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.