Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism

October 5, 2010 · by David Campbell · media economy, photography

State of photojournalism e1323636649668 Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism

Photography has always been associated with death. The French painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead” after he saw his first daguerreotype. Whatever the provenance of that quote, miniature portrait painting was replaced by new photographic technologies, even though their long exposure times meant, as Geoffrey Batchen has written, “if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.” And with the rise of digital technologies in the 1980s and 1990s the discourse of photography’s death gained new life, as various commentators declared that the ease of image manipulation meant that photography’s documentary status had come to a terminal end.

As a specific practice within the broad field of photography, photojournalism has had its death proclaimed on numerous occasions too. In the 1950s the influential curator and critic John Szarkowski declared that photojournalism’s heyday had lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. For those who didn’t accept this early cessation, the closure of Life magazine in 1972 was taken to be the moment of morbidity. Continuing signs of vitality have often been met with other declarations of death, as in The Digital Journalists’ January 2000 editorial (which was revisited in recent articles here and here). In the run-up to the 2009 Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan The New York Times weighed in with a “lament for a dying field.” Then in August this year, Neil Burgess – who has managed a number of prominent agencies and is an agent for Sebastiao Salgado and others – finally decided to call it: “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.”

How can we understand these repeated death certificates? What drives these declarations when there is abundant evidence of the continuing production of new photographic stories? I want to examine these questions by thinking through the definition of photojournalism and some important moments in its history. I then want to suggest that if we appreciate the difference between a mode of information and a mode of distribution, we can understand much better exactly what is supposed to have been killed.

What is photojournalism and when did it live?

‘Photojournalism’ 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 many – like Christopher Anderson and Martin Parr – are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice in which 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 photography, editorial photography, and the like, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

The history of photojournalism is well told in Mary Panzer’s introduction to Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955, a book published by Chris Boot for the 50th anniversary of World Press Photo. Beginning with the Illustrated London News in 1842 and the first mechanically reproduced photograph in The New York Daily Graphic in 1880, it is clear that photojournalism has been profoundly influenced by new technologies and the modes of story telling they make possible. The arrival of small 35mm cameras in the 1920s, combined with the emergence of picture magazines in Germany, France and the United States in the 1930s, meant photo stories were more easily produced and published.

It did not take long, however, for the commercial constraints of these media outlets to grate with photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith’s resignation from Life magazine in 1955 after an editorial dispute came at a time, Panzer notes, when “most of the leading photojournalists were already freelance.” In the 1960s, wanting to exercise their editorial freedom photographers who started out working for magazines took advantage of reduced printing costs and started to bypass periodicals by publishing books. This was a significant development, as Panzer notes:

In retrospect, the point when photojournalists chose to publish their work in their own books coincides with the moment when the form began to outgrow its origins. A creation of the press, the photojournalist was beginning to claim a role beyond it.

Combined with the creation of galleries specifically for photography and increased interest from museums in the practice, visual story-tellers now had multiple avenues along which their work could travel. Indeed, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, a show currently at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, makes the case that socially conscious photojournalism has flourished independently of the print media for decades.

Modes of information and modes of distribution

Central to understanding the current status and potential futures of photojournalism and documentary photography we need to always keep in mind the distinction between modes of information and modes of distribution.

Social media consultant Richard Stacy has provided what I think is the most succinct way to understand the defining characteristic of the evolving media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.

This is because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution and collapsed the cost of printing, as I discussed in my series of posts last year on the revolutions in the media economy. The web – the hyperlinked network of sites accessed via the Internet – offers a historically unparalleled opportunity to have a mode of distribution with global reach at virtually no cost (at least assuming access to computers and broadband, something that does have a price and is yet to be universal).

This repositions any debate about the ‘death of journalism’ and the ‘death of photojournalism’. We need to understand that journalism is the information and newspapers are the means of distribution. Equally, photojournalism is the information, and newspapers, magazines, books, and galleries are the means of distribution. There are profound changes underway in the modes of distribution, but this does not translate into the end for the modes of information.

So let’s come back to Neil Burgess’s recent declaration of photojournalism’s death. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, Neil was talking about the ‘death’ of a mode of distribution:

Today I look at the world of magazine and newspaper publishing and I see no photojournalism being produced. There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.

You can see how Neil ties photojournalism directly to magazine and newspaper publishing. He recognizes that visual stories are being produced, but because they are being enabled by sources other than magazines and newspapers, for him they do not count as photojournalism. He then underlines this by declaring:

We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether…there is no journalism organisation funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so called news organisations.

Even in its own terms, Neil recognizes (as he told the Foto8 Story is Born seminar in London on 1 October) that this is too bold a statement, as there is still the occasional piece commissioned by a news organization.

