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Elegy for the photojournalist

May 03, 2007

Andrew Brown has an article in today's Guardian about how three technological developments - newspapers' shift from using black-and-white photographs to using color ones, the rise of digital photography, and the arrival of online amateur photo-sharing services like Flickr - have conspired to rob many professional photographers of their livelihoods. The phenomenon Brown describes is a good example of the interplay between technology and economics and how it can influence both the labor market and what might be called culture creation.

I was reminded of a blog post that Dan Gillmor wrote a few months back about the "inevitable" shift in the economics of photography - for penny-pinching publishers, the allure of free, serviceable amateur photos is irresistable - that is leading to the decline, if not the demise, of professional photojournalism. While Gillmor voiced some regret about the trend, he was in general happy about the way amateurs are elbowing the pros out of their jobs:

Is it so sad that the professionals will have more trouble making a living this way in coming years? To them, it must be — and I have friends in the business, which makes this painful to write in some ways. To the rest of us, as long as we get the trustworthy news we need, the trend is more positive ... The photojournalist’s job may be history before long. But photojournalism has never been more important, or more widespread.

I would agree with Gillmor that this trend seems inevitable, but I'm not so sanguine about its effects. It's not that I have anything against amateur photographers (being one myself); it's that I think we'll find - are finding already, in fact - that while amateur work may be an adequate economic substitute for professional work, there are things that pros can accomplish that amateurs cannot. We see in the decline of professional photojournalism how the Internet's "abundance" can end up constricting our choices as well as expanding them.


This is akin to outsourcing in the technology world, except that it is actually happening to journalists, who are masters at getting their complaints heard. Physician, heal thyself?

Photojournalism isn't dying, but the need for experts in photographic technology certainly is. The need for people who can create images that capture the imagination and emotions of the viewer is more valuable than ever. Photojournalists who recognize this should not only survive, but to prosper.

The photojournalist who was primarily focused with ISO, F-Stops, exposure times, and filters is the equivalent of the self-taught HTML Jockey of 1997. Operational expertise in any technical subject can be valuable for a period of time, but it never lasts forever. If you are going to be an 'expert' in a specific technology you had also better be focused on learning the next big thing so that you don't get left behind.

Posted by: Morgan Goeller [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 09:40 AM

Morgan, you're missing the point. Photojournalism *is* dying. It's not just about the technical skill being rendered obsolete by modern cameras.

The art of the photojournalist is in telling a story, and that's about far more than setting the exposure correctly. It's about timing, composition, sensitivity, engagement with the subject.

The economics of traditional media in the 21st century, however, mean that publishers would rather use decent amateur pictures for free than invest in a photojournalist who could tell a better story but at significantly higher cost.

It's part of a trend throughout publishing: slash costs to the bone, reduce content to the lowest quality that they can get away with, and resort to gimmicks to attract readers.

And they wonder why circulation figures are in terminal decline?

Posted by: kennyhemphill [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 10:43 AM

I'm not so sure that photojournalism is dying. Perhaps it's taking a new form. Didn't Time announce last month that they were no longer going to print Life Magazine and only publish it on the web?

I think readers desert traditional print publications because of time constraints and the abundance of free or inexpensive access to news and stories on the web. I no longer get my local newspaper (The Columbus Dispatch) delivered during the week. I only subscribe to the Saturday and Sunday editions. There's just not enough value for a seven day subscription.

Perhaps we will see a metamorphises of high quality content (photos and stories) on the web that will be a replacement for the print of old.

Posted by: PhilRack [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 10:59 AM

Perhaps we will see a metamorphises of high quality content (photos and stories) on the web that will be a replacement for the print of old.

Perhaps, but there's no sign of that happening yet, and the changing economics of publishing make me skeptical that it will happen.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 11:06 AM

I agree that much of the photojournalism trade has been commoditized by technology. But you're not going to see many amateur photojournalists venturing into the mean streets of Iraq or plains of Dafur to capture and chronicle important events so the rest of the world can see what's going on. We still will always need a gutsy class of professional photojournalists who are willing to go where others fear to tread.
-Joe McKendrick

Posted by: Joe McK [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 11:10 AM

Hmm, it appears as though there are several things getting mixed up here. Nicholas “there are things that pros can accomplish that amateurs cannot” sounds a tad vague. In the singular perhaps but that does not apply in this case. Isn’t the proof of the pudding in its, well, the final quality of the pictures available and there are plenty? Why are the choices constricted?

Photojournalism is alive and well but the difference is that there might now be millions of pictures taken by amateurs with a resulting small number hitting the mark. The small number of high quality pictures is arrived at through volume and more importantly, the resulting few “good” pictures are not produced through years of experience. If enough are taken there are bound to be a few that do “tell the story.” Quality might well be in the eye of the beholder!
The trend to “slash costs to the bone, reduce content to the lowest quality that they can get away with, and resort to gimmicks to attract readers,” is true but how is a “better story” defined? Once again, in the quality of the picture! Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 11:21 AM

We still will always need a gutsy class of professional photojournalists who are willing to go where others fear to tread.

