The future of photojournalism…

This week Phil Coomes, the BBC’s picture editor and photographer is hosting a series of blogs on the BBC website, with comment from photojournalists and editors about the state of photojournalism.

Michael Camber, who photographed the war in Monrovia in 2003 writes about the death of photojournalism, but also his not-quite-excitement (and fears) at where it’s going too.

Today there is a new way, a new system. I meet young photographers constantly: idealistic, excited, naïve, creative. They may have missed out on the magic of baryta paper in a tray of Dektol, but they love image-making nonetheless. And as has been said ad-nauseum, they are focusing on new models for raising cash to do projects – the grants, agency workshops, Emphasis, the partnerships with NGOs (which I find troubling for reasons I won’t detail here), and others.

It is up to the photo community to break out of this new model, democratise it and reach new audiences. I can see it happening already. And though I may not like the business model, the bottom line is this: there is a new generation out there shooting pictures in the corners of the world every day.

David Campbell writes about the ubiquity of imagery, and the issue we all face as photographers, that our work is no longer scarce – images are being made at an unprecedented rate, and some of them are quite good… But there’s also demand – he quotes the figures for the New York Times photo blogs as something like 750k unique visits a month, which is an encouraging audience to reach.

And yesterday Adrian Evans, director of Panos Pictures, wrote about funding in this new, saturated era:

Success now lies in being multiskilled, merely taking photographs is not enough. My advice to aspiring photographers is that they need to be able to design a web page using html, know their way around a multitude of publishing software programmes shoot and edit video, record audio and most importantly research and pitch stories.

This is good stuff – makes sense, and he goes on to discuss funding models of working with NGOs and other funding bodies – which is certainly my experience currently.  I’m doing less magazine/press commissioned work, but finding that I’ve been funded for interesting and potentially significant shoots from less likely sources – Scars this year was partly funded by the Prince’s Trust (with no editorial direction from them), and the Page Hall :: Inside Out exhibition and book last year was funded by Sheffield City Council – they provided a vague direction, but left me to develop the work in my own way.

There’s still something very comforting doing commissioned shoots – in many ways I’d rather do six press/magazine shoots in a week than spend a month or two having to work things out for myself, but that’s partly just down to the search for a slightly easier life! In terms of the interesting relationships that develop, and the depth of the stories that come out, the funded, self-driven model is certainly more satisfying.  The current risk is the squeezing of budgets from every direction, and the complete saturation of the market with budding photographers.

Experience and professionalism still thankfully count for a lot – if you’ve got a limited budget you can go either way – cheap but inexperienced, with the risk of not getting what you need image-wise, or more realistic pricing with a near-certainty of the quality and creativity you’re looking for based on a strong track record. But it’s a difficult call on tight budgets, and I, like many others, have taken rate cuts at points to continue to work for clients I’ve got long-standing relationships with, not because I was over-priced (far from it – my rates are basically still the same as when I started freelancing ten years ago), but because keeping relationships alive, and keeping working are fundamental to still being here next year (and the year after).

Some of those rates will go back up when the economy improves. But it’s clear too, that in the current market there’s a chance that even for high quality work it may be hard to increase rates again, as the supply of images is so strong (this is particularly true in the UK newspaper market where rates are low and haven’t really moved for maybe 15 years).

And as Adrian Evans mentions above, the need to do more than photography is becoming clearer all the time.  That’s why I’m looking at video and how to incorporate it into my business.  It’s why I’m writing more. It’s why I design and maintain my own websites – not just for cost, but because they broaden my experience, and what I can offer clients. And it’s also why I’m still reading and reading and reading – I love the quote that Adrian Evans finishes his piece with:

As the photographer Tod Papageorge wrote, ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough then you’re not reading enough’.

More on the BBC blog over the next two days…

<update>

As promised, there’s more:  Thursday’s blog is from Ciara Leeming, who’s moved into photography via journalism – she’s echoing a lot of what’s been said in the previous blog posts in some ways, but some interesting insights from someone moving from words to images – partly just the excitement that photography produces as you make images, which I still feel now, twenty years in. When a picture comes together into something moving and strong, or just works, and you know you’ve found something that’ll communicate with an audience, that’s still a wonderful feeling (as is actually seeing it in print somewhere…).

However, Ciara says:

I feel too many photographers are seduced by the exotic and the foreign, and increasingly believe the most important projects are those close to home. It’s more challenging to find visual stories in your own back yard – especially in northern England, with its frequent poor weather and flat light.

