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.”
Meanwhile, local newspapers, while featuring photography much more prominently than they did in the past, are increasingly limiting their payments and their hiring of shooters. At The Record, in Bergen County, New Jersey, a paper known for quality photography until now, for instance, staff photographers are struggling with the paper’s decision to fire them all and then allow them to reapply for their jobs. (Those who are fortunate enough to be rehired will likely receive lower salaries and fewer benefits than before.) Like so many others, photojournalists are also facing the ugly downsizing euphemism—“mojo,” or mobile journalist, for print journalists who are given autofocus digital cameras to do the work that they once did. A photographer at the Baltimore Sun tells a less extreme story but also notes that there is no new hiring at his paper. When someone retires, his or her job line ends. Some (but not all) photographers also complain about the insistence that they go “multimedia” and that their still images are sometimes getting overwhelmed and undone (although also sometimes improved) by the sound and moving images that accompany them. The most salient critique of this practice is not the rise of the slideshow, but how it is replacing the still image. Movies and television may light up and flicker but they disappear, while photos, even photos in magazines and newspapers, are objects and, unconsciously or not, often feel more personal to the observer. After all, we tend to remember still images, not moving ones.
Photojournalists also question the journalistic reliability of the images of their amateur rivals. Photographers like Anderson, a thirty-eight-year-old well known for his conflict photography, wonder about the lack of “vetting” of the millions of images that are supposed to be carrying the truth to readers. “There’s a case already of an iReporter whose photos were bullshit,” says Anderson, speaking of media companies publishing the work of amateur photographers. “News organizations will get burned by photographers they don’t know and blur the lines between what is credible information and what isn’t.” (Of course, there have been pros who have faked images as well, but they are rare.)
What Magnum is selling “is the story aspect of the craft,” says Mark Lubell, the agency’s New York bureau chief. Anyone can take a decent photo, as the bromide goes, through talent or luck, but few can extend it into masterful narratives. There’s still a special recipe to be a “real” photojournalist, and it’s not just the “trained” or “expert” eye but rather the sheer hours put into each assignment and the ability to sustain a thought, image, or impulse through a number of images, not just a single snapshot. This brings to mind the art photographer Steven Shore’s remark that photography is like fly-fishing. It takes extreme patience—a sort of intelligence about time.
But is the rise of still-photos-as-films and “citizen photojournalism” only a big nightmare? Or is it also a liberation?
Some would say yes. There are bright spots to the amateur-image revolution. Lots of photos of “my girlfriend’s feet,” true, but bystanders also now often shoot the most crucial events of our day. Amid the chaff are photos of oil flares in West Africa and of the 2005 London bombings. Combat in Iraq is often shot by the soldiers themselves. The photos from Abu Ghraib, of course, are the most striking and horribly spectacular case for the new power and impact of amateur photography-of-fact. The photographs that define a war gone wrong are amateur ones: the amateur snappers’ presence altered and also helped create the scenes of violence and humiliation. Abu Ghraib’s most iconic image was of the hooded prisoner: an occult pantomime of the suffering that was actually going on elsewhere in the same facility. It was evidence of what Susan Sontag called “picture-taking . . . as an event unto itself.” There will, for better or worse, be many more occasions of image-making by participants in news events in the future.
While professional photographers are suffering, news photography and photography of all kinds is flourishing. Citizens around the world can cheaply photograph and distribute images of their own countries and cities, places like Dhaka and Freetown. Citizen journalism projects like Rising Voices teach photography in Africa and elsewhere. Local image-makers challenge both the valor and necessity of the American or European photographer shooting in a foreign clime, a model that has a certain amount of voyeuristic baggage, as the critic W. J. T. Mitchell has written—a dynamic where a “damaged, victimized, and powerless individual” is “taken” by a photographer who is a “relatively privileged observer, often acting as the ‘eye of power.’ ” Instead, we will have amateur photographers—some lucky people at the right awful place at the right awful time (Nigerians who are at the next explosion of a pipeline, say). And I hope that innately gifted photographers will emerge as well—a Chinese Kratochvil, a Nigerian Gilles Peress.
According to some, the rise of the amateur news image itself is a thing of value. “What distinguishes the icon is not professionalism,” says Robert Hariman, a professor of communications and co-founder of No Caption Needed, a blog about photojournalism as a public art. “The Challenger photo was a screen grab. All the photos at Tiananmen Square were not good photos—they were too far away.”
There are also some bright spots for the professional photojournalists, though they aren’t the predictable ones. Right now, as its value on the open market of news magazines falls, photojournalism’s prestige, paradoxically, rises: a Dorothea Lange bread line photo from 1932 sold for $720,000 a couple of years ago; a dozen New York City galleries showed Magnum photographers’ work in 2007. Magnum’s enormous back catalog of everything from Castro in a paroxysm to Paul McCartney as a pre-tabloidal Beatle to Cambodian refugees will soon be for sale. (Some already line the walls of a boutique hotel in Manhattan, although most likely none is of famine victims.) In a sense, following all genres and fields whose commercial power has faded or is evaporatinge—what they lose in income and the more ineffable “heat,” they gain in the rarified status of art object.
Yet this status of photojournalism as art, or even as an accessory in a new waterfront condo/loft apartment, won’t necessarily help photojournalists as they try to conceive, shoot, distribute, and get paid for complicated images of difficult places.
We’re all journalists, but writers—scarf-free and spell-checked as we are—know deep down that photographers are different. Despite all the critics who have claimed photos are “a grammar,” images are more like a half-language (as John Berger, the critic who wrote Ways of Seeing, said), always both objective and freighted with meanings that even the photographer and her audience only sometimes understand. Good photography somehow can tell more, with its pulp and its present-ness.
That combination of directness and mysteriousness that is part of being a half-language must be preserved into the future. Despite the fact that amateurs have made iconic images in the past—the famed 1970 image The Picture From Kent State was taken by a student working in the college’s photo lab—there have been many more iconic images that are actually extremely professional: Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier, from the Spanish Civil War, or Eddie Addams’s General Nguyn Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon, from Vietnam.
If we are to keep this history alive, we need to find ways to support professional photojournalists outside of the magazine and newspaper industry. Some of the future Kratochvils of the world—those not capturing the moment but capturing the context—will in twenty years be seen primarily as artists of fact, their images bought for a pretty euro in London and Berlin. But meanwhile, they must live and work. And perhaps those of us who “paint with words,” or what have you, and have gotten good at complaining about our own fate, should start to speak up on photojournalists’ behalf as well.Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.