That "class" is shrinking as its compensation shrinks, no? We may need something, but if we're unwilling to pay for it we may not get it.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 11:39 AM

Note the paid job has shifted from the professional photographer to the site-builder/data-miner who collects and sifts through the mass of unpaid photographer output to find the rare professional-quality picture. One consequence here is that the unpaid photographers have to be induced to keep feeding the system with raw material to be mined, usually with lottery-like techniques.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 09:56 PM

This example is too good to pass over. I've had my photographs published in LIFE, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, among other magazines, and I had a book of my photographs published by Taschen - but I never made my living in photography. I did study fine art photography with the likes of Minor White, and I was involved in the selection of photographs used in Wired so I feel I have a sense of what constitutes good professional images.

Here's my take on this. A lot of what pro photographers once did can be done by amateurs with equal quality. A good test of this would be to go through a magazine (Time, National Geographic, whatever) extract the images and then find corresponding ones on Flickr and then have both lay and pros judge them. My bet: the majority would not be able to judge whether pros took them or not. In part because a lot of the images on Flickr are taken by "quasi-pros" -- photographers like me who have made some money with their images but not their living. Anything resembling a stock image can be easily accomplished by an amateur. And as we've seen, a lot of news can be caught by amateurs. The paradoxical thing about news gathering is that while any one professional photographer will be better than any amateur, no professional is better than all amateurs. This is the genius of crowdsourcing. It is less about democracy and morals and more about statistics.

However, while much of what pro photographers once did can be done as well by the greater collective of amateurs, not everything can. Very specific assignments -- a portrait of a famous singer, or the inside of a new designer's home, or a story on elephant trackers -- simply are not going to show up on Flickr. It takes too much coordination, money, and expertise to pull these off. If they happen to exist online, they will be used, but as Flickr images become more common for most uses, editors of top-end publications will see out assignment-driven images. And so editors will have to hire pros to do this. Pro photographers will not go away, but since amateurs can do much of the many things they once did, there are likely to be fewer of them. There won't be many high-end publications, but their will be some. There are not many people making their living as magazine authors, but there are some. The truth is that there were never very many professional make-their-living photographers. The few pros who remain will make a living.

Behind the worry about disappearing pros (in my book pros are just shifting, say from photography to webgraphics) is the worry that there will be NO forums to support professional photographers (or writers). I'm not worried because I've seen that whereever attention flows money will follow. The attention flowing to the web is still a fraction of the total attention flow in this country (a fact hard to see for those who spend all their own attention on the web) but it is quickly shifting, and as it does, their will be professional image takers supported wholly by the web. Not many, but some.

What's new are the very many more who will have part of their income supplemented by small sales of their images, a la istockphoto and the others. This "micro-pro" level has not really existed before at this scale. Dido for writing. I don't have a figure, but I really should find one, of the total number (or percentage) of people getting SOME revenue for their writing -- from Google Adsense or whatever. I have to bet it is at an all-time high in history.

Posted by: Kevin Kelly [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 3, 2007 10:19 PM


Your point about crowdsourcing is well made. And it's true that much of the photography on Flickr is posted by semi-professional photographers and that 80% of their work is indistinguishable from that of photographers who make their living from their pictures.

However, in my experience, most of the quality pictures are fully copyright protected rather than licensed under Creative Commons. That makes it less attractive to the picture editor looking for an easy and low cost way to illustrate a story. So, the picture editor chooses a CC licensed pic instead. In other words its not the work of the semi-professional on Flickr which is being published, it's often one notch down in terms of quality.

Also, much of the discussion so far has revolved around the role of the photographer, when, in fact, Nick's post and the article to which it refers are talking about the photojournalist - a subtle, but important distinction. It's the role and the art of the photojournalist that are dying and that does present real quality issues relating to the way stories are told. A good photojournalist brings every bit as much, and often more, to a story as the writer does. To try and tell a unique, individual story using a library picture can only reduce the impact of the story and sell the reader short.

That, sadly, is a price publications are prepared to pay in order to cut costs. That's their prerogative. It is, however, rather short-sighted to expect readers not to notice and carry on paying for the newspaper or magazine as if nothing had happened.

Posted by: kennyhemphill [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2007 05:10 AM

Nick, thanks for noting this piece.

Posted by: Andrew Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2007 09:01 AM

The editors have more choice, but they are going to the equivalent of a Goodwill thrift store to find that occasional quality item to furnish their newspaper issues with. There are some commercialized areas, such as sports and fashion, that will not be impacted. But the ranks of the full-time life-long photojournalists competing for next year's Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography or the one for Breaking News Photography will be seriously thinned out. Mark Hancock's blog shows some of his professional work in the field.

Posted by: SallyF [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2007 10:32 PM

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