Photojournalism has a romance in much the same way, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, James Dean and Edie Sedgwick have romance. It died too young.
For me there is also a big distinction between photojournalism and current affairs. Current affairs is often the one shot of an event and is here to day gone tomorrow. Photojournalism is more durational and investigative. It is less interested in the one moment. That’s not a value judgement between the two, both are important. It is only a distinction.
Firstly, the Golden Age of photojournalism became terminally ill in the 1980s and that decade LIFE brought out a book called ‘LIFE’s Great Photo Essays’ which was a tacit acknowledgement that the best was behind them. This was when LIFE magazine, which was the first to feature images from the D-Day Landings, was now under threat from network and cable TV and increasingly satellite TV. Not only could the medium of TV respond faster and now be the first to present the story to the people, but their images also ‘walked and talked’. This first was brought home to me in the 1990s invasion of Iraq when I saw a Point of View shot from the front of a smart bomb as it hit a target in Baghdad. No newspaper could have had that ‘shock and awe’ effect. And the publishers of LIFE, well they turned off its life support in 2007 when it ended its life as a newspaper supplement having previously had a weekly distribution high of 13.5 million copies per week in the 1950s.
The second attack on photojournalism comes from ‘citizen journalist’. Since the 1990s digital imaging has democratised professional photography by drastically reducing the cost of entry to the business. Our camera phones are now several times more powerful than the camera sent to the moon. In the July London bombings a few years back, the images in the papers came from the camera phones of passengers on the underground train who survived. By the time the press arrived these images had already been uploaded to the papers. Many of these citizen journalists just want to be published and are not interested in the fee. This is the same concept of ‘user as a research resource tool’ that google uses to develop its search engine and Amazon uses to generate reviews. In fact it’s becoming the standard data acquisition model for consumer oriented information sites. Its free, fast and easy to implement. It also makes the user feel part of the community that they have an investment in it. It embeds consumer loyalty. Especially if you throw them the odd bone for best reader review or best reader photo.
The third attack is related to the second. As the world becomes increasingly digitised photojournalism has increasingly moved online and many ‘papers’ are still trying to work out how to best implement the most viable business model. According to, New York University professor of photography, Fred Ritchin (Bending the Frame 2013) there will be no viable print newspaper in the US by 2018 (4 years to cancel the subscription). The story for print magazines is just as bad. Although, I imagine, there will be a few specialist magazines which will survive to serve niche interests. However, these will have more in common with research journals and contributions are not likely to command big fees. The outcome of all of this is, circulation is down, and therefore so are budgets. Turnaround is up so there is less time to develop a considered photoessay. Editors often go for the easy option which is superficial non-investigative human interest photojournalism. “Local orphaned kitten got stuck in tree. Passing off duty fireman saves day.”
My cousin who won ‘Observer (British centre left Sunday broadsheet with high quality photojournalism) young photographer of the year’ a few years back says he will earn less for researching, shooting and selling a 5 page photoessay than citizen journalist will for an opportunistic cameraphone snap of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Kent slipping on a red carpet and flashing her knickers as she falls. Many photojournalists I know have left the industry to make film documentary and publicity video. Among those is one who made his name documenting the troubles in Northern Ireland. Even he feels the industry is largely dead.
For myself, I have moved into visual sociology/visual practiced based research/critical arts based practice. I am exploring many of the themes which would have traditionally been tackled by photojournalism. However, I am doing it in a way which citizen journalist is unlikely to attempt visually and with a depth of underlying research which they are less likely consider. I am giving them something they believe they do not do. Because of the omnipresence of images, if you want your visual work to contribute to debate you need to present work in such a way as it challenges the viewer visually and intellectually. As Fred Ritchin points out the viewer has become a user and there is an expectation from them as to how they will be welcomed to interact with the images.
When ‘photojournalism’ does appear in print you now have to ask ‘Who funded it?’, as costs of getting it to the page are considerable. Was it corporate patronage or advocacy for the work of a Non-Governmental Orginisation or another entity? Both are a form of media manipulation of opinion. What purpose does the patron want to use the work for? Who is the intended audience? This begs the question does meaningful independent photojournalism still exist or has it become another wheel in the public relations steamroller? This is not cynicism. It is ‘eyes wide open’ and looking at the industry in a critical way which helps to identify where the information you are being fed comes from.
This post is adapted from a request by an acquaintance for a friend who was interested in looking at photojournalism as a career.