Does Pho­to­jour­nal­ism Have A Fu­ture?

The STaTe Of Play

ProPhoto - - FRONT PAGE - Alison Stieven-Tay­lor is a pho­tog­ra­pher and writer based in Mel­bourne. You can read her weekly blog on www. pho­to­jour­nal­ism­now.blogspot. com and see her own work at www.re­al­i­ty­il­lu­sion.com

Pho­to­jour­nal­ism has been de­clared dead on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions in the past, and right now it’s per­haps fac­ing its big­gest chal­lenges. But Alison Stieven-Tay­lor ar­gues that it’s never been an easy field to work in. Does the shift away from print in the gen­eral me­dia rep­re­sent the end or a new be­gin­ning?

In the 2010 ar­ti­cle, ‘For God’s Sake, Some­body Call It’, Neil Burgess – the for­mer head of Net­work Pho­tog­ra­phers and Mag­num Pho­tos, and twice Chair­man of World Press Photo – wrote, “Pho­to­jour­nal­ism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st Au­gust 2010. Amen”. This dec­la­ra­tion ig­nited my cu­rios­ity and, since then, I have been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the state of pho­to­jour­nal­ism, both in Australia and over­seas and am now work­ing on my PhD, look­ing at what op­por­tu­ni­ties there are for the genre be­yond its birth­place, the le­gacy press.

While there is no doubt print me­dia is spend­ing less on photography, Burgess’s dec­la­ra­tion is not the first time that pho­to­jour­nal­ism has been pro­nounced dead. The first real threat to the power of pho­to­jour­nal­ism came in the 1950s with the in­tro­duc­tion of tele­vi­sion. Ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue mi­grated from print ti­tles to tele­vi­sion and, over the next decade, eroded the au­di­ences for the pic­to­rial mag­a­zines like LIFE.

In the 1980s, the pro­fes­sion shud­dered again with the chal­lenges that came with the wide adop­tion by daily press of colour photography and the digi­ti­sa­tion of images.

Rapid Change

How­ever, the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances of the dig­i­tal age have bought rapid change. In less than a decade, the pho­to­jour­nal­ist’s kit has changed from heavy satel­lite phone units and dig­i­tal SLR equip­ment, to en­com­pass hand-held mo­bile phone de­vices that take high-res­o­lu­tion images that can be edited, and trans­mit­ted im­me­di­ately from the one de­vice.

This evo­lu­tion has freed up the pho­to­jour­nal­ist in many ways to move more dis­creetly and with ease, es­pe­cially when ex­plor­ing sen­si­tive, or con­tentious, sub­jects. But it has also caused con­cerns about the im­pact that us­ing tech­nol­ogy – such as cam­era phones – has on the ap­pear­ance of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, a po­si­tion held by the old guard who are nos­tal­gic for a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment in photography’s tech­no­log­i­cal and artis­tic his­tory.

But per­haps the great­est im­pact the dig­i­tal age has had on the pro­fes­sion is the ero­sion of the ad­ver­tis­ing base on which the le­gacy press was es­tab­lished. For decades, the print me­dia has rid­den on the ad­ver­tis­ing dollar which has al­lowed them to di­vest and ex­pand their busi­nesses. Now th­ese un­wieldy be­he­moths threaten to kill the very in­dus­try that gave them birth.

While ad­ver­tis­ing spend is mi­grat­ing to on­line me­dia, there is still a huge gap be­tween what is be­ing earned on­line and what th­ese cor­po­ra­tions need to con­tinue to func­tion. Pay walls are work­ing for some, but un­less you are pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion that is ex­clu­sive, or ad­dresses a spe­cific mar­ket such as fi­nance, then why ex­pect read­ers to pay for con­tent when you can read it else­where for free?

The ma­jor me­dia cor­po­ra­tions have been slow to fig­ure out how to use the In­ter­net to their ad­van­tage and, as a con­se­quence, we’ve seen whole­sale cuts with news­pa­pers around the world ax­ing photography de­part­ments in their en­tirety. Tex­tu­ral jour­nal­ists are not faring any bet­ter.

Tough Jobs

There would be few read­ing this ar­ti­cle who aren’t aware that Fair­fax Me­dia re­cently got rid of most of its on-staff pho­tog­ra­phers; in­stead out­sourc­ing its re­quire­ments to the global pic­ture agency, Getty Images. The bot­tom line is the bot­tom line. The ac­coun­tants are in charge and we can whinge as much as we want, but share­hold­ers come first at the ex­pense of ev­ery­thing, es­pe­cially qual­ity con­tent.

There are those who look at Getty Images as the nemesis of the pro­fes­sion, while oth­ers see it cham­pi­oning of the genre as good for the in­dus­try as a whole. What­ever you feel about Getty, it is hard to deny that it is push­ing a stag­ger­ing amount of photography out there on a global scale, and keep­ing the con­ver­sa­tion around the im­port of photography alive. In Australia, Getty Images em­ploys a larger num­ber of pho­tog­ra­phers than all the other agen­cies com­bined. While that is cold com­fort for those who have lost their per­ma­nent jobs; those who make a good living out of photography are in the mi­nor­ity and that has al­ways been the case. Even in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of pho­to­jour­nal­ism, for ev­ery Eu­gene Smith or Henri Cartier-Bres­son there were hun­dreds of pho­tog­ra­phers slog­ging it out to make ends meet.