I’m both enthused and a little nervous about what could happen from here, but I’m finally beginning to escape the editorial treadmill and find my own voice.

She’s not too enthusiastic about the photographer ecosystem either – which is not really my own experience. I know a fair number of photographers around Sheffield and the north east in particular, and there’s generally a respect and mutual support that’s pretty good considering we’re all potential competitors. We share jobs, and try not to nab each others clients. We lend kit, and get excited about the learning we’re doing.  We’ll talk about the latest cameras, the worst jobs, the most challenging thing we’ve done this week/month/year. But I recognise that coming in, it can be tricky to break into the existing group in a particular city, and Manchester (where Ciara’s based) is certainly very well served by photographers…

And on doing two different things (interviewing and photography in this case):

I have to flip between two quite different mind-sets while working – deeply involved as an interviewer, yet hanging back and observing as a photographer. The only way to do this is to work slower, so my income has dropped.

I’m still a huge fan of the ‘editorial treadmill’ myself – I think the challenge of working to a brief, of being creative day in and day out on stories that don’t necessarily jump out at you is wonderful.  Saying that, I’ve never had to do local newspaper work…  But I want to be able to make a living doing this – there’s a drift towards this being harder, as shown by Ciara’s last comment there – doing words/pictures or video/pictures slows everything down, and can make it hard to maintain the quality in your specialism (when I shoot video I spend a lot of time thinking about the photographs I’m missing…) as well as make enough to live on too.

But it’s all still wonderful and exciting – we’ll see what the final Viewfinder post says…

<update 2>

And finally, another photographer working through non-traditional funding – David Rochkind.  Interesting approach again, with funding for his projects from a whole range of sources, and the stories he’s telling (particularly about TB) are obviously important. But there is definitely a theme in these blogs – don’t expect to work for newspapers or magazines, who might traditionally have run your stories, run them yourself.  And I think there’s a huge risk (obviously now unavoidable) that only the stories that we/I can afford to cover or persuade people with money to cover get shot and told.  In the long-term at least.  Maybe the idea of photography or photojournalism as a career, with good editors commissioning stories that would both sell and inform, and working with photographers (and writers) to make long-form essays that work.

Maybe we have to be rich to even start this stuff now – and maybe it was always this way I suppose.  When I started out there was a lot of discussion about how magazines were cutting down on hard-hitting photojournalism because advertisers didn’t like to see their £5000 watches next to pictures of war or starvation.

My concern here is similar – the people who hold the funding aren’t news organisations, but corporate or other vague bodies who have significant vested interests – and I’m full aware that newspapers and news magazines come with their own badly packed baggage too. Is the transparency, the editing, the known agenda of a news corp a ‘better’ thing than the unknown or hidden vested interest of a funder? I just don’t know – I work a lot with NGOs – my work for NGOs often falls somewhere between journalism and PR – I’m  not going looking for corruption and failure, I’m looking to tell a positive story of lives changed, help given, hope arriving – and I usually find it. And as I mentioned above, I’ve shot an increasing number of projects in this way.  And I don’t want to get stuck harking back to a past that has no chance of returning. But we’re losing a lot of editing experience and story telling skill from publishing, as well as adding to it at the self-created end of things.

I wonder if the most telling quote of this series of blogs is from the first post by Michael Kamber:

Do I like this new developing model? Not much. Does it allow for a photographer to have job security, raise a family with health insurance, know that someone will evacuate him or her if injured in a warzone? Absolutely not.

But this developing model is what we’ve got and we have to work with it, there is no other option. What troubles me is that we are becoming ghettoised. As the mainstream press dies a slow and ugly death, we increasingly work for each other – for the cultish community of photo festivals and workshops, awards and grants, boutique print collectors. And this new model will surely exacerbate something I deplore about photojournalism: it is increasingly a community of privileged white people. I was astonished a few years ago to sit at an awards ceremony in Amsterdam with about 300 other photographers and editors. There was exactly one African and possibly one or two Latinos in the room, though probably 75% of the ‘subjects’ were people of colour.

It is up to the photo community to break out of this new model, democratise it and reach new audiences. I can see it happening already. And though I may not like the business model, the bottom line is this: there is a new generation out there shooting pictures in the corners of the world every day.

No doubt, 35 years from now, there will be yet another new model. This will allow the youth of today their deserved turn to lament the death of photojournalism.

An interesting series of blogs – but it would have been nice to have heard from at least one staff photographer from something like PA, Getty or Reuters, or one of the national newspaper staffers or contract photographers – I’m sure they’d have said something similar, but with a different take.