Press photography: RIP?
press photographers are under huge pressure and many are losing their jobs, so is it still a viable career? Keith Wilson gets the inside story from three exponents
Keith Wilson gets the inside story from three working press photographers
Less than 20 years ago, the way we viewed news pictures was completely different from how we do now. A newspaper was delivered to the doorstep, next to the morning milk. Pictures were on a page. This was how we got the visual context to the story we’d heard the day before on the radio about the egg thrown at the prime minister, or that extratime goal that sent your team down in the last match of the season.
Fast forward to 2018 and few of us get the newspaper from the doorstep. Instead, when the alarm goes off, we reach for our phones and tap the news app of our choice. As for the photos and videos we view, chances are they weren’t taken by a press photographer at all. More than likely, they were taken by someone like you, using the same make of phone you’re holding in your hand. Today, news pictures are no longer the preserve of the press photographer, because everyone carries a camera. No one knows this better than the local press photographers themselves.
‘ There’s no way to compete with a person on the scene of an incident with a decent mobile phone camera and the ability to use it effectively,’ says Mike Swift, chief photographer for Newsquest Berkshire. Swift cites the public’s mobile phone footage of the 7/7 bombings on the London transport network in 2005 as the event that changed the way news pictures would be taken and sourced in the future. He says: ‘ The shocking shots of the bus opened up by the bomb, all of which made the front pages of national dailies, could not be beaten by full-time, paid staff photographers turning up with thousands of pounds of professional kit half an hour after the incident.’
It’s a view shared by Simon Dack, former chief photographer of The
Argus, based in Brighton, who detects a significant change in the public’s response to major incidents. No longer, he says, do people run for cover – instead they stand their ground and get out their phone. ‘It’s a strange world,’ says Dack, ‘ but the first thing members of the public do now is take pictures.’
In newspaper parlance, images supplied by the public are called ‘send-ins’ and most local papers now rely upon these for their news coverage. But press photographers use smartphones, too. Swift says: ‘It’s a powerful tool in the hands of a professional photographer and can be used to speed up processes and [can] even [be] slipped discreetly into events and meetings.’
Matthew Horwood, former staff photographer on the South Wales
Echo and Western Mail, agrees: ‘Once, walking through Cardiff on a particularly windy day with a DSLR over each shoulder and an iPhone in my hand, I turned the corner and a council signpost, a giant thing, blew over and hit some poor guy on the head. I took the picture with my iPhone as it was literally the camera I had in my hand at the time.’
However, Horwood’s example of being in the right place at the right time is a rare occurrence as fewer local press photographers actively pursue news pictures in a market where the free public send-in is more likely to be used. He elaborates: ‘I know professional photographers who have been told not to send pictures in to the paper and to ring in advance, just in case
they get used accidentally and the paper has to pay for them. I’ve pretty much given up on chasing local news – it just doesn’t make sense financially. The rates for sending in pictures to my local paper haven’t changed in 10 years.’
The emphasis now is on the need for local photographers to follow up a story illustrated by the public’s send-ins. ‘You change your way of thinking,’ says Simon Dack. ‘For news stories now I will often go in for the aftermath or get in behind the story, which a member of the public wouldn’t do.’ Dack has over 40 years of experience in local and national press photography and today works as a freelance supplying
The Argus with soft news and features, local sports, as well as
football for The Sun. He says: ‘A lot of photographers are more diverse now, doing marketing and PR, stuff for national agencies, and sport. You’ve got to be more varied in your thinking.’
If diversity is a requirement of today’s local press photographers, so too is the ability to identify situations where competition from public send-ins is less likely. ‘Court stories would be a good example,’ says Horwood. ‘Most people won’t want to spend all morning waiting for a defendant to walk down the steps of Cardiff Crown Court.’ True, although there’s nothing to stop a defendant from taking a selfie on the court steps and posting on social media once acquitted.
Now freelance, Cardiff-based Horwood notes that while local newspaper print sales have declined, online impressions have grown dramatically, opening the way for more video content. ‘When I started, the newspaper was the primary product but now it’s very much online first,’ he says. ‘Video is in demand because the publisher can put an advert into the content and know that if they get a certain number of hits they will get revenue. Viral video is really successful and it’s usually hard to come by.’
