A long suffering friend received this long, winded discussion from me as his breakfast treat – dated July 2008 (and not November 2007 as I had previously stated!), I let loose some thoughts about photography and photojournalism and the worries that we were all dealing with.  It was written in a single breath and hence carries within it errors of insight and judgment.  But I think it remains interesting enough, particularly now when we are so desperately trying to understand why the world of the photographer is changing.

I apologize.  Over 4 cups of coffee I had to get these thoughts down.  A recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review created an avalanche of thoughts that i had to get down.

See here: http://www.cjr.org/essay/flickring_out_1.php

Anyways, this is a long commentary, at times rambling, so i apologize and ask that you proceed with caution  🙂

The Columbia Journalism Review piece was interesting.  I have kept up with a number of publications that come out from my Alma Matar so I had seen this piece earlier.  As with many such pieces, I was once again left with a sense that they tend to say things a bit too obviously, and with an exaggerated sense of prescience that may in fact not be warranted.

What I am saying is that perhaps the situation is not all that bleak.

First, you notice that the piece concentrates on daily news stories only.  In fact, it is one of the errors of this piece that it conflates the works of a Kratochvil with those of a local newspaper photographer.  And most such pieces continue to speak of photography as one monolithic craft, which in fact it is not.  Even the much read Vincent Laforet piece made this mistake, to say nothing of the banal suggestions he offered at the conclusion of it.  I was dismayed more by the reactions of readers who actually thought they walked away with some insights 🙂

But, I digress.

We must speak of photography in the particular.  Daily news photographers are facing a threat from amateurs and local professionals who the latter who have shown that they possess the same tools and the same drive.  Particularly when it comes to the coverage of international i.e outside USA events and such.  But there is a false belief that this is happening because of the emergence of camera phones or multimedia.  This is an example of the cart before the horse, an example of incomplete evaluation of an industry and an insistence on not seeing the real driving forces behind the decline of news, and of photojournalism as a related part of the news industry.

The first assault on daily news photojournalism emerges far before the arrival of multimedia and take places in the form of economic cutbacks and the economics of wire photography.  Wire agencies were the first attack on the staff photographer.  Reuters, AP, AFP and others argued that their local stringers, could work harder, for cheaper, and get the needed images without the newspapers having to send out their staff.  Over time this in fact has become the model.  We have to keep in mind that major American newspapers started cutting back overseas bureaus and reducing photographic staff way before any multimedia capabilities arrive at our doorstep.

Russell Baker writing in the new york review of books pointed out in a piece about the decline of the newspaper as we know it that:

“Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product. Papers everywhere felt relentless demands for improved stock performance. The resulting policy of slash-and-burn cost-cutting has left the landscape littered with frail, failing, or gravely wounded newspapers which are increasingly useless to any reader who cares about what is happening in the world, the country, and the local community. Cost-cutting has reduced the number of correspondents stationed abroad, shriveled or closed news bureaus in Washington, and crippled local reporting staffs which once kept an eye on governors, mayors, state legislatures, small-town rascals, crooks, and jury suborners. It has also shrunk the size of the typical newspaper page, cutting the cost of newsprint by cutting news content.”

you can read that piece here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20471

There was a transformation in the newspaper industry in the 1980s.  Most all the major newspapers went from being family own operations to publically owned or privately supported businesses.  And with that transformation came the primacy of profits over responsibility, economics over effectiveness.  It also became a mantra in the USA that the local trumps the foreign; readers were increasingly narcissistic and wanted to read about their class and its petty needs (fashion, holiday travel, accessories, technology toys, cars, real estate, design and interior decoration) and about gossip (celebrity).

Hence, there has been no reduction in the fees and payments made to photographers working to produce fashion, style, food, architecture, interiors etc.  As more and more magazines have offered more and more space to such works, these photographers who focus on such work, have and are doing just fine in soliciting major fees and in fact even taking their works into galleries.  There the problem is that there is a large nunber of competitors, but the wons that come out in front demand very high fees.

But foreign news and photojournalism (stories of pathos and emotion) have lost out, because the newspapers are not interested in selling or representing this.  The principal fall of such work comes from a belief that it just does not sell well.  And advertisers too are reluctant to allow their ads to sit besides stories of HIV victims in Zimbabwe for example.  When a pharmaceutical company pays a magazines hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad revenue a month, it can without trying convince editors that that story about kids suffering from the after effects of some depression drugs would not be a good idea to run.

My point being – there are powerful economic forces at play that have resulted in the decline of photojournalism.  These same forces compel editors to seek cheap and free images of sites like Flickr.  This is a cause and effect debate; flickr has not led to the decline of photojournalism, but in fact the decline of budgets as led to the desperation to use flickr, wire agencies, local stringers etc.  Another proof of this is that day rates for photographers have not increased in the last 10 years at least because the budgets created from the board do not allow editors to do this.

So Allisa Quart’s piece misses all this that is taking place in the news industry, and that has a direct impact on all facets of the industry.  It is as if we photojournalists have our heads in the sand, and in fact continue to falsely believe that multimedia will save news photography.  It will not.  Amateurs are not replacing professionals, but in fact have become the last resort of editors desperate to find content for little money.  There are rare situations where the camera phone has given us images we would not have otherwise seen, there is no doubt.  And this is to be celebrated but not considered a threat to professionals.  Abu Ghraib being an example.  Such situations are rare and far between and cannot replace the need for the daily.  Furthermore amateurs do not commit themselves to a story, they merely do the convenient as it presents itself to them.  Professionals will always been needed to pursue, commit, investigate, take risks, go the distance.

Photos are not journalism.  Journalism is an endeavor with a commitment to communal and social responsibility.  It is a public service with the objective of keeping check on abuses of power, the rights of the individual, the protection of the well fare of the community, the exposure of the illegal, the tracking down of the downright unjust.  I said this before in a lightstalker post, journalism will rely on amateurs the day it itself become amateurish.  It is not multimedia that will save journalism or photojournalism, but a commitment to quality and a commitment back to the public service.  We are far from this realization.

So what next? This is not just a tirade.  There is another underlying reason why photojournalism is dying, and that we are still not prepared to confront.  The reason is that most photographers and photojournalists are purveyors of cliches and repetitive, predictable stories.  Mental asylums, prostitutes in third world countries, drug addicts in third world countries, the homeless, street kids, dying HIV/AIDS patients in Africa, polluted cities, Latin American migration pathways, KKK, burqa/taliban/fanatics in Islamic countries, China pollution, China growth, China mingyons, China modern, China rich, India AIDS etc. etc.  One could create a Chinese menu of a couple of pages to represent a belief amongst photojournalists that photojournalism is about pathos and emotions, and that there are some ‘subjects’ that are what it does. (Continued…)