Jonathan Klein, CEO and co-founder of Getty Images told me, “I think it has al­ways been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to be suc­cess­ful as a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher. You’ve al­ways had to have a com­bi­na­tion of pro­mo­tional skills, and pho­to­graphic skills and I think that hasn’t changed. The com­pe­ti­tion has in­creased be­cause there are just more peo­ple tak­ing pic­tures, the equip­ment makes it eas­ier to take a de­cent pic­ture, not a great pic­ture, but a de­cent pic­ture. So I think the com­pe­ti­tion has got­ten tougher, but it has al­ways been very tough”.

Pay­ing Up?

What is also dif­fer­ent now is how much the me­dia is pre­pared to pay for photography. It is this lack of com­mit­ment from cor­po­ra­tised me­dia to fund pho­to­jour­nal­ism, in both print and on­line for­mats that lies at the heart of Burgess’s dec­la­ra­tion.

Print ver­sus on­line is a de­bate that frus­trates Jonathan Klein.

“We must get away from the whole no­tion of whether our con­tent is be­ing used on plat­form A,B, C, D, or E. I think we’ve be­come way too ob­sessed with the method of de­liv­ery rather than the fact of the con­tent it­self. I think it makes ab­so­lutely no dif­fer­ence and I think that helps us to fo­cus back upon what we are ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing. It is sec­ondary whether some­one reads it on any of many dif­fer­ent de­vices or in print… or pro­jected off a cloud for all I care. It re­ally doesn’t mat­ter.

“I am hop­ing the de­bate will in­creas­ingly move to the sim­ple fact that the cost of dis­tri­bu­tion has gone down to prac­ti­cally

Per­haps the great­est im­pact the dig­i­tal age has had on the pro­fes­sion is the ero­sion of the ad­ver­tis­ing base on which the le­gacy press was es­tab­lished.

noth­ing, the abil­ity to get what­ever you are pro­duc­ing in front of a mas­sive au­di­ence very quickly and very cheaply is what we need to fo­cus on. The in­escapable fact is that the world is more vis­ual, peo­ple are more vis­ually lit­er­ate and more at­tracted to the vis­ual than they ever were in the past. Th­ese are all huge pos­i­tives for any part of the in­dus­try.”

The Right Con­tent

Photo ed­i­tors Jeff Dar­manin and Adrian Fowler are also pos­i­tive about the op­por­tu­ni­ties for pho­to­jour­nal­ists. The pair started photo agency DI­IMEX in Syd­ney in Jan­uary 2014 with two back­ers, and they now have 1700 pho­tog­ra­phers from around the world on their books.

The DI­IMEX model sees pho­tog­ra­phers take the lion’s share of the fees paid for images – a whop­ping 75 per­cent – a fig­ure they are able to of­fer be­cause they are a lean op­er­a­tion and not bur­dened by le­gacy. Pic­tures are sold in a live auc­tion fo­rum, with to­tal trans­parency, and the agency has both print and on­line clients in­clud­ing some of the world’s ma­jor news groups.

“The on­line mar­ket is def­i­nitely a slightly cheaper mar­ket as far as the re­turn pho­tog­ra­phers are used to, but it de­pends on how you present the con­tent too,” says Dar­manin. “We want to see a de­cent re­turn for pic­tures be­ing run on­line and so do pho­tog­ra­phers and, if you are pre­sent­ing the right con­tent to on­line pub­lish­ers, they will pay for it. We are sell­ing to on­line pub­li­ca­tions from News.com to the Daily Mail and ev­ery­thing in be­tween, and I think we are get­ting a pretty fair price for con­tent.”

Through DI­IMEX, pub­li­ca­tions can pur­chase images in­di­vid­u­ally or as a com­plete pack­age or story, and its live auc­tion plat­form al­lows pub­lish­ers around the world to bid on con­tent they want, in the for­mat they need.

“We’ve had sit­u­a­tions where an on­line pub­lisher has out bid a print ti­tle be­cause they want ex­clu­sive use of that con­tent first time round,” says Dar­manin. “But at the end of the day it is al­ways about the con­tent, im­age qual­ity and its rel­e­vance. If it’s news­wor­thy and cur­rent and based around sub­ject mat­ter that is rel­e­vant, on­line pub­li­ca­tions will pay quite well for con­tent.”

A New Golden Age?