But even if news organisation offered no current support, Neil was wrong to suggest that as a mode of information photojournalism was no more. Photojournalism – or documentary photography, or whatever name we want to give visual story telling about the world – is not defined by its paymaster and mode of distribution. As David Walter Banks of Luceo recently observed, “It is absolutely ridiculous to say that photojournalism is dead…it’s definitely changing, but I think that’s exciting. The modes of delivery and consumption are changing, but there’s a lot of great work being done.”

If photojournalism had been left to the magazines and newspapers over the last fifty years it might very well have died. Richard Stacey knows why  – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”

That fact that as a practice, as a mode of information, photojournalism and documentary photography is very much alive is because over the last fifty years it has not tied its entire future to modes of distribution that are now undergoing revolutionary changes. That future has many challenges, but it is a future that has already moved well beyond the fortunes of newspapers and magazines.

References:

  • Geoffrey Batchen, “Ectoplasm,” Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (London: Chris Boot Ltd, in association with World Press Photo, 2005).

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

19 Responses to “Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism”

  1. Great article. I feel that as technology increases, the capabilities of photo equipment also increases, thus providing opportunities for photography that may have been previously out of touch. Humans are visual creatures. We are drawn to brilliance and can empathize with images of others. I would hate to see the day that accurate, compelling photos that tell stories are something of the past. OurBlook.com, did an interview about the future of photojournalism that I found very interesting as well. And as an added bonus, the article by Enzo Dal Verme mentions David Campbell. http://www.ourblook.com/Reporters-and-the-Media/The-Future-of-Photography-The-Future-of-Journalism.html

  2. Thanks for your insight into the topic. I was already wondering if this blog had been abandoned. I’m happy I let it remain it my RSS feed.

    In short:

    As you point out the recent discussion has mostly been labelled as the death of photojournalism instead of the death of its traditional distribution methods: news papers, magazines et cetera.

    I do not believe that socially aware documentary photography is going dieing or going anywhere but I also can’t help but to recognize the power of traditional print media in comparison to more recent means of distribution. Sure, the web is a great way of putting out many type of information including documentary and journalism photography but only to a limited audience who is actively looking for this content. Web production are in this way very similar to gallery shows: they most of the time do not catch the eye of the major public. I fear documentary photography is becoming more and more a club-like thing, something of an interest to only a limited group of people. I would say I have no problem coming across good photojournalism online – most of the time free of charge, but is not the case with most of the people I know. They read news papers, both in print and online.

    Is it possible the expenses of promoting a specific website come as large as those of traditional print media in a given region and size of followers? How do you get your word out in the online jungle and reach the audience?

  3. theonly thing I would like to see die off is HDR

  4. First, great article.

    Most photojournalists I know go out on a limb to cover the stories that need to be covered. Many no longer work for papers or magazines, they shot the stories they feel are important and find an outlet.

    You show an editor an well shot story of a timely issue, they find ways to publish it. And there are plenty of opportunities to get your work published, either in print or on the web.

    I don’t think photojournalism will ever die. It’s just changing and morphing in ways many have not expected it to.

  5. Thanks for these great comments.

    @Ashley Moon – thanks for the link. I think the new technologies make the production and distribution of the compelling stories possible, although they of course do not guarantee attention let alone action. Both those things have to be created and do not follow automatically.

    @J. Raevuori – glad you left his blog in the RSS feed! I was on a summer hiatus while working in Australia and negotiating a major career change, so am now hoping to write more regularly. You raise great questions about power and influence and I would make two observations in response…first, I don’t think we should overstate the power of the traditional/mass media. Just because a story is published in a paper or magazine doesn’t guarantee a mass audience let along certain change. But, secondly, I think you are right to point to the need for the new technologies to work in conjunction with traditional media. This is happening anyway as established media organisations embrace social media. Indeed, someone wrote recently that all media is social media, so the boundaries between ‘old’ and ‘new’ are greatly blurred. We have a new ecology of information emerging, and it includes a networked journalism. But the great thing, if we think of informations vs. distribution, is that the traditional media are no longer the gatekeepers on the production and distribution of stories. How does one get the word out online? By having good content and networking through social media, building a community of interest for that work in the process.

    @canon-shooter – I’m glad you picked up the HDR allusion the title image of the post…there’s more to say about aesthetics and photojournalism, and a post on that is in preparation.

    @pabloconrad – Yes, it’s all about the story, and the effort of an image maker to tell that story. What is interesting is that the freelancing model has been central to photojournalism from the beginning, so if we take a longer historical view the current moment is not as different as some suggest.

