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“For God’s sake, somebody call it!”

1 August 2010 - Neil Burgess

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.

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.

Making the call: Neil Burgess is at his photo-bookstall in London’s Broadway Market most Saturdays. Photo © David Hoffman.

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.

Text © Neil Burgess 2010

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.

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Formal service for friends and family? Bit of a knees up later to talk over the memories?

Splendid article/obit.

Comment 1: Andy Drysdale, 2 August 2010, 02:07 pm

Unfortunately, and regrettably Neil says nothing here that I can argue with, or that hasn’t already been said, by many, and thought by most others in the business.

Newspapers died for me as viable clients some years ago. Rates have remained static for fifteen years before being cut in the last year or so by many publishers.

There are still clients out there, but not enough for the experienced thousands looking for outlets for their work and the hundreds more coming out of colleges every year.

For me there probably really is no choice, but for those still cutting their teeth or who look to come into the business all I can helpfully say is that society always needs plumbers, builders and electricians. As a householder I can never get one when I want one.

Photographers? I have hundreds in my address book…

Comment 2: Pete Jenkins, 2 August 2010, 05:11 pm

Sad but true. In this day of reality TV there is just less interest in real reality. The race to the bottom is going on in every industry and this is just another sad example of that race.

Comment 3: Michael Jardeen, 2 August 2010, 05:35 pm

Fortunately photojournalists don’t want to lie down and die. After every forest fire the brush eventually regrows and with it the life slowly returns. Photojournalists are looking for new ways to survive.

While publishers, magazines and newspaper are drying up as revenue sources the opportunities for photographers to directly compete for a share of the audience only grows. As soon as photographers find a way to convert that audience into revenue you will see a resurgence, be it small at first, in independently produced quality photojournalism.

VII are doing just this with the new VII Magazine.

Latitude Magazine (full disclosure - I am Latitude's coordinator and editor) is another such experiment that is starting to pay off. Self published by the photographers who shoot for it, Latitude Magazine has over 60 photojournalists contributing monthly to a publication we sell directly to consumers.

That is 60+ voices who blog, twitter, email and market the magazine because we own it. No advertising, no sales people, no middle management bulk gobbling up all the profits. The magazine is $2.99! And every issue sold is money in the pockets of the photographers who shot for it.

The traditional relationship between photojournalist and publisher is dead, not photojournalism.

Comment 4: Nathan Shanahan, 2 August 2010, 06:30 pm

Sad but very true. It's a reflection of the dumbing down of the majority of the publications that call themselves newspapers or magazines.

I still seek out suitable topics to cover in depth but this is more and more a labour of love than a core part of an income stream. Thank God for the regular corporate clients that feed my labour of love.

Comment 5: Ian Shipley, 2 August 2010, 06:34 pm

Unfortunate, but true. Most major newspapers have cut space so drastically that there is no room for good photojournalism. One picture and done. A sad state for sure.

Comment 6: JP, 2 August 2010, 08:02 pm

It may be dead in the nation's great cities and not so great towns. But photojournalism is not dead because it lives in our hearts and on the net. I view the collapse as a planned systematic effort by most editors, owners, and shareholders. The editors ('yes men') never had the balls to back us up. All most editors ever wanted was a paycheck and an Emmy for their cubical.

The owners are Murdoch and Getty and that seems to be it. These two only want to dumb society down in order to gain more power and political influence. They’re already an extension of big government.

I wonder how many government spooks receive a government employment check and list their profession as journalists? I for one can't wait for Wikileaks to leak this one to the world.

Comment 7: RKing, 2 August 2010, 08:27 pm

C’mon, Neil, give it one more 50,000 volt zapp!

We just build a new platform for photojournalism. You know, a platform that will eventually pay for it - independently produced, experimental in the beginning (see Nathan Shanahan above) and made by those who will not cease to shoot the better stories.

Hey, and buy yourself an iPad, man!

Comment 8: Thomas, 3 August 2010, 03:37 am

I would have to agree – the couple of photojourno’s I know now need to supplement their income with lecturing and other means. Whilst the art of photojournalism is not dead the profession most certainly is.

Comment 9: Russell Barton, 4 August 2010, 01:53 am

These days it’s all about ads & celebrities … what a shame.

Editor: "Who want’s to see a picture of the poor, when ROLEX is about to pay for an Ad?!"

