Visual stories: is photojournalism dying?

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I read somewhere recently that photojournalism is not dying but the model of distribution has changed. What does this even mean? As someone who used to work as an editorial photographer in Scotland, I wanted to pen some thoughts on whether or not photojournalism, in its rawest form, is dying.

In 2012 I started working as an editorial photographer for Gordon Jack and his agency scotimage.com. Gordon gave me my first ever paid photography job while I was in my final year of college in 2009; working in a family portrait studio. He later added me as a director of the studio and I started venturing into the world of wedding photography. I wanted to study photography because I was fascinated by photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Eddie Adams, and James Nachtwey, and I wanted to be able to tell visual stories like they did in their photographs. As yet, that’s not quite worked out, but I knew I wanted to pursue a career being more an editorial photographer, rather than being in a studio. Gordon heard my cries and decided to give me a chance working alongside him in the media world. He just happened to be (probably) Scotland’s best editorial photographer and was someone who had no problems sharing what they knew – a rarity in today’s media, and one of the many reasons he’s now so sadly missed.

Finding success

I began to find a love for creating images for feature articles and became quite good at writing pun-filled captions. I would look for stories in the everyday norms – I even pulled over my car once to ask a lady walking her ten Giant Poodles if I could take photos of her and her dogs some time. She agreed but I never followed up, and later realized someone else done this very thing a couple of years after I asked her (you can view one of the photos here). My caption would have been better! I mean I probably would have taken the photos somewhere near a big puddle with the caption: “Don’t step on that poodle!” I know. Yes, I did used to get paid to come up with ridiculousness like that.

Working as an editorial photographer meant a new job every day, which sounds like fun – and it was – but it also meant I was constantly seeking stories. I’d spend a lot of time on Twitter, listening to local radio, wakening up in the mornings and wondering what story I could pull together on any given day. It was fun, stressful, with a little bit of madness. I still see and hear things that make me think “that would make for a great set of photos”. Alas, I never find the time to pursue the story, or maybe I’ve gotten lazy?

It was in 2012 that I started to have photos featured pretty regularly in the national newspapers under the scotimage tagline, but 2014 was my most ‘successful’ year in this trade. I took a record number of photos that year and I think I’m still yet to match it. You can view a bunch of my published editorial photos through the years (from around 2013 – 2015) here.

My ‘best paid’ gig was when I decided to head to the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh on the day of the Scottish Referendum vote. It was a historical day and I’m glad I was there to witness the apprehensive excitement. The vote didn’t go the way I’d hoped, but at the time of taking the photos, I really thought Scotland would be progressing towards their independency the following day. The photos actually became more popular after the event due to the way the vote was broken down. The older generation voted a majority ‘no’ whereas the younger generation voted a majority ‘yes’ and so that story was told in these two photos:

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Here are two more, one of which tells more of a story now than it perhaps did then. Catalonia were fighting for their right to vote to be independent from Spain. We now know how that’s turned out.

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This was probably the last major event I covered. I had been working for a camera manufacturer from June that year and, ultimately, that paid better, so I started to lose time to seek out these kinds of stories. I really miss it. But, to be honest, I think it would be near impossible to make a living as an editorial photographer in Scotland now – unless you’re already established. Why? Well, after that big digression, it brings me to my question and the purpose of this blog: is photojournalism dying?

A change in direction or the downfall?

Traditional magazine and newspaper readership is forever in decline, with some publications now going fully digital or just not surviving at all. In turn, that means advertisers are pulling out from traditional magazine type adverts and, instead, using social media or content platforms. So, those publications that are going digital, are still faced with a big loss in advertisers’ money. With all these things in mind, this has created a big impact on the photographic industry. The ephemeral world we now live in, where news is outputted faster than it has ever been before, means it’s a lot easier for ‘smartphone reporters’ to take photos in an instant, as opposed to a publication hiring a photographer to do the job. Is it ignorance? Probably a little. But money talks and, for corporations/publications, when it’s a case of power vs kindness, power always prevails. So, as we seen brutally happen in 2015/16, publications cut their staff photographers. All of them. One of the lucky refugees of traditional photojournalism is National Geographic.

Why should we care to protect photojournalism? Well, as mentioned, the media is now fast-moving, and it’s lead to a post-truth world, where statements are made to play on emotions without any connect to real-world fact. Photojournalism has the ability to slow that down just enough for us to gain some real understanding again. Photojournalism is factual. That’s why it matters. Or at least part of why it matters.

