By John Bennet
Photojournalism as we’ve come to know it is long gone. Film went digital, print went web, and the words staff photographer sound to me more like an urban legend than a feasible profession.
So, now that awe-inspiring images have been largely replaced with the photography-equivalent of the microwave meal (A.K.A. stock photography), has the time come to say that photojournalism is dead? And, isn’t that a bit of a strange question to ask, since photojournalism has already been declared dead on multiple occasions?
Adapt or die
In life, nothing is stagnant. All is evolving, all the time, and so it must be according to the the laws of nature. So why are we photojournalists so hesitant to evolve with – well – everything else? Surely, we can’t be thinking the laws of nature don’t apply to us. Where, then, is this reluctance to adapt (even when stagnation might mean a certain death) coming from?
Contrary to its practitioners, photojournalism as a profession has not steered away from evolution. Starting with the major shift from film to digital, newspapers soon followed suit with going from print to web, and not much later staff photographers were replaced by freelancers, stock photography, or even news reporters snapping pictures on their iPhones as a mere afterthought to their stories. Sure, the gaps where images are supposed to go in news outlets are still filled… I dare say they are overflowing more than ever. But that doesn’t mean there are quality stories being told through news photography. In fact, quite the contrary seems to be true.
Photographers are no longer chosen on grounds of their integrity, their character, or their ability to connect to their subject and communicate with their audience. The choice has become nothing more than a budget decision. Any picture that will help make ends meet, will do. Never mind where the picture came from, just as long as the picture-gap is filled… right?
The price of compromise
Photographers aren’t exactly helping their case, either. With the stiff competition and severe lack of jobs out there, photojournalists that do get hired for an assignment are accepting ridiculously low day rates, often even adding video- and audio material to their list of promised materials without increasing their prices.
Of course, editors learn in ways no different to Pavlov’s dog. The next time they need some images for a story, they will remember the sweet victory their wallets felt last week when they hired that cheap photographer. Why do it any different this time? After all, cheap photography means less expenses, and less expenses means more profit.
The day rate is the bell, the profit is the food, and soon our editors are drooling all over their shitty photography-laden desks… and that’s not even the worst-case scenario.
What if this Pavlovian editor learnt about the profit-related benefits of stock photography? Buying images for a couple of dollars, sometimes not even bothering to include the photographer’s name. Now that’s easy and cost effective! Never mind the complete lack of character of the images, let alone quality storytelling. After all, stock photography is produced to please the masses. How else is a photographer to make a living of her or his photos when selling them for $1.50 a piece?
Sadly, stock agencies have also taken note of the increasing popularity of cheap, general images. So while their marginal costs have gone down significantly, they have done anything but stopped taking their ridiculously large cut out of the photographer’s earnings. In many cases, they’ve even increased their percentages, so that in the end you are the one ending up with only a little crumb of your own cake…
Information VS distribution
The prognosis so far is rather bleak: photographers are not getting hired, when they do they don’t get paid properly, image quality is suffering, and twitter and camera phones are taking over the jobs of newspapers and professional photographers.
Print is a dying media, and so photojournalism seems to be a dying profession. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. That is, if we were to see things for what they are and not for what we think they might be.
We know that the original outlets for photojournalism such as newspapers and magazines are believed to be dead. And, as mentioned before, getting hired as a staff photographer is consequently almost impossible – even getting assigned to a single project is nothing but a faraway dream for most of us. But why stick only to what we perceive to be the “real” outlets for photojournalism? After all, it’s not as is great photojournalists haven’t ventured outside the lines of original distribution methods before. Museums, galleries, personally published books; they’ve all been proud carriers of some of the greatest photojournalism in history. And with the current ease of distributing photo’s online, shouldn’t it have become easier to get your work out there?
Why are we clinging to newspapers and magazines, when we could sell our images in books, to online publications, or – when worst comes to the worst – to less-than-horrible stock agencies?
If the photo is the story, the information; why let that story be tied so tightly to only a couple of distribution methods, when there are so many other options available?
The photojournalist VS the photograph
Caution, dear readers… caution!
Please pause whatever social media account you’re enthusiastically creating now, and rethink for a second. Social media might not be a place you want your pictures to end up after all, and I’ll tell you why.
Even photojournalists need to eat! Sure, a photo is posted on twitter within a heartbeat, and within seconds anyone with an internet connection will be able to see the picture, to hear the story. And isn’t that what all photojournalists want? To tell a story to the world? No better way to do that than through a social media outlet with billions of people connected to it. Except, of course, for the fact that the photojournalist will only be able to keep such a method up for as long as their savings stretch.
Just imagine: you’ve uploaded an image to twitter, or Instagram, or whatever social medium of your choosing. Within seconds it receives a bunch of comments, retweets, likes, etc., and you feel great! Your work is being appreciated and people know about this important story you set out to tell.
Of course, just a bit of that great feeling starts to fade when you receive the first poop-emoticon comment. But whatever, let’s say that dumb internet comments are part of the deal here.
The seeming lack of online IQ becomes a bit harder to swallow when you see your picture reposted on another account, with another name claiming all the credits. But at least the story is still out there, right? People will inevitably quit buying plastic bags now that they’ve seen this row of beached whales, you’re sure of it.
But then the likes stop flowing in, the comments fall still, and soon people have moved on to that funny dog that can sing merry Christmas while playing the piano and balancing himself on a skateboard with his only three legs that he didn’t lose in that motorcycle accident. Now your months of work in Iceland are not only unpaid for, they have been drained of any value you thought they might have, if only you could get your images out there…
So is this all to blame on the evilness social media? Of course not.
If your images ended up in a magazine, book, or newspaper, the readers may have forgotten about your photo the next day, too. But at least they set out to see pictures like yours when they picked up that magazine, or they were interested in learning about current happenings when they bought that newspaper or even browsed that specific website. Maybe they even came to a gallery to see your images.
Either way, they had to go through some actual “trouble” to see your work and expected to be rewarded with quality content. And if quality content is exactly what you delivered, this slight difference in mindset might just make them remember your story just that much longer. Long enough to refuse a plastic bag or two until they see the images of your next story – a new story which you can now create, because you actually got paid for the first one!
Rebirth comes only after death
Yes… social media generally feels like an endless – at times unavoidable – stream of shit, and almost everyone with an iPhone claims him-/ or herself to be a photojournalist. And, I know, posting some pictures on twitter or making your Instagram page look cool is substantially easier than getting a book published or fill a gallery with actual prints of your work.
The field is crowded… but, it’s crowded with dayfly-wannabe’s who decided to snap some pictures for a day, doing nothing but forcing you to deliver true quality work if you want it to stand out above the masses. And, in this day and age, having a force pushing us to make an effort – to be more patient and to truly develop a skill before we put the work out there, might not be such a bad thing after all.
Photojournalism is not dead, it is simply evolving. It’s up to us what we let it evolve into.
Here’s the newly added part