Does Photojournalism Have A Future?
The STaTe Of Play
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.
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.
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”.
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”.