  6. Thanks for an interesting article.
    Perhaps you will enjoy my short video-report on the future of photo-journalism from Visa Pour l’Image 2010. We spoke with the director J-F Leroy, Brian Storm, Alain Frilet and more than a handful others involved in the field.
    You can watch the report on my blog: http://www.farfetched.be/node/52
    Best regards wishing you much joy in the future from a profession that changes but cannot die.

  7. @AFcrew – thanks for the link to the video. Very interesting and well worth a watch. Lots of good interviews, but the stunning moment for me is when J-F Leroy says that while the internet is good for distribution, “nobody earns any money with it.” If that is a common view then it really is time for better understanding in the field, because there are plenty of corporations and individuals making money via the web. Most obviously, Corbis and Getty, the latter a Visa sponsor, have based their entire business existence on the capabilities provided by digital distribution through the internet. Leroy’s comment is remarkable for its lack of understanding of what has been happening through the last decade, let alone into the future.

  8. @AFcrew & David Campbell:

    Speaking of money-earning or independently funded documentary projects something I recently came across with comes to mind:

    http://www.thesochiproject.org/home/

    Very much worth having a look!

  9. Hello,
    Great Information here.

    I think Paul Delaroche meant painters were freed from the representational function of portrait painting by the camera. So painters at the time could become more creative, rather than produce and continue what he felt was a mundane, repetitive (but profitable) task of posterity-based portraiture, popular at the time.

    ‘Photojournalism’ isn’t dead, its evolved. No doubt there.
    Magnum & how their attitude has changed towards photojournalism should be mentioned.

    I Visited the Getty Exhibition ‘Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties’
    a few weeks ago. A powerful study on photojournalism, it’s different guises and relevance to the future. The war work by James Nachtwey ‘the Sacrifice’ stood out, but also the more urban works of Lauren Greenfield. The world is better informed thanks to these artists.

    Photojournalism is not only alive, but I think more important today BECAUSE of digitization and the Internet. Perhaps now the emphasis can be on quality and longevity rather than quantity and speed.

    Human history is inexplicably linked to the photographic image. Photojournalism in popular media seems to be monopolized by a handful of news agencies.
    So now is the time we need more professional photographers who are ‘engaged observers’ rather than simply more photographers.

    So, a lot less jobs in the oversubscribed competitive photojournalism industry, YES.
    ‘Death’ of photojournalism, NO.
    If Photography is ‘Dead’, in the sense Paul Delaroche meant with painting,

    It’s about time.

  10. David,

    I really enjoyed this post. It was thought provoking and very well researched. I never thought about photography as the death of anything, but after reading this post I began to reconsider my point of view. The background information on photography beginning by killing painting was very interesting. The introduction helped to put an accurate timeline on the history of photography and the evolution of journalism as a whole. I really enjoyed the link to Neil Burgess’ article, “Photojournalism: Time of Death 11.12 GMT 1st August 2010. Amen.” The varieties of resources that are included in this post add to its relevance in the argument of photojournalism as a dead art.

    I agree with your definition of photojournalism because I think that it is a way of telling a story through another avenue. The use of pictures to better tell a story while showing an accurate relationship to the world and text is what makes photojournalism worth spending time on. After reading your post, I think that there will always be a need for information and the modes of information will never die. The modes of distribution may be ever-changing, but whatever type of distribution that is used, it will always convey the information. With technology and the advances of the internet it makes sense that distribution is changing. If photojournalism is the source of information and newspapers, magazine and galleries are the form of distribution, there will always be a place for photojournalism in today’s media driven, information desiring, society.

    After reading this post I was wondering what your stance was on Richard Stacey’s quotes, which you included in the post. I personally find this quote to be the best way to sum up the importance of photojournalism. Also, do you think that people are more visual today than they were when photography first showed up? If so, how does that influence what types of stories make the news? Are stories that are visually appealing more important, or are stories with substance the most important? Lastly, since photojournalists have managed to detach themselves from newspapers and magazines do you believe that they will survive the changes in the media world?
    Great Post!

  11. @Harpreet – thanks for the comment, and I think you have an important take on the Delaroche quote. As I alluded to in the post, while it is an oft-cited statement, there is little evidence that Delaroche actually said it in that form! So what is interesting is the way something of uncertain provenance has come to be repeated so often – it suggests we search for ways to talk easily about beginnings and ends even when new developments are much more complex in their effects.

    @Johnni – thanks for the comment and questions. I think Stacey’s idea that the break between information and distribution is what marks the social media revolution is one of the most important ways of resetting our thinking about what is happening in the current environment. As you point out, and the post tries to detail, this means we can think about modes of information in ways that are not limited by historical ties to particular modes of distribution. I am sceptical, though, about claims we are more visually oriented than past generations or other cultures. Remember that the visual incorporates all traces on a surface (like writing) and not just the pictorial. And even if we think about the pictorial, that has been prominent through history, although we obviously have a scale and intensity to the circulation of images that does differ from the past. When it comes to thinking about new stories – meaning in-depth, documentary projects – I think the crucial thing is how the visual works to connect with other forms of information to provide the most interesting and penetrating account of an event’s or issue’s context. And because of that I have little doubt that the practice of photojournalism as a mode of information will survive – indeed, is actually thriving now – by accommodating itself to, and drawing from, the transformations currently underway.

