Dead End Bum Wiping

Two articles among many that relate to the future of photojournalism and documentary photography that I’ve come across in the past couple of weeks are David Hoffman‘s Dead End Streets: Photography, Protest and Social Control  and a series of questions by Charlie Campbell to the legendary Vietnam photographer Tim Page for Time World.

Tim Page’s Wikipedia entry makes interesting reading, and most of the legends about him appear to be true. His own web site contains some interesting work and together with Horst Faas he edited REQUIEM, a book and exhibition which is a memorial to the photographers who died covering conflict in Vietnam and Indochina.

Page, born in Tunbridge Wells in 1944, left England at the age of 18 to drive overland through Europe the Middle East and Asia, running out of money in Laos. He got a job with USAID and taught himself photography, becoming a stringer for  UPI and AFP.  In the Time feature, Campbell says to him

I’ve heard you comparing a degree in photography with a degree in “bum wiping.” Any advice for budding snappers out there?

Page’s answer is typically to the point:

Don’t. Being a photojournalist now is the most fraught way of making a living. I’m no longer involved in the news, but I do other type of work. To make a living as a photographer these days is impossible. I was there the other day, and there were 100 people with cameras, video cameras and iPhones. And where are you going to sell the pictures?

Hoffman‘s essay is closely thought out and more difficult to read, looking at how the changes in media have both reduced the impact of still photographs and the ability of photographers to make a living from photographing social issues.  As he says

When I began working as a photographer a single publication fee would keep me for a week.  Now it keeps me for perhaps three hours.

Photographers now have to make several saleable images a day to make a living (I think the number is rather higher than he suggests) and no longer have time to study issues seriously and work in depth.  What perhaps he doesn’t stress enough is the influence on the nature of images that ‘saleable’ implies.

He looks briefly at the promise of democratic access of Indymedia and Demotix, two very different organisations which enable at least a limited publication of work but he says fail to allow “contributors a role in shaping the audience and the context in which the work is presented.”  While agreeing with much of his criticisms, they are surely even more true of the traditional media, with both Indymedia and Demotix allowing contributors considerably more creative freedom – the only reason I still contribute through Demotix. And, as he says “open access agencies such as these that are providing the last remaining life support for independent street photographers.” Though it’s not much of a support.

Demotix is part of Corbis, which gives some of the pictures from it a wider circulation, but in general he is correct that “neither has much of an audience.”  Work posted to my own web site or on this blog generally gets seen by perhaps five or ten times as many people as on Demotix. Some pictures from Demotix get published around the world in traditional media, and I think it has had a rather more important role for many photographers around the world who don’t have even the rather slim opportunities that remain here.

The final section of the essay is about “the forces of the state subverting and hijacking the reportage photographer with a variety of tools and techniques” and is his usual penetrating analysis of the situation, particularly as regards the police.  He also talks about the mistrust of photographers by protesters, including examples from both Climate Camp and the 2010 student protests, though surprising omitting mention of the right-wing ‘fatwas’ and violence directed at us (and I’ve been attacked at protests by people who thought I was David Hoffman, as well as others who know who I am, and been with David when we have both been subjected to threats and abuse.) But I imagine he takes that for read. It isn’t a new phenomenon for someone who was a photographer for Searchlight.

His is a piece that ends with a gloomy conclusion, and one it is difficult not to share. He writes:

Whether or not the kind of documentary photography in which I have been involved will still exist in the future is not clear…  The ecosystem that once maintained those creating socially relevant work is all but gone and it’s far from clear what, if any, new support mechanisms might take its place.  

Photojournalists are an endangered species, their numbers shrinking, and once extinct they cannot be replaced.

It’s hard in a fairly short post to give a fair summary of a long and detailed presentation such as this, and I hope not to have greatly misrepresented his opinions. It is a piece worth reading and thinking about, illustrated with some of his fine images. You can see more on his web site.


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