Oh Dear…Did I Just Shoot Myself In The Foot? Or The Chicago Sun-Times Arrives Where We Argued It Would

For the last few years some of the most influential voices in photojournalism have spent their time making a strong argument for the revolutionary possibilities of phone photography, and iPhone™ photography in particular. Some have referred to it as an entirely new way of experiencing the world, others have spoken about it as a new form a photography – quantum photography, and other ‘famous’ photographers have criticized those who have been arguing against the trend of using such software as Instagram™ and Hipstamatic™ – tools available for phone photography.  And others who repeatedly argued that today … everyone is a photographer.

On the other side, magazines and editors have repeated featured and celebrated the increasing use of the iPhone™ to produce serious photojournalism works. Some have called for us to accept an entirely new economics of the iPhone based photography approach. There was all the excitement about the use of an iPhone™ image on the cover of Time Magazine going so far as to argue:

If there was still any debate about whether serious photojournalism can take place in the context of camera phones and cutesy retro filters, it’s over now.

There were repeatedly publications of the work of the photojournalist Ben Lowy (see two examples here, and here ), and the work of Michael Christopher-Brown’s iPhone™ images even making into the haloed pages of National Geographic magazine – that holy grail of anyone pursuing serious photography and photojournalism. And the front page of the New York Times.

So it was with some surprise that the decision by the Chicago Sun-Times to fire its entire photography deparment and train their writers to use of devices like the iPhone to produce visual content for the newspaper. was met with anger, and confusion.

But, wasn’t this the very argument that we all, in our single-minded enthusiasm for celebrating the new ‘toys’ of photojournalism been making all along i.e that today everyone is a photography, that the iPhone™ simply changes the rules of the game, and hence allows everyone and anyone to be a visual artist of note?

And if so, then why the surprise, outrage and anger?

Given that the mainstream debate on the future of photojournalism obsessively focused on the possibilities of the new ‘toys’, while all the while avoiding any serious discussion of the fundamentals of the craft, and the need to argue for them and defend them, should it them come as a surprise that the owners and management of the Chicago Sun-Times, a privately owned corporate newspaper, should think the same? As a Facebook post announced to the Chicago Sun-Times staff:

Sun-Times reporters begin mandatory training today on “iPhone photography basics” following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.

And why not, for after all, few if anyone had bothered to argue otherwise.

In fact, none of the major newspapers that reported this event actually wrote anything in defence of the photography department, or even the important of a professional photojournalism staff. The New York Times simply asked Do Newspapers Need Photographers? – a piece that read more as an eulogy than an argument for the craft. The Poynter Institute did not really say anything at all. The President of the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) was however outraged, but this is the same NPPA that has long recognized the changing landscape, and continues to offer courses that train the ‘multi-skilled’ journalism that is demanded of members of the industry. That is, where writers have to be videographers and multi-media talents as well.

Perhaps the most vocal argument in defence of the need for the professional photojournalist however was made by Alex Garcia of The Chicago Tribune. In a post called The Idiocy Of Eliminating A Photo Staff he argued that:

The reason why this is bad management and not smart Machiavellian management is because although you’ve saved your bottom line, you’ve exposed your naked disregard for your customers.

The photographers they fired were not button-pushers, they were journalists and trusted members of their communities.

Some of them were deeply connected to areas of Chicago in ways that a freshly minted multimedia journalism graduate from New York will never be.

Garcia went on to make a number of strong arguments in defence of a photojournalism staff – the experience and connection to the community, the ability to use their experiences to find new stories, the difficulty of reporters carrying out reporting and searching for images to illustrate them and others. But I could not help but feel that none of these arguments hold water in a new media landscape that is defined by markets, profits and sales. That is, we continue to misunderstand the modern day raison d’etre of the newspaper.

This was vividly revealed by Russel Baker, in a piece he wrote in for The New York Review of Books back in 2007 – title Goodbye To The Newspaper?, pointed out that people were:

…alarmed about the breakdown of understanding between owners and working journalists and about the loss of common purpose that once united them. This has come about, he said, because the functions that were once the realm of strong publishers have been taken over by Wall Street money managers. The breakdown at the top began some forty years ago when local owners began selling their papers to corporations. As the nature of markets changed, power shifted from the corporations to investment funds, which make money by investing other people’s money in ways that make it multiply. It became hard to say anymore who or what a newspaper owner was. Owners ceased to be “identifiable human beings,” as Carroll put it. Sometimes the owner, who had once had a name—Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, John Knight of Knight Ridder newspapers, Barry Bingham, of the Louisville Courier-Journal—became an it. Sometimes it seemed to be a room full of market researchers trolling the world by computer for profitable investment opportunities. Sometimes it was a fund manager with neither experience nor interest in journalism.

