Funeral For Photojournalism?

One of the earliest pieces I wrote for soon after I became the photography guide in 1999 was entitled ‘The Death of Photojournalism‘ and included a potted history of the genre along with some thoughts about the future. My pessimism then was occasioned by attending a show of the work of Brian Harris, “one of the UK’s best and most prolific photojournalists” who had worked his way up from starting at 16 as a messenger boy in Fleet Street eventually becoming a staff photographer on The Times and then in 1986 became the first photographer for a new daily, The Independent, which promised “to reject the typical newspaper contrived pictures and photocalls and to publish honest and powerful photojournalism.

At the start of 1999, Harris had written about his concern for photography in UK newspapers, with an increasing trend to use agency pictures and freelances rather than employing photographers. Within two weeks of this being published in the British Journal of Photography, the Independent acknowledged it had abandoned its radical policy by removing Harris’s own staff job.  As you can see from his web site this hasn’t prevented him from continuing to produce some fine stories, and there are still some great photographers working for the newspapers. The web has at least provided an opportunity for the papers such as The Guardian to feature slide shows of their work, where previously only a single image might have made the paper.

Another piece of sad evidence in my 1999 piece was the demise of the print version of Reportage magazine, started by Colin Jacobson to showcase fine photojournalism, mostly publishing work that magazines and newspapers had failed to show much interest in.

Here again the story since is not entirely gloom, with an even more successful magazine and gallery taking up the baton in Foto8, with Jacobson himself making contributions on line in his far too occasional MOG’s (Miserable Old Git) blog .

Back in 1999 too, I was able to point out that recently Tom Picton had written in Red Pepper:

‘Twenty years ago Philip Jones Griffiths, a Magnum photographer, said: ‘There are no great issues which are treated seriously by picture journalism today… the whole idea is to trivialise everything to make it as colourful as possible in order to get the advertising. Now you say to an editor: “I’m going to Bangkok,” and all he says is &Could you bring me back some temple bells?”‘

I went on to say that the decisive shift now was to digital and that

“If photojournalists are going to survive they need to come to terms with the new technology and use it not only to make and deliver their work, but also to publicise it. At the moment few working professionals seem to have fully grasped this challenge – but more on this in a week or two.”

And indeed a week or two later, in August 1999 I published a further piece with the title ‘Photojournalism live and well?’ looking at the possibilities for photojournalism on the web. I started off again on a rather gloomy note and by the end of the first page was writing:

Because its on the web people expect it to be free. The editors don’t work for nothing. The printer wouldn’t print the paper for free, but somehow photographers are expected to live on zero. If photojournalism is to stay healthy it needs a sound financial base. At the moment the web is not too successful in providing this.

Too true, and it still isn’t. And although I went on from there to look at some successful examples of photographers showing work on the web and web magazines, I couldn’t really advance on that.

I was reminded of these articles by reading an post on the EPUK web site today by Neil Burgess, previously  head of Network Photographers, Magnum Photos in New York and Magnum London, and  twice Chairman of World Press Photo who now run his own picture agency, NB Pictures.

Burgess says that people have been talking about the death of photojournalism for 30 years, and despite his former optimism, he now thinks it time to take the corpse off from the life support system and declare it dead.

It’s hard in particular to argue when he says:

I believe we owe it to our children to tell them that the profession of ‘photojournalist’ no longer exists. There are thousands of the poor bastards, creating massive debt for themselves hoping to graduate and get a job which no-one is prepared to pay for anymore.

I’m perhaps not quite as despondent at Burgess. Even in the ‘Golden Age’ there was work of merit and interest produced without corporate backing – and Eugene Smith‘s Pittsburgh project (only really completed years after his death) and of course Philip Jones Griffiths’s incredibly powerful ‘Vietnam Inc‘. In more recent years too, there have been many significant bodies of work that have been produced largely or wholly unfunded, with photographers scraping a living by odd jobs, weddings, teaching and other non-photographic work, or by having partners who have believed in and supported them.

If you get too despondent (and I sometimes do, particularly when I look at my own falling receipts)  it’s worth looking at sites like Verve Photo, subtitled ‘The New Breed of Documentary Photographers‘, looking at some of the work and reading about the photographers and their projects.

Perhaps it’s harder to really kill photojournalism than even such an experienced figure as Burgess suggests. Few if any of us really do it for the money, though I’m sure we are right to resist being screwed by guys in comfy jobs. But perhaps photojournalism shouldn’t be called a profession but an obsession.

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