Mike Swift also acknowledges this. ‘ The technology has changed the job,’ he says. ‘I use my iPhone as a front-line camera and you can also edit video clips on it, which are the future for us press photographers.’
Sunny breaks in the clouds
Some bastions of local press coverage, however, remain as strong as ever. ‘Everyone loves weather, so every day is an opportunity for weather photography,’ says Simon Dack. ‘Papers like The Express and
The Sun are obsessed with it, which is good news for us. This summer’s heatwave has been a real bonus!’
Indeed, 2018 has been a good year for local press photography, according to Dack: as well as the heatwave, there was the Royal wedding and the World Cup to cover from a local perspective. ‘ There were street parties and open-air events, and the same with the World Cup, photographing the fans watching on the beach. The Argus used a lot of that stuff and used it very well.’
Getting a picture of the local perspective on a national or international event remains one of the strengths of local press photography, and for this, knowledge is key. It is a point stressed by Mike Swift: ‘ The most important part of the local newspaper photographer’s job is knowledge of the patch and the relationship with the people in it,’ he says. ‘I am the face of the paper – not a pretty face, but after 30 years working the patch, I’m known to everyone. That’s something that you can’t learn or buy into.’
Dack points to the public’s own attachment to local newspapers as another reason why there is still a place for local press photographers. ‘People still like to see themselves in
the paper,’ he says. ‘For instance, at the football, the paper always asks us to do a set of fan pictures for every home game, because the fans love seeing themselves in the paper.’ He believes it is the tangibility of print, the feel of paper in the hand, that many people find irreplaceable. ‘I do PR stuff for schools and quite often you go in and they will have cuttings pinned up. They like to see articles about themselves in the newspaper because it’s still got a place in the community.’
Despite those positive expressions, the fact remains that the vast majority of local press photographers are no longer full-time staffers, but freelance operators who mix press pictures with PR and corporate shoots, marketing and agency work. Despite this, Mike Swift believes standards haven’t suffered because of staff cuts. ‘ The standard of work from the local press photographers I know is better than ever. We have bigger areas to cover and we now manage some of our former colleagues as freelancers, but the pictures are as good as ever.’
However, this view isn’t shared in Wales, where Matthew Horwood believes standards of photography have declined. ‘Some of the pictures you see in local papers today wouldn’t have seen the light of day years ago, but there is much, much more content these days.’ His advice to anyone wanting to break into local press photography is sobering: ‘I know as a freelancer I’d find it very difficult, if not impossible, to make a living from just selling pictures to the local press. The best advice I could give anyone starting out is to look at what is being used on newspaper websites and try to see what is working. Most stories on my local newspaper website have video of some sort – so if you can build this into your workflow, you’ll have a better chance than someone who is just shooting pictures.’
Simon Dack remains positive about the future: ‘ You’re still doing the same work but varying who you do it for,’ he says. ‘I certainly don’t think it’s dead yet, it’s just changing.’ But he has one word of warning: ‘ The key would be if papers stop covering football; it is probably the thing that keeps papers going. The day after a Brighton match, the circulation always goes up and that’s been the case since the ’80s and ’90s. It’s the same on the nationals. People still like reading about their team.’
So, the full-time whistle has yet to be blown on local press photography but no one knows for sure how much of the match is left to run. Extra time? Penalties, anyone?
‘There is no way to compete with a person on the scene of an incident with a decent mobile phone’
The driver of a vintage steam tractor intently watches the road ahead during the London to Brighton Historic Commercial Vehicle Run Nikon D4S, 70-200mm, 1/1250sec at f/2.8, ISO 200
The emotion of GCSE results day at Langley Academy, Slough Fujifilm X-T20, 18-55mm, 1/125sec at f/3.6, ISO 1600
One man, his dog and a paddleboard – how to enjoy the summer heatwave Nikon D3S, 70-200mm, 1/1000sec at f/11, ISO 640
Soldiers on a winter training exercise in the Brecon Beacons after a snowstorm Nikon D4S, 70-200mm, 1/1600sec at f/4, ISO 1000
Community concern about drug use in Reading starkly expressed in street graffiti Fujifilm X-T20, 18-55mm, 1/180sec at f/11, ISO 400
The view of this year’s Pride Cymru Parade in Cardiff Nikon D5, 70-200mm, 1/8000sec at f/2.8, ISO 200