And this is precisely what the Chicago Sun-Times is – an investment. Their owners never really speak about the traditional ethics and demands of journalism, but about investments, markets, digital platforms, brand, and consumer access. When the Chicago Sun-Times was sold to the private investment group, the new leader Timothy Knight – of Newsday mind you! – argued that:

This isn’t a newspaper acquisition. This is the creation of a technologically-enabled content company. The platform, the brands that the Sun-Times has across Chicagoland are outstanding and unmatched.

So whereas I appreciate Alex Garcia’s defense of a photojournalism staff, I feel that it is yet another voice screaming in the wrong direction. In fact, I can’t help but feel that the relative silence of the photojournalism industry, and particularly of its ‘monumental’ and most influential voices, is a mark of a realistic surrender to the inevitability of a privatized, profit-driven media culture and values. That it isn’t about the story, or the relationship, or even the commitment to investigate and doggedly pursue, but largely about entertainment, novelty and perusal – the factors that seem to drive the quick-flip mode of operating in digital media itself.

As Ben Lowy. one of the ‘great’ names in photojournalism argued, that he chose to shoot with the iPhone™ because:

…it produced images in a visual style that people weren’t used to seeing. That is important to me. There is so much information out there these days, and its very hard to capture the attention of a – for the most part – apathetic public. By showing important images of a war or social issue to people using a unique aesthetic, I believe I can capture their attention and shine a light on some of these stories.

That is – what matters are ‘eye-balls’, that classic measuring yard-stick of the corporate advertiser. In fact, one can see from the long, and ‘respectable’ list of arguments in favor of the ‘eye-ball’, photojournalism’s finest have in fact moved on from arguing on behalf of the classical values and ideals of photojournalism.

There are few, if any, who remain foolish enough to make an argument that goes something like this:

It is the very people who have been asked to represent photojournalism, who have been the quickest to abandon it. From photo editors at major publications, heads of photojournalism agencies, and even the major photojournalists themselves. Instead, everyone has simply been chasing the money, grabbing at any work that they can get paid for, while offering all sorts of intellectual, philosophical and technological justifications to mask their behavior of sheer capitulation and suggest that it is in response to a ‘revolution’. But unfortunately there is no revolution. Photojournalism is still hard work, and still done by those who dedicate themselves to something other than the bottom line, and ideals other than technical coolness. Merely taking pictures, however ‘filtered’, does not make one a photojournalist.

And you can’t pretend there is a revolution by speaking to a closed audience i.e other photographers or photojournalists. In the end, our responsibility is to the general public, and to the society. We claim the title of photojournalists not because we own DSLRs, but because somewhere deep within lies a conviction of public service, social engagement and responsibility, and a desire to undo wrongs, reveal oppressions, challenge power, question injustice and stand alongside the oppressed. These fundamental principals are sacrosanct, and today, more than ever, they need repeating, Particularly by those who claim to speak for the craft.

Will someone please stand up and speak up for what really matters. Anyone…

Actually, that was me in a post titled How Not To Speak About Photojournalism Or Did Anyone Notice We Are Still Human? and frankly it does all sound rather hopeless, out-dated and pointless. Even I realized as I finished writing that piece that it was more about what I respect and admire, and not a realistic judgement of the way the industry was inevitably heading. It was just me refusing to….go gently into that good night.

It is clear that no one will stand up and speak….back to their editors, to their owners or to their investors. Most have in fact already moved on towards battles easier to fight – around filters, aesthetics, applications and technology tools. And it may all be a bit too late at this stage – most of the media industry now lies in the hands of a few corporations, and a large group of ‘investors’ looking to utilize any trick, gimmick, novelty and fad to just get users to ‘click through’ and help bring in the advertising dollars. And bowing to this imperative is perhaps the only justification for photojournalism remaining relevant in mainstream news media industry – do you bring in the bucks? So frankly, there may not even be anyone to speak back to – the people now making the editorial decisions are not the editors that we once knew. They are the technocrats, the marketeers, the business planners, the marketing departments and much else.

There is an element of the disingenuous in the various statements of support, and outrage about the Chicago Sun-Times decision to lay off most of its photojournalism staff. A photojournalism community that has been obsessed with chasing the amateurs simply to remain relevant, and by its own judgement, cutting edge and innovative, should not be surprised when businesses use its own arguments against it. Mind you, it isn’t as if I am unaware that the real drivers behind these changes in the industry are financial and profit-driven, and that there is no room for arguments that focus on quality, commitment, relationships and depth. But when you have ‘seen’ the future, why be surprised when it finally arrives? When our entire dialogue has centered around technology, technical innovations, technical trends and fads – all of which apparently make any joe the creator of ‘an experience’, or ‘a photographer’, why even defend the concept of ‘professional photojournalist’.

Today there are plenty of publications, including the New York Times, that rely heavily on freelancers, paying them often as little as $200 / day, and gladly publishing works that can largely be described as ordinary, and non-descript. But good enough. And this may be the final mantra of the news business – is it good enough? I would argue – and I may well be in the minority here, that yes, reporters with iPhones™ is going to prove good enough, and that the incremental value of conventional photojournalism professionals may just not be worth all that much. I also realize that this is today a rather easy argument to make since it simply confirms the inevitable.

