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.