Former head of Magnum Photos Neil Burgess announced rather melodramatically this past August that photojournalism was dead and he was “the only one who would call it”. It was a depressing move, and also one meant to garner him attention as the only photog with a head on his shoulders. However, Burgess did bring up some good points in his article published over at Editorial Photographers of UK & Ireland.
“Magazines and newspapers […] 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. The wire services […] rely on stringers and on ‘citizen journalists’ when there’s a breaking story, not professional photojournalists.”
Burgess emphasized something that has been going on in newsrooms for over a decade already– the slow but deliberate eroding of the photojournalist’s autonomy. The overwhelming majority of the time, photographers are being assigned to find something for a writer’s story, not encouraged to use their own reporting skills to visually tell a story without the use of a text narrative.
Where Burgess goes wrong is seeing the citizen journalist, clutching an iPhone and constantly checking Twitter, as an enemy to journalism, and photojournalism in particular. Though the loss of photographers’ stature in the newsroom has been going on, according to Burgess, for the last 25 years, he picked this past August to declare it dead because of the new technological advances in the field that he sees as powerful, but does not fully understand.
I would argue that camera phones and the ability to post photos online instantly has strengthened the flow of information, which in turn can sharpen and professionalize real journalism, instead of diluting it. Think about it: there are millions of people out there eagerly snapping away at events across the globe, doing the news-gathering process themselves. The photojournalist’s role, then, is elevated from the lowly illustrator or gatherer to the interpreter providing context, depth, and framing to the stories.
With the proliferation of these citizen journalists, photojournalists roles are able to be honed and focused on the work that they alone can do best and are trained for. Small assignments that provide clarity to a written piece or serve as quick snapshots of a breaking news event are already being delegated to the citizen with the iPhone. The photojournalist is then free to pursue and portray narratives visually again. Not constrained by the costly proportions of glossy magazine pages or the size or number of columns in a newspaper, photojournalists can produce at their best and showcase it more gracefully and more widely for more of the public to see online.