In the end, this post is about what our role in this fiasco has been. And I think that it has been a significant one. We professional photojournalists have also contributed to the script that is playing out all across the landscape of American media. We have contributed to the rather stunted debate that has prevailed in the last many years about photojournalism and its future direction. We have helped sharpen the very sword that now sits across our throats. And though I may still believe in the classical characteristics of photojournalism- quality, commitment, relationships and depth, are the true measures of photojournalism, and though in my heart I am offended and disgusted by the decision of the Chicago Sun-Times, I have to admit that I am not surprised by their choice.

In the end though I still believe that all this is not inevitable. That even if there are no real editors, or newspaper owners who value serious photojournalists, there is still the market. That is, we can still speak to an audience and argue for the importance of serious photojournalism. And this is what my principal argument here is: that it is we, the photojournalists, who have surrendered the field to the technocrats and the technologists. That we, as we speak to the world, seem to have abandoned our responsibility to also educate, and argue to the world for the meaning, idea and importance of serious photojournalism. As I said in an earlier post that what…

…underpins my dismay at the ease with which so many important voices of photojournalism have succumbed to a ‘techno-centric’ understanding of the changes taking place in the field, and use this techno-centricity to offer predictions about the future of the field of photojournalism. Most all of them speak to explain the digital revolution, the meaning of Instagram, the possibilities of images on the Internet and other such useless stuff, while remaining silent about the continued need for journalistic integrity, and the responsibilities of speaking truth to power, or acting as witness against injustice.

They have consistently failed to fight for the things that need to be fought for – professionalism, ethics of the craft, dedication to the pursuit of a story, and a commitment to fundamental journalistic engagement, and replaced it with TED-talk like techno-obsessive pronouncements most of which are outdated by the time they are even made. There are many who will gobble this nonsense up and walk away feeling that they have gained something. Or perhaps they will be relieved that they too have been absolved of their responsibility to the craft they once claimed to belong to.

What we have today are a lot of voices with an upside-down understanding of what is taking place around us – instead of explaining how the new tools and technologies should be used to produce journalistic work that remains true to its ideals and ethics, we have major voices in the industry telling us how the ethics and ideals of journalism / photojournalism must simply surrender to the conveniences and capabilities of the new technology. Perhaps worse, they are busily conflating a set of consumer market priorities as suitable substitutes for professional responsibilities.

We may have lost the corporations, but we have not lost the market. We speak, educate and inspire those who purchase the newspapers that the investors run. A community that understands the value and importance of serious photojournalism – its methods, commitments, and value, will demand this from those selling it their news products. Visual and journalistic literacy remains one of the great challenges and opportunities of our age of massive and ubiquitous media. It is absolutely critical that our leading practitioners of the craft step out of their self-imposed fascination with merely products, and speak out on behalf of what makes us different, valuable and dare i say…indispensable.

There are a number of people trying new things to create serious, independent, and investigative journalism. Glenn Greewald, coincidently, made a strong argument for this just today. Photojournalism too has spread its wings out towards Empases, Kickstarter and even independently organized self-funding efforts such as Rob Hornstra’s The Sochi Project. Perhaps we can go further – perhaps the classical methods of photojournalism – for example those taught at schools such as the ICP in New York, or the Missouri School of Photojournalism, need to  be revised, and modified.

Perhaps we have to leave behind these earlier approaches, and explore others than can meet the imperatives of the new economic age of news media. Certainly the Europeans remains far ahead of the American’s in exploring new approaches to photography and new methods of story-telling, By stepped away from the old models – chronological, linear, sequential story building approach, photographers can build an argument for a more creative, conceptual and individual approach to stories and create value by differentiating themselves from the structure and form of the written story. None of this is new of course. It is merely to remind us – and those who educate the new generation, from the Eddie Adams workshop to the Missouri Photo Workshop and others, that we may now just have to leave behind standards set by the lines of Eugene Smith. I hear people say Blasphemy!, but it is time for new ideas, not merely new toys. Finland’s Helsinki School and other institutes like it are pushing the limits of what can be done with photography, including new ways of constructing stories. Its worth an exploration. There is no doubt that American photojournalists remain married to a very traditional form of story telling and photojournalistic ethics. Its time to think anew.

It is time to stop talking to ourselves, and start speaking to the world. It is time to stop sitting in a closed circle commiserating our fates, and realize that we have the power to influence it too. It may seem Utopian, but I refuse to simply stop speaking out on behalf of the ideals I believe remain central to this entire enterprise. And though I have largely stepped away from the news world in reaction to their insistence on producing the banal, simplistic and easy, I remain committed to the importance of photojournalism as a tool of insight, awareness and understanding.

Will anyone stand up and make that argument?

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