The Lone Ranger

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

– David Foster Wallace, From his commencement speech at Kenyon College, Ohio, 2008

Journalism today is, first and foremost, a business. No journalist or photojournalist produces work outside the priorities, interests, values, and needs of the media owners or the editors. Even freelancers, who are always searching for places to sell and publish their projects, are aware of the priorities, interests, ideologies, and prejudices of the publications they approach. The media market, driven by capitalist forces, often manipulates the content that reaches the public, acting as censorship. Journalists are forced to see what is getting broad coverage, which stories are selling, and which are of no interest. These judgments have become even more critical in a media industry suffering from falling revenues, layoffs, and work rates. We must understand how the state of the media’s political economy is a question of the state’s freedom and be concerned about manipulating the media market.

The film is shot in black and white. Its aesthetics are film noir–shaky camera, grainy, high-contrast lighting typical of Hollywood films of the 1940s. A woman–her voice emotionless, precise, curt, sharp–narrates it. She is the voice of war photographer Robert Capa’s camera.

Quick cuts, short takes, close-ups, a melancholic air, a violin soundtrack, film noir. We see him sitting on his bed, concentrating on cleaning his camera. Young. White. Dishevelled. Indifferent. CUT. We see him jumping out of a plane with soldiers. CUT. We see him shaving, and in the next room, a young woman lies in bed, tears flowing down her cheeks. He prepares to leave for war. CUT. He is at war, in the war, on the frontline. CUT. We see him smoking, drinking and revelling with soldiers as if one with them. CUT. He makes love. CUT. He is in a dark room, obsessively processing his photos. CUT. More war. CUT. Another woman. CUT. He gets the call. CUT. He is off. She fights and protests. CUT. He leaves. He must leave. CUT. He is in the war. He marches with the soldiers. European soldiers. We see a convoy. He drinks and revels with the soldiers. He goes to battle with them. He charges with a battalion. CUT. There is an explosion. He has stepped on a mine. The music dies. He dies. The camera survives.


The advertisement ends. The company logo is revealed. You can buy the camera–or at least a new version–at your local retailer. Just follow the link below.

When Leica camera produced this short advertisement to help sell their digital cameras, it probably did not intend for us to examine it for its evasions and obfuscations. They probably did not even realize that they had inadvertently left a clue to the close relationship between French colonial power shenanigans and criminality in Indo-China and American journalism’s enthusiastic whitewash of it. For Leica, the advertisement was just another example of exploiting the romance of the war correspondent–the lone, angst-ridden, passionate (about war, suffering, love, and women), undaunted, reckless adventurer, conqueror (of women and worlds)–to convince dentists and investment bankers to buy their over-priced luxury camera products. This blatant commercialization of the war correspondent image should invoke a sense of indignation in us, as it reveals how the journalism industry, and journalists themselves, have bought into this romantic image and repeated it for widespread consumption. Aided and abetted by curators, editors, publishers, photo agencies and educational institutions, journalists, particularly war correspondents and photojournalists, disavow their affiliations to corporate employers, assignment editors, ideologies, and personal career interests.

The myth of the journalist as an individual and a hero is one of the oldest and most consistently repeated in popular culture. He (and they are still predominantly men) is almost always an individual, driven to document the sufferings of the world, motivated by a unique and powerful sense of moral and ethical consciousness and sensitivity to the hell of the other, brave in the face of violence and war, undaunted by danger, and with a near reckless disregard for their own life. He is usually a reveller, a seducer of women, as familiar with the backstreets of an African metropolis as a European capital. 

He overcomes the wilderness, militia groups, the dance floor, and the corporate boardroom through guile and bravery. But he is always driven by an individual passion and a personal drive. Perhaps the finest caricature of this mythical figure was the on-screen photojournalist Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn, in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If we were to take the character seriously, we could not because of lines like the following; “Sorry about the neg roll. I spilled some blood on it while self-stitching a gun wound to my abdomen.” Throw in a scene showing O’Connell strapped to the top of a bi-plane with his cameras in hand, flying into the smoke and ash plume of an active volcano in Iceland, and the parody was complete.

But sometimes, even the real sounds like little more than parody.

Some years ago, the founder of a photojournalism crowd-funding site, when asked what the marketing strategy for the business was going to be, answered with complete seriousness; “we [photojournalists] have a romanticism around [their] profession. We realised that our work wasn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.” The interviewer concurred, “Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one [the founder] hopes is the basis for a business model.” [Laura McGann, Photojournalism Site Wants to Leverage the Crowd Through the Romanticism of its Craft, Neiman Lab, September 13, 2010.]

I cannot tell if this was a severe or parodic conversation. Regardless, this appeal to “allure” has unfortunately distracted many from understanding journalism and photojournalism as the business that it is. This “allure” veils the affiliations with political power, corporate interests, and Western cultural ideologies that inform and define the contours and horizons of journalistic coverage. 

Many reporters and photographers believe their works are uninfluenced by such banal concerns as sales, profits, success, and status. Many remain blind to their material affiliations and fall prey to the belief in what Christopher Breu called their “sublime body”–one who “transcends temporal and material constraints.” [Christopher Breu, Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics, University of Minnesota Press, 2014:51].

They want us to believe that journalism isn’t a career but a calling. 

Yet, the most successful journalists never forget that it is, in the end, a job that requires delivering a product to suit market and business interests and is more often than not defined by political, economic, and personal priorities. 

The most esteemed positions in media are often held by people whose greatest talent is “getting good jobs”. The world is full of excellent writers and reporters who are barely getting by, because they make the mistake of pouring their efforts into stories rather than into career-building. A less self-pitying way to say this is: there are scores of people capable of filling every decent job in journalism

Hamilton Nolan, “Power, precarity and white-hot anger: what I learned in a decade in journalism,” The Guardian, January 2, 2020.

Journalists perpetuate the myth of individual conscience and moral concern and are encouraged to do so by others. They continue to veil their relationships to the corporate media that employs them, assigns them stories, edits and decides whether to publish their works, promotes their careers, and hands them awards. They love to erase the fact that they are mere employees who are measured on the basis of their ability to deliver the goods that editors want, and to provide content that the publication needs. What we get instead are professionals who strut about as if they are above such petty material concerns, and simply acting from moral and ethical interests and human concern. Nothing could be further from the truth.