John G. Mor­ris has lived through the so­called ‘Golden Age’ of pho­to­jour­nal­ism as pic­ture edi­tor at LIFE and also the New York Times dur­ing the Viet­nam War. In 1968 he chose to run Ed­die Adam’s now iconic ex­e­cu­tion pho­to­graph on the front page of what was the world’s most in­flu­en­tial news-

Even in the so- called ‘Golden Age’ of pho­to­jour­nal­ism, for ev­ery Eu­gene Smith or Henri Cartier-Bres­son there were hun­dreds of pho­tog­ra­phers slog­ging it out to make ends meet.

pa­per. Mor­ris, who is now 97 years old, told me via Skype, that he thinks the In­ter­net presents ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties to reach new au­di­ences, but cau­tions that pho­to­jour­nal­ism is not a soli­tary pur­suit.

“The best jour­nal­ism is a group ef­fort. Pho­to­graphs must be ac­com­pa­nied by words, so writ­ers are equally as im­por­tant as pho­tog­ra­phers and I must put in a word for ed­i­tors. I think ed­i­tors are the peo­ple who bring th­ese el­e­ments to­gether and that’s one thing that wor­ries me very much about on­line jour­nal­ism – the good thing is that it knows no bounds, the bad thing is it doesn’t al­ways make its points be­cause of that.”

The In­ter­net may be a dou­ble-edged sword, but if you work in the me­dia, you ig­nore it at your peril. Ja­son Cone, the US com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders (Médecins Sans Fron­tières), says a pho­to­jour­nal­ist’s reach on the In­ter­net and across so­cial me­dia plat­forms in par­tic­u­lar, can be a deal breaker.

“In this age when the vis­ual im­age is a ubiq­ui­tous com­mod­ity – when the bar­ri­ers to en­try for the new­est pho­tog­ra­phers have been nearly evis­cer­ated with smartphones and so­cial apps like Instagram – the pho­to­jour­nal­ist’s vis­ual aes­thetic, artistry and style are a given, and what re­ally sep­a­rates a pho­tog­ra­pher from the crowd is the net­work he or she brings to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.”

Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders has part­nered with VII Agency in New York a group of 20 pho­tog­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralian Ash­ley Gilbertson who’s been based in the Big Ap­ple for more than a decade. VII uses its col­lec­tive pull on so­cial me­dia as a sell­ing tool with prospec­tive clients as Gil­ber­ston ex­plains.

“The pitch that or­gan­i­sa­tions re­spond to across the board more than any­thing else is our so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing. I’ll tell them that on top of world class pho­tog­ra­phers with high lev­els of in­tegrity, VII Photo will also bring you a di­rect reach to half a mil­lion peo­ple that you won’t oth­er­wise have. That’s real lever­age. Th­ese are peo­ple who are ac­tively en­gaged in what we do… it is like we have our own sub­scrip­tion base… Our job is to go out into the world and try to bring the re­al­ity that we see to a wider au­di­ence and there’s been no bet­ter time for that.”

A Big­ger Loop

Keep­ing up with so­cial me­dia can be time­con­sum­ing and you have to be dis­ci­plined in main­tain­ing a pres­ence with­out los­ing your­self for hours in the end­less stream of up­dates, tweets and no­ti­fi­ca­tions. Suc­cess­ful ex­po­nents of so­cial me­dia, such as Ash­ley Gilbertson and his VII coun­ter­parts, and Amer­i­can pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ben Lowy, spend a ded­i­cated time each day, and post reg­u­larly.

Con­sis­tency is ev­ery­thing. As is the tone you take. And while there is still an as­pect of smoke-and-mir­rors to the on­line world, if you’re not in it, you’re out of a much big­ger loop.

Is pho­to­jour­nal­ism dead? I don’t think so, but the rules of the game have changed as have the play­ers, and the space is more crowded now than ever. Some will strug­gle, oth­ers will thrive, but how is that any dif­fer­ent to other cre­ative pro­fes­sions?

It’s not al­ways the most tal­ented who rise, but those who are the most determined, the most busi­ness-savvy and know how to mar­ket them­selves. I think it’s an ex­cit­ing time for the genre, but it’s also very much a case of watch this space.

The in­escapable fact is that the world is more vis­ual, peo­ple are more vis­ually lit­er­ate and more at­tracted to the vis­ual than they ever were in the past. Th­ese are all huge pos­i­tives for any part of the in­dus­try.

The founders of the on­line photo agency DI­IMEX, Adrian Fowler (left) and Jeff Dar­manin. In a lit­tle over a year, DI­IMEX has signed up 1700 pho­tog­ra­phers from around the world, at­tracted by its higher fees and trans­parency.

Noted pic­ture edi­tor John G. Mor­ris pho­tographed at home in Paris, Oc­to­ber 2013. He cau­tions that pho­to­jour­nal­ism is not a soli­tary pur­suit, but rather a “group ef­fort”. Photo: Jane Eve­lyn At­wood/ Marabout, copy­right 2015.

CEO and co­founder of Getty Images, Jonathan Klein, con­tends that peo­ple are more vis­ually lit­er­ate and more at­tracted to the vis­ual than ever be­fore which are “huge pos­i­tives for any part of the in­dus­try”.

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