How do the revolutions in the media economy (detailed in the first and second post of this series) affect photojournalism? Given both the crisis in the distribution of information and the new opportunities for the structure of information, what futures are there for photojournalism?
This assumes ‘photojournalism’ is an accepted category of photographic practice. It is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and may are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice where someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary or editorial photography, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.
Of all the journalistic forms said to have died, none have had their demise declared more often than photojournalism. The recent Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan was previewed with articles lamenting a “dying field” because of the revolutions in the media economy, but such warnings have been frequent throughout the recent history of photojournalism (as in a 1999 editorial in The Digital Journalist, which was revisited in recent articles here and here).
Many of the concerns about the health of photojournalism have been well placed. The financial fragility of agencies like Eyedea and the liquidation of Grazia Neri show traditional business models are faltering badly.
This is the beginning of the end of a long decline. The traditional model of print distribution and direct editorial funding has been unravelling from the 1970s onwards, ever since weekly pictorial magazines like Life folded. This demonstrates photojournalism that required an editorial paymaster was in trouble long before the Internet was an issue or the global recession added to its woes.
How do photojournalists view the contemporary media revolutions?
As a community of practice photojournalism does not have a single voice with a consensus view. There are photographers attuned to the new media economy and working in new ways. But there have recently been a number of notable comments that indicate the world of photojournalism is paying minimal attention to contemporary debates about the revolutions in the media economy, or resorting to some commonly circulated but ill-founded views on how to proceed:
- The photographic press is yet to explore in any detail the impact of the media revolutions on its constituency. For example, Photo District News had a blog post in June 2009 that devoted a mere two hundred words to wondering (without discussing, let alone answering) “if the journalism business fails, who pays for photojournalism?” but it and similar organs are yet to offer more detailed accounts.
- One outlet that has offered a view is The Digital Journalist, which published two remarkable editorials in August and September 2009 – remarkable, that is, for containing some of the least considered commentary available. The August editorial held the Internet largely responsible for the current problems, made the mistake of conflating newspapers and journalism, and plumped for pay walls around news sites as the answer. In manner that would have befitted the East German regime in its dying days, it cried out – “Let us build that wall before it is too late.” It is very odd to see a major player parroting the same flawed arguments of the traditional media outlets that have done photographers no favours in recent years.
- The September editorial of The Digital Journalist then demanded that foundations hand over large sums of money to multimedia publications (including itself), who would then distribute those funds to individual photographers with “projects that deserve coverage.” I’m a fan of the named companies who are a big part of the future (or, more accurately, the present) of photojournalism, but are the foundations really likely to part with large wads of up-front cash? Importantly, why would we want a system of new gatekeepers, and what about the fact that many of those digital producers are already partnering with photographers and getting foundation funding for specific projects? These arguments and proposals seem fundamentally out of touch with what is or likely to happen.
- In an interview with John Temple, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Cheryl Diaz Myer endorsed paying for on-line content (“I’m a fan of micropayments for the web”). In a demonstration of how unfounded examples gain an aura of truth simply by being repeated, Diaz argued that if the news media followed the iTunes model or the Financial Times subscription system then things would be better – ignoring the arguments cited in my first post of this series that demonstrate Apple’s model cannot be copied because music is a different commodity to news, and that the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are atypical news outlets that distribute economically valuable information.
- Leo Hsu’s foto8 post on “The End of Newspapers” takes a novel tack on the debate by asking, “Without newspapers, without the received standards of print publications, what expectations will we have of photographs and their ability to speak “truth”? In the wake of renewed concerns about photographic manipulation (which I have discussed here) Hsu is worried about how norms that contest fabrication will be governed. It is an interesting argument with respect to the veracity of images, but its assumptions about newspapers repeat the common mistake of seeing information and its mode of distribution as the same thing. It is the community of practice around photojournalism that establishes and governs standards, and that is independent of any particular mode of distribution, as the on-line debates about manipulation this year clearly demonstrate. Most importantly, contra Hsu, it is the practice of journalism and not the institution of newspapers that have, in some moments, sustained democracy. We must not confuse the two and their different roles.
There have been some good analyses of the new media economies from within photojournalism – Aric Mayer’s review of the publishing crisis and the crisis in editorial photography come to mind – but overall there needs to be a better recognition in the field of what is going on and what it means.
What inspiration can photojournalism take from the media revolutions?
Many of the recent debates within photojournalism have concerned the coverage of issues and the aesthetics of that coverage. In the wake of the last two World Press Photo competitions there have been insightful and provocative comments on how photojournalism pictures the world by Stephen Mayes and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, which prompted some heated feedback (see here for the comments on Mayes lecture and here for a response to Broomberg and Chanarin). Mayes observation that his years as secretary of the World Press Photo jury led him to regard the submissions to the contest as primarily “romantic” – that is, “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” – chimed with other critiques, such as Jörg Colberg’s thoughts on the visual language of photojournalism, which prompted an extensive discussion on the Magnum blog.
