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

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

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.’

Smart­phone ad­van­tage

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

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