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“For God’s sake, somebody call it!”
Has the time come to take photojournalism off life-support? After nearly 25 years in the business, agency director Neil Burgess steps forward to make the call.
1 August 2010
For the last thirty-odd years, I’ve been listening to people talk about, or predict the death of photojournalism. John Szarkowski, the legendary curator of photography at MOMA New York even said that photojournalism stopped being interesting after 1958; I was just out of nappies then. Yet, somehow I’ve devoted just about all my working life to social documentary photography and nearly 25 years to photojournalism.
During that period we have lived through so much change: the globalisation of the media, the move from film to digital, the invention of the internet, and the acceptance of photography as ‘art’. A 10 × 8 print by Edward Weston – an image of a nautilus shell from the same series as one I’ve had as a postcard on my bathroom wall for as long as I can remember – sold at auction for more than a million dollars in April 2010. A lot of change.
We’ve been through major recessions; times when the advertising dollar shrank, massive lay-offs and editorial budgets tightened, but still there was a commitment to the photojournalist and what he or she produced. Even as the millennium dawned I was telling people that there was more photojournalism around now than in the 1950’s and 60’s, it’s just spread amongst more magazines. That was probably true then. Not so now.
No funding for photographers to act as reporters
Today I look at the world of magazine and newspaper publishing and I see no photojournalism being produced. There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.
Magazines and newspapers are no longer putting any money into photojournalism. They will commission a portrait or two. They might send a photographer off with a writer to illustrate the writer’s story, but they no longer fund photojournalism. They no longer fund photo-reportage. They only fund photo illustration.
We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether. Apart from a few old dinosaurs whose contracts are so long and retirement so close that it’s cheaper to keep them on, there is no journalism organisation funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so called news organisations.
Seven British-based photographers won prizes at the ‘World Press Photo’ competition this year and not one of them was financed by a British news organisation. But this is not just a UK problem. Look at TIME and Newsweek, they are a joke. I cannot imagine anyone buys them on the news-stand anymore. I suspect they only still exist because thousands of schools, and libraries and colleges around the world have forgotten to cancel their subscriptions. Even though they have some great names in photojournalism on their mastheads, when did you last see a photo-essay of any significance in these news magazines?
The wire services have concentrated on development of TV and internet services and focused on financial intelligence to pay the bills, rather than news as it happens. They rely on stringers and on ‘citizen journalists’ when there’s a breaking story, not professional photojournalists.
First to go have been the photojournalists, next it’s the writers
Sure, there may always be the need for specialist sports photographers, portraitists, fashion photographers and a news guy to smudge the President when he shows up to a press conference, but what about the guys who produce stories, who cover issues rather than events? Newspapers and magazines don’t employ them anymore.
Should we care? Well yes we should. The other photographers cover events which are organised by someone else; events arranged by spin-doctors, PR agents, press secretaries, advertising and marketing executives. Looking at all news and current affairs these days it’s so obvious that what you are seeing or reading is regurgitated information fed to the news organisation by someone else’s press department.
The photojournalists were the first to go, but once the destruction of the printed media business model is complete and still no-one has come up with a new one, then the writers will have to go as well. So we’ll end up with a couple of sub-editors re-phrasing press-releases and dropping in supplied photos. Hell, that’s happening already!
I believe we owe it to our children to tell them that the profession of ‘photojournalist’ no longer exists. There are thousands of the poor bastards, creating massive debt for themselves hoping to graduate and get a job which no-one is prepared to pay for anymore.
Even when photographers create brilliant stories and the magazine editors really want to publish them, they cannot pay a realistic price for the work.
Zapping with 50,000 volts
We have now reached the stage where magazine supplements offer me less for a story which might be used over a cover and eight pages than their associated papers pay me for a single picture of a celebrity.
The picture editors shrug and say, “This is just the way it is.” But, it is an active decision that has been taken by the managing editors who believe that photojournalism is not valued, it can be got for free, and so needs no budget. Money is still around in newspapers, it’s just that it’s spent on other things.
I woke up this morning with a dream going around in my head. It was as if I’d been watching a medical drama, ER or something, where they’d spent half the programme trying to revive a favourite character: mouth to mouth, blood transfusions, pumping the chest up and down, that electrical thing where they shout “Clear!” before zapping them with 50,000 volts to get the heart going again, emergency transplants and injections of adrenalin …, but nothing works. And someone sobs, “We’ve got to save him we cannot let him die.” And his best friend steps forward, grim and stressed and says, “It’s no good. For God’s sake, somebody call it!”
Okay, I’m that friend and I’m stepping forward and calling it. “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.
• Neil Burgess runs his own picture agency, NB Pictures, which represents 10 photographers, including Simon Norfolk, Dayanita Singh and Sebastião Salgado. Previously Neil was head of Network Photographers and Magnum Photos in New York, and Magnum London, which he helped set up in 1986. He is twice a former Chairman of World Press Photo.
Text © Neil Burgess 2010
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