cup in 2002 in his place. He couldn't go at the last minute, and he called me and asked if I wanted to go. I covered 12 or 13 games at that World Cup, all in Korea. When I got back, he asked if I wanted to buy ISI, which he owned. I told him there was no way. My wife and I were about to have a baby, and the timing wasn't right.

About six months later, the U.S. came out to Stanford to play a game. I covered it, and I realized that was what I wanted to do. My wife was a Stanford business grad, and she wanted to quit her job to be home with our new baby. She put together a business plan, and we bought the business. We created the entire database and put everything online.

Do you do all of your shooting through ISI?

We have ISI, which is a corporation, and I also have John Todd Photography, through which I do photography for clients in the Bay Area. I shoot landscapes. I teach a little bit at the Stanford Continuing Studies program. My wife, Annette, is the general manager of the company. She makes the whole thing run. She does the business side. I do the content and the relationships.

Do you have a standing contract with the United States Soccer Federation?

We are their agency. It's a great partnership. It's been fantastic. We've really helped them launch the brand. We have the same goals. Our goal is to create a free-standing, independent soccer database that will benefit the soccer community for the next 100 years. That was the vision: to pass it along once we retire or move on from this side of the business.

Have you had to fight off competitors or are you safe because of your exclusive access?

I would say that everyone wants to get in. There's definitely intense competition. There are so many big corporations out there, but because we're small, we're able to really be responsive and satisfy the needs of the USSF.

Have you always been digital?

I used to shoot all slides, chromes, and negatives. That was a nice experience but the digital—while it leveled the playing field—it made it all about the quality rather than the mechanics of the delivery. Our photographers have to compete with the best photographers in the world because you can see them side by side. Before, it was really about the access.

At the same time, you have a lot of images featuring moments like players coming off the plane, which I imagine other outlets can't get.

That's been a nice addition to the work that we've done. That's a benefit to U.S. Soccer to get those images out there, and that's really a new thing in terms of soccer culture. People are interested in the travel and the behind-the-scenes. For a long time, people only wanted pitch images. Recently, we've really tried to cover the off-pitch activities without annoying the players. We still try to be a fly on the wall and capture those images.

What's next?

I feel like we're just starting in a sense. We hit 550,000 searchable images last month. I think we have a great base where we are. The plan is to just keep adding to it and become the source for soccer images in the U.S.

I love the games, I love shooting, and I love our partners, but I also love seeing images shot by our contract photographers being used in publications around the world. I love producing work, but I also get a huge kick out of seeing our photographers published. I get a huge kick out of the idea that we have a huge database that people can utilize and that this work keeps living, it keeps going. We have pictures being used by ESPN of the 1999 Women's World Cup that I covered on my own. That is a huge kick for me.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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