Late last year, LOOK came across ‘The State of News Photography‘, a research paper from University of Oxford and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and supported by the World Press Photo. The report considers the work of photojournalists today and details how they are faring, offering a treatise on today’s photo-journalism practice and the worth of photography within it. This seemed so in-keeping with work we had considered for LOOK/15 (ethics of portraiture with Louis Quail et al, Women in photography and building projects) we decided to get an inside view of the report and to do so, LOOK commissioned writer and photographer, Cameron Procter to share his thoughts about the paper.
In 2009, David Jolly of the New York Times published a “lament for [the] dying field” of photojournalism ahead of that year’s Visa pour l’Image. A year later, Neil Burgess, former director of Magnum Photos London, “finally” called its time of death, marking the news industry as its visceral killer. Perhaps even more tellingly however, in November just passed, celebrated war photographer Don McCullin was reported to have mourned this loss, stating that photography could no longer be trusted; that photojournalism and digital photography were incompatible with one another.
The death of photojournalism isn’t necessarily a new topic of discussion – John Szarkowski figured that it was over in the late 1950s. However, recent advances in the industry have changed the game, and we all know the story: digitalization arrived in the late twentieth century and brought with it not only the obsolescence of the darkroom, but it also increased the accessibility of photography for all involved. It created the ability to get images from one place to another in no time at all; it sparked the rise of the citizen photographer (and journalist, and videographer, and so on); and of course, it increased the ease with which one can manipulate their images into works of fiction, itself a subject of its own controversy and debate in the photographic community. These developments, both positive and otherwise, are well-known, well-documented, and well-discussed, but solid information on present-day photographers in the field has been relatively unavailable until recently.
In early 2015, the University of Oxford, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the World Press Photo organization remedied this by conducting a study of working photojournalists, documentary photographers, and press photographers. Released in September, The State of News Photography “investigates the identities, working conditions, practices, technology use, and ethics of a large number of photographers [primarily working in photojournalism] across the world.”
The findings, in anything, reinforce the general consensus that the state of news photography today is indeed a dismal one. Of the 1556 participants, 70% reported that they earn less than $30k (£20,800) per annum, while 60% are self-employed. Over half of the respondents also indicated that they have to supplement their income with non-photographic activities. Image theft and plagiarism are rampant, with most participants responding that they have had images used without permission or remuneration.
The report also highlighted some notorious issues. For example, the frequently discussed gender imbalance remains intact, with men making up a vast 85% of the survey despite the fact that more women had attained higher levels of education in photography and the humanities. Meanwhile, as was suggested by Jolly and Burgess, news organisations and magazines in Europe and North America have indeed stepped back from funding and promoting photo-reportage, although in Asia they remain large proponents of the industry. McCullin’s concerns about the truthfulness of photography are also well-founded, with at least one in five participants confessing to occasionally manipulating their photographs by digitally adding or removing content.
Despite these statistics however, the report also found that at least 75% of the respondents felt that their work was valued, and half admitted to feeling optimistic about the future of their careers and photojournalism as a whole. This perhaps draws from the fact that many also viewed citizen photography as a positive development and that many others have closely followed technological advancements, with one third regularly utilizing smartphone photography in their work.
Perhaps it is then that the photojournalism of McCullin’s day is long gone. News organizations aren’t handling photography the way they used to, but the viewing of photography has also changed since then. Although over-saturation began in the 1970s, photography as a whole has come to be treated by the masses as something of a throw-away commodity. Not to mention, for the casual consumer of news and media, citizen-reportage would be – and is increasingly becoming – the preferred medium of information exchange. We see it daily: disaster strikes and people flock to Twitter to upload their first-person accounts, their web-sharp smartphone photographs, and their high-resolution videos. Many of the unaffected follow them to see what’s going on, untainted by the innate bias of differing news organizations, many of which also end up turning to Twitter in order to grab the freely-available media to complement their own coverage. For the casual consumer, is on-the-ground guerrilla reportage not inherently preferable over potentially modified professional photojournalism?
Is this cause for lament? Well, sure. The eminence and continued legacy of twentieth century photojournalism is undisputed here, but the current trend of seemingly everlasting nostalgia seems to dictate that we engulf ourselves in endless sorrow for the days gone by. For McCullin and his contemporaries, it’s easy to appreciate the disappointment, but photojournalism isn’t dead. It’s older, it’s changing, and our inability to come to terms with that change is the palpable danger here.
Despite highlighting some areas of concern, The State of News Photography should be treated, at the very least, as a rallying call. The situation may indeed be dire at present – the somewhat fitful transition from print to web, the fact that photojournalism no longer appears to be a viable career option on its own – but people are still playing the game. Rather than acting as an indicator of death, the report itself is evidence of survival and, in some cases, evolution.
The game is ever-changing. If we can’t run with that, then there is only the inevitable.
Cameron is a young writer and photographer based in Accrington, England, formerly of Nevada, USA. LOOK started working with Cameron, when we paired him with Ignacio Acosta, during the latter’s residency for LOOK/15 in April and May 2015 (read his other blogs on this site). Cameron also blogs for Open Eye Gallery and has his own website. To find out more, click here. LOOK would like to thank Cameron for all his contributions!