Clichés are sometimes true. Here’s one—photographers don’t like to give speeches. At a recent event, photographer Antonin Kratochvil screened slideshows of his work: American soldiers coolly observing the Iraqi distressed and dead; Lebanese militant youths standing restlessly near decaying walls; American evangelicals speaking in tongues. The photographer then clambered onstage, ruddy and scarf-wrapped (“The Bedoins wear them!”) for his talk, but he was no Christopher Hitchens. He hated talking about himself—as uncomfortable in the role of sage as the rest of us would be in a war zone—and he left the stage with half the time for his “speech” unused, encouraging his audience to spend it smoking cigarettes instead. Kratochvil is not alone in his taciturnity. When I recently asked one of the greats of the form for his thoughts, he e-mailed the aphorism: “To live happy, live hidden.”
Perhaps this distrust in the verbal complaint—so loved by windy print journalists—is why we don’t hear so much about the difficulties facing photojournalism, from street corner news photographers to the deans of the eminent agencies Magnum and vii. They’ve been struggling with downsizing, the rise of the amateur, the ubiquity of camera phones, sound-bite-ization, failing magazines (so fewer commissions), and a lack of money in general for the big photo essays that have long been the love of the metaphoric children of Walker Evans. Like print journalists, photographers are scrambling not only to make sense of the new world, but to survive in it intact.
Yet, paradoxically, visual culture is ever more important. It seems that everyone now takes photos and saves them and distributes them, and that all these rivulets supply a great sea of images for editors to use. This carries certain risks. If they are taking snapshots, amateur photographers are likely not developing a story, or developing the kind of intimacy with their subjects that brings revelation. So what’s the actual photojournalistic value of all of these millions of images now available on Flickr and other photo-sharing archives—so many that they can seem like dead souls? And what about the fate of photographers like Kratochvil, whose ashily stylish images honor Modernist photography? He will clearly continue shooting—and avoiding public speeches—but what of his tradition?
At photo agencies, or in private conversations with newspaper and magazine photographers and editors, you hear the same end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it dirge that plays in the print world. But these worries don’t tend to go public in speeches about The State of Photography. There are few deathbed panel discussions about the genre, unlike all the discussions about in-depth reporters shuffling to the graveyard. Maybe part of it is that while photojournalism may be harder to practice, there is no shortage of photos—we are deluged by images. I am optimistic about the future of photojournalism, but not of the photojournalism I most admire.
Yet events like the one where Kratochvil showed his images—a four-day photography festival in Brooklyn where the magi of photojournalism appeared—inevitably raise the question of whether these super talents will soon be supplanted. Photographic storytellers are competing with the millions-strong army of amateur photographers whose work is housed on Flickr, which editors cull for cheap or free images, and the rise of amateur-supplied agencies, including iStockphoto—owned by the largest stock agency of them all, Getty Images. There are also outlets that claim to separate the digital wheat from the chaff, like PhotoShelter, a “global stock marketplace,” or the jpg Magazine, which threshes out a few hundred images submitted by Web amateurs and publishes them on paper. As Magnum photographer Chris Anderson glumly puts it, he and other professionals are “watching the decline of editorial sales of images, both what we are assigned to produce and the buying of editorial images—and I am waiting for that moment when that decline drops straight off a cliff.”