The easy availability of free photos can now make us wonder how anyone ever made a living as a photojournalist. How often do you see media outlets asking people on Twitter if they can use their photo… for free? More often than makes me comfortable. The same photos and the same information seems to get regurgitated across each source, whatever happened to good ol’ journalism? Has journalism just got lazy? Have things like Twitter made journalism lazy? So many questions, so little answers.

Photojournalism vs. photo illustration

Looking through articles for research on this post, I found the sheer lack of any photojournalism. It’s really sad. There seems to be a real lack of investment in photojournalism. There are plenty photo illustrations – visuals to make things look pretty, albeit most of those look like stock imagery. The funding for good quality reportage style photojournalism appears to be dead, and that’s somewhat concerning. When was the last time you seen a significant photo-essay in any publication (bar Nat Geo)? Probably a long time ago. Why? Because they are not funded anymore. Not even by the once big times like Times and Telegraph.

There’s a little snobbery attached to photojournalism now. It’s attached to those photographers who can ‘afford’ to be photojournalists and means those who are worse off or us in the working-class can often fail to find success as a photojournalist. That too is concerning. It gives us a skewed view of the world and can contribute to our unconscious bias. It can hurt diversity and give us a one-sided view of the world.

What’s changed?

Remember the days where an editor would send their staff photographer to some part of the country to take a series of images because they valued their interpretation to tell the story, which would then be published? Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore. On a high level, we know the reasons why: the digital age killing the film industry and print turning digital too – but what are the ramifications of this? Editors now sift through Google Images and Twitter or find a photographer in the place they need photographed. That photographer could be great, but sadly, the likelihood is that there has probably been a negative compromise on quality and value of that work. Isn’t that a shame?

Now we could blame that on the lack of money as aforementioned, but there is an attitude towards it too. If editors know they can get something cheaply, then so be it – and that’s across all media content, not just photos.

On the philosophical devaluation of photography, photojournalist David R. Winslow said:

“It used to be about the vision of the photographer you were sending. It was not a bottom-line decision. It was about the caliber of journalism and the caliber of photography that was being produced.

Now, we’re willing to accept whatever we can afford to buy from somebody who’s already there. It’s not about the caliber of the journalism or photography. That’s a bean-counter decision.”

You should read his interview with the NY Times, every answer I found myself saying “that’s so true”.

To put a positive spin on this, we could look at it as photojournalists finally being free from the politics of newspapers. Photojournalism is more democratic now than it’s ever been before because photographers tell their stories as freed entities from newspapers and magazines. But that doesn’t make it financially viable to be a career photojournalist, right? Or does it? Maybe we just need to work a little harder to seek out the content platforms that still value our stories?

Embrace the change

Documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien sums it up nicely, whilst observing the change she still sees the positive:

"Assignments have changed, so people are not necessarily going to send you somewhere for months to work on one project. In general, if you want to work on long-term projects, you have to invest money yourself as well.

When Don McCullin's pictures were making it into the newspapers, his images would be the news. Now if I take a picture at Nelson Mandela's funeral, for instance, there are 300 other photographers there. There are so many images that you are never going to really shoot an iconic image. That's changed a lot. You're not the only one shooting – there are your colleagues, and there are people with phones.

I don't think a single image will ever lose its power. Single images, to me, are so strong – I can look at a single image and never forget it. But there are new ways of storytelling – with phones, with interactive online experiences and virtual reality – so it's important to see what matches the story."

 Social media guru Richard Stacy said:

“The social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.”

Being a glass half-full person, I like to try and find the positives, and I think this gives us food for thought.

Maybe we need to look at it another way. The internet is merely a distribution source, just like print. We can now reach a global audience for almost no cost. Yes, the internet did play a big role in the collapse of printed media, but isn’t it important for us to embrace this ‘new’ mode of distribution instead of giving up on photojournalism?

Is photojournalism dying? I’m optimistically saying no. We need to remember that photojournalism is the output of information, whether that be in books, newspapers, magazines, on the internet, etc. These are merely distribution sources for that output of information. To simplify, the modes of distribution are changing, but this doesn’t automatically mean the death of the sources of information. Editors perhaps need to start valuing those sources of information a little better again, but that shouldn’t hinder our deep need to tell stories. Should it?