It’s all about the money.
Nothing else matters.
Poor world.

Comment 10: andrea , 4 August 2010, 11:16 am

Unfortunately it happens not only in photojournalism. It is spread over all human culture.

People are not willing to read books today, they prefer to watch movies. People are fed by media and believe what they see on TV is reality. Very sad.

Comment 11: Alexander Yashish, 7 August 2010, 10:17 am

True. Although I’ve worked/trained for 10 years as a freelance documentary photojournalist my fiancé is earning more money than I ever have as a photographer in fashion with no training or experience, all thanks to digital. When everyone is a photographer nothing is worth seeing.

I keep on going as I can’t do anything else, I think there will always be passionate stubborn idiots like me out there!

Comment 12: Ed, 7 August 2010, 09:36 pm

I say give the 10 year old kid with the Blackberry the Pulitzer, if he gets the shot. And, he probably will!

You want to make a good living? Go sell hotdogs at Fenway Park, invest in Exxon, write songs, or make movies. You want to do photojournalism you don’t have to go far, or expect pedestals, and gold bars. Isn’t it all about the work and the sacrifice anyway?

As to the remark by John Szarkowski , “photojournalism stopped being interesting after 1958” - I take personal offense, being born in 1958, and challenge him to look at the best of my work and make the same claim.

Comment 13: Chris Bernstein, 8 August 2010, 05:10 am

Look, journalism is an activity and not a profession. That’s the market truth.

Journalists are not licensed like lawyers, doctors and accountants.

The reason? In a democracy journalism has to be an activity any citizen can produce. If it takes a license to do it then you have the lost the foundation upon which a free press stands.

Go be a photojournalist – love it – just don’t expect to find a full-time job attached to the activity.

Comment 14: ego, 9 August 2010, 04:05 am

Much has been written about the decline of pj and those who stick their necks out to make proclamations that it is dead generally get a lot of push back from those who are either a) in denial or b) wannabe photojournalists who cannot believe that their hobby will never be their profession.

The entire ecosystem for photojournalism, and journalism, has changed. Despite what #14 claims, these are, and should be professions. People who do these things should be trained and paid to do a good job, be professional, uphold standards etc. The massive volume of absolute crap on the internet, these days, claiming to be journalism or photojournalism, is a very sad reflection of the quality “reporting” the masses are expecting (extremely low quality!). Journalism based on opinions and biases is not journalism, just a bunch of op-eds.

It has always struck me as extremely odd that those professions which can truly make the most difference to our lives such as pj’s, documentary film-makers, teachers, nurses – are some of the lowest paid jobs around. Something very wrong there.

The work of VII and World Press Photo and so many others is all well and good, but the majority of viewers of that work seem to be other photojournalists, and not the general public, or other influencers, who can truly drive change. Unless pj’s can evolve to a point where the content they produce is readily (even greedily) viewed, absorbed, and acted upon by those who are willing to make a difference, then pj really is in a death spiral.

Comment 15: Michael Fox, 10 August 2010, 02:32 pm

Oh dear!

Comment 16: Paul Treacy, 17 August 2010, 09:16 pm

In New Zealand, papers are happy to use your images but they don’t often pay. Happier to use a readers Pic!

Comment 17: Michael McQueen, 21 August 2010, 01:45 am

The problem is wider than just photojournalism – it’s about photography in general.

Bad photography drives out good. Which is a derivative of the economical law stating “bad money drives out good.” This is know as Gresham's Law in English speaking countries after Sir Thomas Gresham (1519–1579), financial agent of Queen Elizabeth I. Gresham was one of the first to elucidate it, although he was preceded by my compatriot Nicolaus Copernicus.

The meaning expressed is that, if two coins have the same face value but are made from metals of unequal value, the cheaper will tend to drive the other out of circulation.

With gazillions of free photographs available for editors around the world the value of any photography is diminished to a point where it is almost impossible to make a living out of selling photographs.

“Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.

Comment 18: Voytec, 1 September 2010, 09:35 pm

I’m just going to say this: have a look at
The Boston Globe: The Big Picture

Photojournalism is not dead, it is evolving into Art Photojournalism.

Comment 19: Jon Baginski, 18 January 2011, 02:34 pm

your_ip_is_blacklisted_by sbl.spamhaus.org

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