These are vital debates even if there is no single resolution. My concern here, however, is with how the revolutions in the new media economy provide photojournalism with new opportunities for the future. These opportunities are made clear by thinking about what the changing structure of information does for photojournalism, and this changing structure of information will undoubtedly assist photojournalism in responding to the concerns about aesthetics and coverage of issues. Inspired by the themes of my previous post, we can say at the outset:
- The web is where it is at. Photographers must not ignore the full range of outlets (print media, books, exhibitions etc) but the Internet is the only platform with a growing audience for news stories
- To be on the web means producing multimedia stories. ‘Multimedia’ can mean many things, from simple photo galleries through to stand alone topic sites with stills, audio, video and text together, but it is the combination of sound and image which offers the basis for the most compelling form for storytelling
To say as much is to state the blindingly obvious. Photographers have been using the Internet for years, but what is at stake here is something more than having a shop window on the web. It involves seeing oneself as a publisher of content and a participant in a distributed story, the form of which helps reshape the content of the story. Rather than just producing a single image or small series of images to be sold into another person’s story, multimedia on the web has numerous advantages for visual storytellers:
- It allows photographers to focus on a story, and produce more content with greater control over how those pictures are presented
- While the meaning of visual stories can’t be controlled, they can be directed through the construction of a narrative that draws on sound and text as well as photographs and video
- It potentially overcomes restrictions on getting longer and more complex stories published for a global audience, especially younger generations who do not consume traditional media
- It is an effective response to the conceptual challenge of how to provide context for a photograph
- It can overcomes photojournalism’s objectification of people by giving subjects their own voice
This gels with the changing nature of the atomic unit of the news media discussed in the previous post. Running parallel to a shift from ‘article’ to ‘topic’ will be the move from ‘single picture’ or ‘photo essay’ to ‘visual story’ as part of the multi-dimensional narratives that make up a ‘topic’. Moreover, the visual story will be set in context, linked, updated and distributed across the web.
There are increasing numbers of photographers beginning to work in this way, as sites like Interactive Narratives or KobreGuide demonstrate. However, what I am trying to highlight here is more than a shift from taking stills to producing videos. It is about rethinking the capacity to tell stories in line with what Fred Ritchin calls a “new visual journalism,” which he outlined in greater detail here.
Ritchin has long been a leading proponent on these changes. Back in the early days of the web (1996) he produced what is still one of the most innovative multimedia stories, “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” which was organized around Gilles Peress’ photography and published by the New York Times. Ritchin analysed this production in a significant essay called “Witnessing and the Web: An Argument for a New Photojournalism” and has recently developed these ideas in his important book After Photography where he outlines, conceptually and practically, a new practice called “hyperphotography.”
Hyperphotography is a “paradigm shift into another medium, or more precisely into an interactive, networked multimedia, which distances itself from conventional photography” (p. 70). For Ritchin this means “an entire photograph can…serve as a node, a hyperphotograph, an ambiguous, visual, uncaptioned, tantalizing segment of a developing conversation leading, if the reader is willing, to other photographs, other media, other ideas (p. 71). Far from being abstract, Ritchin’s concept has practical pointers on how information can be embedded in images, offering viewers the option of deciding which links they follow in a non-linear fashion.
This move from ‘photojournalism’ to ‘visual journalism,’ from ‘photography’ to ‘hyperphotography’ does not involve either giving up on the still image or abandoning the documentary function of photography. It might employ a variety of new media formats, such as those used by FLYP magazine or the In a City flipbook curated by DJ Clark for the British Council. Whatever its exact form, it uses the power of photography to help structure a multi-dimensional story that through its links, context and openness can be a strong form of evidence for the story it wishes to tell.
How are photojournalists going to get paid in these changing times?
We have to constantly revisit this conundrum, but each time we get back to this point we have to remember something very important.
We can’t approach this issue via some misplaced nostalgia for a golden age that if it did actually exist certainly no longer survives. Photographic stories or documentary have always been difficult to fund directly. If there was a time when the majority of photojournalists simply waited for well-paid commissions to produce important work, that time is no more. We have to doubt though whether the past was like that, because in reality few if any photographers have been able to sustain a career entirely through editorial projects they chose to do. Even Sebastião Salgado had to do corporate and advertising work to cross-subsidise work on the social issues he wanted to explore, and Simon Norfolk sells his prints to a wealthy clientèle through a fine art gallery in order to support his visual critique of the US military.
That means, as mentioned in the previous posts, funding is increasingly going to be indirect. This was confirmed by Stephen Mayes of VII in a an interview headlined “Inventing Twenty-First Century Photojournalism.” Mayes began by stating “as long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble.” Instead he proposed this shift:
[The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.
Mayes’ thoughts were reasonably conventional in so far as magazines and newspapers were his primary distributors. Nonetheless, they attracted some outraged comments, with two people alleging that journalism dies the moment one enters into a partnership with the subject. To which Mayes replied, “it amazes me how this question comes up only when discussing non-publishing partners as though the integrity of the news industry is somehow unquestionable. Like fish in water we often fail to recognize the constraints of our existing media…”
I couldn’t agree more. If some of the great photojournalists had adhered to this absolutism we would have been deprived of great pictures – think, for example of how a Larry Burrows needed the US military to get around Vietnam, or a Tom Stoddart required assistance from MSF to travel in Sudan. Of course partnerships vary and anyone concerned about integrity will have to work hard to maintain independence, but that applies in all situations. Aside from the fact the old editorial paymaster model is all but gone, the idea that taking money from corporate media funded by advertising, so that one can create content which will attract more viewers for that advertising, is free from all moral issues is…well, rather daft.
Nobody works in an ethically pure zone. VII has to face those issues with its sponsorship by Canon, anyone working with an NGO or foundation needs to confront them too, and in accepting a commission from a newspaper or on-line site the same applies. Negotiating those issues requires transparency and reflexivity. Operating in the networked world of social media is one way to achieve that openness and integrity.
In the end, creating unique, quality content in a myriad of multimedia formats is the best way to produce value. We know great imagery on the web can drive traffic to sites and around particular stories, and where there is traffic there will be networks, relationships and the opportunity to find ways to fund that content. This does not mean multimedia, visual journalism or hyperphotography will kill off books, exhibitions and the printed image. But those forms of distribution will comprise only a part of a successful photographers portfolio of activity in the new media economy.
Photo credit: Today is a good day/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license