  12. iamnotasuperstarphotographer October 20, 2010 at 1:21 am

    I get all the complexities in the stuff that is written. Modes of this, modes of that, distribution issues and informational content. It all makes perfect sense and is part of analysing what has gone wrong in certain parts of the industry but that is the world of academia.

    It will not produce change as understanding and analysing the reasons why it is not working is not the same as being creative enough to build something new. They are different skills but lets go to the simple basics of business. R&D spend, marketing spend and investment.

    Ever since the agencies decided to let the photographers manage their businesses, it has failed.

    Why? Because it has failed to market themselves and it has failed to invest in innovation. Ever since the explosion of NGO’s post Live Aid in the 80’s and the growth of the gallery world, the income has been kept in ever decreasing circles and not re-invested to maintain the health of the industry. In fact, aspiring photographers are now a source of income for the establishment (e.g photography courses and portfolio review costs). That is madness and cannibalising your own industry by profiting from hope is not a path to success.

    Getty did what all good companies did. Adapt and invest in opportunity. Created their own market by being much more efficient in their service to their clients by investing in their platform wisely. Who else has done that and more importantly, who does it with a view to having the public as their potential audience? Getty are a business to business supplier of images to other businesses.

    Who uses the public to generate the knowledge deep enough to react, invest and promote what they find to work though creativity and innovation?

    The gallery market is socially exclusive. Limited editions functions for the minority and that is not journalism or documentary in my eyes. That is art and that market has been artificially created. Limited editions of something that can be reproduced infinitely in volume perfectly is basically price fixing.

    NGO’s? They are still being run by the culture of dependency that aid has given in the less efficient and less accountable parts of that industry. Photojournalism has suffered by being part of a meritocracy that values being socially close to the fund giver more than using proven market forces to determine the allocation of capital. That has always lowered the quality of the output – look at the industrial output in communism when all one had to do is please the resource allocator and not the public – they are secondary in this industry.

    How do you sack non performing charity photo editors? How are they even measured? I seriously do not know but without this pressure – change does not come. How can it? From a single moment of individual genius?

    Who is accountable to the public? Magazine photo editors? Removed from the public as one is accountable to the editor. Galleries? Minority interest and geographically specific. Getty? No, their main clients are other businesses.

    Without accountability to the public in a quantifiable manner, all we have are the same visual opinions from the same set of people coming from the same demographic telling the same stories in the same conventional ways being applauded by the same people because it is safer that way as it is self affirming.

    How can you react given the power of the competition? How can you show a product so devoid of market discipline so as to based more on principle than on practicality, based more on the politics of representation rather than the representation of people and has no incentive to change.

    Business is really simple. The laws universal. Reach the public, constantly ask them for their approval, do not do what they do not like and try to give them something they can believe in. Please please please try to be as diverse as they are so your output matches the audience. Look at the demographics of the producers high up in these NGO’s and agencies. Corporates have been doing this diversity things for ages and are much better at allocating their resources by getting market information.

    All I see from photojournalism are forms of elitism and protectionism.

    An academic discussion on modes of distribution and modes of information is one way of looking at it but that has been discussed for years and years and forgive me for saying it – nothing has changed. Business has no time for that because it moves too quickly so it has to take risks. They are more literal and from the business world you would simply ask “Why do you do what you do?” “Who do you do it for?” before enforcing the critical “Just get it done” bit.

    I hope I am wrong so can someone tell me who is reaching the public in the photojournalism industry in an organised way or why Photojournalism should be exempt from these simple rules?

    Change is not going to come because someone finds a magic solution in some new way. Someone is going to use the technology revolution to apply the old disciplines of a solid business before the establishment reacts.

    I hope this gives a very different spin to the whole academic debate as photojournalism has failed because it has failed as a business. The solutions I bet will come from the business world and this is great because the maximum benefit is reaped from the point of maximum distress because the establishment is weakened beyond its ability to respond. That time is coming if not here already.

    • @iamnotasuperstarphotographer: I’ve offered a brief response to your wide-ranging comments here and elsewhere after the first lengthy comment you left on the post of 11 October 2010.

  13. David. Yes, very Interesting, does ask questions.

    Thanks for you contributions to our #Phonar module, here at Coventry University too.
    Much Appreciated.

    Harpreet

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