In the last days there have been many debates about the destiny of Photojournalism and the new trend of mobile photography. I think there’s a bit of confusion about what’s happening, both on the editorial and on the photographer’s side, and I want to add my two cents.
Certainly the case of the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the largest US newspapers, contributed to rock the boat. In late May its management took the odd decision to close the photographic department composed of 28 full-time employed professionals. The aim was cutting costs by hiring on-demand freelancers and training journalists to shoot photos with their own iPhone. News like this contribute to increasing the level of chaos and fear in the photography market. All professionals today, photojournalists at the forefront, are complaining about the great spread of amateur photography which is conspicuously crossing the boundaries between the private and the commercial field.
Some of the common explanations about what’s going on sound as follows:
- The crisis of the editorial sector: editors have increasingly lower margins and budgets. Readers are moving from paper to Web where information is more widespread and cheap;
- Technological evolution: today’s cameras and softwares make it possible for everyone to obtain a perfect image in terms of “information” (exposure, colors, etc…);
- The power of large numbers: unlike photographers people are everywhere and they’re happy to see their pictures published without even asking money for this. They can “cover” whatever happens around the world. That greatly increases the market’s offering and competition thereby lowering the value of each single photo;
These are some of the reasons why newspapers start thinking they don’t need a specialized photographic staff anymore. They are breaking the rules, the implicit agreement that the two worlds, the professional and the amateur, should be kept separated. But we must ask ourselves why they are doing so, why professional photojournalism doesn’t pay anymore.
And then iPhone photography and softwares like Instagram and Hipstamatic come into play. They even add new advantages: portability and instant shareability being the first ones. But in my opinion the key aspect is aesthetics. By using app’s photo filters everyone is now able to add pro-quality post-production effects to his photos in a easy, cheap and fast way. That’s a great step forward.
In an era in which we have access to more information than our brains can hold we’re definitely becoming more superficial. It’s a survival need, we read less and see more pictures because they have greater capacity for synthesis. The way we use social networks like Facebook and Twitter gives a good idea of how we access information today. But giving the large number of images we are fed daily, in order to capture our “fast and superficial” glance a photo must have a stunning aesthetics. And maybe that’s the explanation of why today lots of photo-reportages tend to be more over-post-processed than complete in terms of originality, focus and narrative profundity. This might be the reason why amateur photography is increasingly competing with the professional one. Superficial aesthetics is winning against depth of information.
Most people today have neither time nor concentration to read a full three-pages story. Just a bunch of appealing photos with a short caption is enough for almost everybody. And since in contemporary societies knowledge is perceived as a universal right, it should also cost little or nothing.
Too many photographers are accusing the digital era as the cause of the death of a profession. But an iPhone, like any digital camera, is only a means and not a meaning, and we can’t look at the finger instead of what it’s pointing to. As history teaches, in order to survive we must evolve and adapt to the new means, find new languages and fresh ways. There are great photo reporters today who start working with iPhone photography and the difference between their works and amateur pictures is still clearly visible.
On the other side, it’s up to the editorial staff to investigate on modern, fast and cheap communication formats without sacrificing the high quality pro-photographers and journalists can guarantee. Photo editors must have the competence and courage to filter out all the stuff consisting only of aesthetics (whether dramatic or delicate) and having no real interesting content. Aside from making money, image professionals should also play an educational role, and in the long run everyone will benefit from and reward quality if conveyed in the right way.
- An interesting interview with the photography theorist Fred Ritchin on “Mother Jones”: “Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram Era?”
- Some thoughts about the Sun-Times case from Alex Garcia, a photojournalist who maintains a blog on the Chicago-Tribune‘s internet site: “The idiocy of Eliminating a Photo Staff”, “10 Responses to the Sun-Times Debacle”
- Michael Christopher Brown is a photojournalist who uses a phone camera to capture his reportages. Brown has “over a six-month period in 2011, documented the face of battle in Libya using a camera phone, challenging the standard script for war reportage”. He recently received the nomination from Magnum Photos and in a couple of years will be able to apply for full membership.