Photojournalism—the word conjures globetrotting nomads traveling to dangerous and exotic places and shooting pictures that encapsulate the essence of a news story. Whether they practice this genre of photography or another, technological and market pressures have transformed how all ‘visual storytellers’ work. They have to satisfy a myriad of clients, produce more and faster, while simultaneously make consistently distinctive images.
A 22-year Survey and Conversations with Some Luminaries
What photographer has not dreamed about being a photojournalist? The word conjures a globetrotting nomad, parachuting into exotic corners of the planet and war zones, filing pictures back to the home office, then off to the next assignment. Of course, the reality is more nuanced; few make a living doing anything like this today. The ‘democratization’ of the camera and digital communications has made it possible for newspapers, magazines, and anywhere else pictures are published to hire local photographers to document whatever their readers want to see. Why hire someone to fly halfway around the planet when there’s a local to do the job? Furthermore, almost all news gathering operations face enormous pressures to be profitable, so the budget line item to support photojournalism has shrunk.
Still, many photographers manage to produce despite these pressures and most in the business say that their best stands up well against any other era.
I once wanted to be this kind of photographer. I worked as a newspaper photographer and wire service “stringer” for seven years in the Midwestern U.S., and then another ten as photo editor on the Latin American desk for a news wire service. I left the profession in 2001 to pursue a career in software. In 2016, I immigrated to Medellín to restart my journalism career, and I’m writing a book and shooting pictures about conflict in the city’s barrios. I was away from photojournalism for 15 years, so I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.
So, to see what qualifies as ‘state of the art’, I’ve been perusing the website hosting the winning photographs of the annual Pictures of the Year (POY) competition; the winners from the last 22 years has been mounted on the site. Now in its 76thyear, the contest consists of 40 categories of visual journalism, spanning categories from “Newspaper Photographer of the Year,” “Elections”, “Sports Action,” “Multimedia News and Issue Reporting Story,” and more. POY—now often referred to as POYi, for POY International—is the oldest and arguably, most prestigious photojournalism program and competition in the world, and is open to any photographer who pays $50.00 to enter.
But before paying, understand that the competition is brutal. The 75thedition took four teams of 12 judges(who are luminaries in the profession) 16 days to jury the 40,000-plus entries submitted by photographers from eight-five countries. Only the best reach the final rounds. Each photo gets one second, maybe two, of the judges’ attention. They click buttons, as each photo is projected: green for in, red for out. If more red than green are clicked then the photo doesn’t make it to the next round. This is the fate of most of the pictures.
(I was a student at the University of Missouri in the mid-1980s, and watched the competition. To see so many great—but not quite great enough—pictures get tossed aside remains a formative experience.)
In their “Spirit of the Competition” statement, POY encourages photographers to “show truth with a camera,” a principle stated by POY founder and photojournalism educator Cliff Edom in 1943. Other than the “Portrait” category, entries cannot be “set up,” staged, or posed by the photographer. Furthermore, the content of a scene may not be digitally manipulated or altered through post-production processing (other than correcting for exposure, white balance or color toning). POY judges and staff request a random 20 percent of submissions voted to the final places in their original RAW or JPEG formats to ensure authenticity.
To understand more about photojournalism today, I talked with four working photographers, editors, and educators, all who have been working three decades or more in the industry:
Mike Davis, professor of practice in the Multimedia Photography and Design Department at Syracuse University and the Alexia Tsairis Chair of Documentary Photojournalism. Before teaching, Davis worked as a photo editor at The Albuquerque Tribune, National Geographic Magazine, and The Oregonian; he’s judged the POY competition three different years for a total of five weeks, and he’s been named POY Newspaper Picture Editor of the Year twice. (Mike also runs a consulting business to help professionals and non- professionals improve their work.)
Win McNamee is Getty Images chief photographer-news; previously, he was a Reuters photographer and news editor. He won The White House News Photographer of the Year in 2015. Photography runs in the McNamee family blood; Win’s father, Wally McNamee, spent a career at The Washington Postand Newsweekas a staff photographer.
Peter Essick, a working photographer for more than 40 years, has won numerous prizes in POY and the World Press Photo competition; he’s also an author, drone pilot, teacher and speaker.He’s worked as a contract photographer for National Geographic and is the author of Our Fragile Beautiful World and The Ansel Adams Wilderness.The Lumiere Gallery in Atlanta represents his work. (Peter also teaches workshops to non-professionals.)
Olivier Calas, currently the senior multimedia editor at Agence-France Presse (AFP), managed AFP’s Latin American photo desk for a decade, overseeing stories such as the slaying of Colombian narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar in 1993, the coup that brought Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to power, the Zapatista rebel uprising in Mexico, and countless Copa Libertadores soccer tournaments.
Photography, Video, and Multimedia Storytelling
Mike Davis says that work produced for the market under the term ‘photojournalism’ has shrunk drastically; in fact, he rarely uses that term and reserves it only to refer exclusively to newspaper or wire service photography.
“Photojournalism’ is almost a historic term now. The word was coined to mean ‘words plus pictures;’ that is, photographs and text on newsprint or in magazines. Journalism today can mean words, still pictures, or video, all together on one screen, and even more,” Davis says.
“I prefer to use the term ‘visual storyteller.”
He says that the bar has risen dramatically regarding the kind of work that clients expect the photographer to deliver, so ‘visual storytellers’ have to push the boundaries of creative norms to distinguish their work, no matter whether it’s for an editorial or commercial entity.
“Once upon a time, a lot of people who may not have been very good photographers, but who could master the rather steep learning curve of film, were able to get jobs and make a living. But those days are gone…a photographer has to ‘say’ something about what he’s photographing, beyond the informational aspects of what’s in front of the camera,” Davis said.
“The line between journalism, or storytelling, and art, is blurring,” he said.
Who is doing this boundary-pushing work? Davis cites Annie Flanagan, who uses a variety of mediums, including film (still and motion), Polaroid, and digital photography for clients like the Washington Post, Vice, and Smithsonian Magazine; the conceptual and documentary work of Diàna Markosian; and Andrea Bruce, a former Washington Post photographer (and multimedia producer) who has covered war in the Middle East.
Peter Essick mentioned Christopher Anderson, a war photographer who has also directed television commercials for Nike; and Olivier Calas pointed to Jorge Silva, Gideon Mendel, and Carol Guzy.
Davis also says the days when a photographer could depend on one source for income —which was usually a newspaper or magazine-- to support his work are gone.
Today, he’s likely producing work for more than just the mass media. Clients might be an NGO, a government agency, a gallery, the contributors to his Kickstarter campaign, his social media followers, and even a commercial organization, and he’s obligated to make the work compelling for all.
‘Visual Storytelling’ Pedagogy
Davis’ teaching isn’t geared toward training students in particular journalistic disciplines, but rather helping them to ‘realize their voices and vision’ and to find the visual storytelling medium best served to realize that goal—be it film, digital, video, or another medium. This is the only way to distinguish work in a multifarious market.
“Thirty years ago, photojournalism students graduated to find jobs in only three or four places—newspapers, magazines, a wire service, or perhaps as a freelancer. Today, although those options are possible, there’s so many others, but they have to demonstrate a unique vision and skill to land a job.”
Only four of some 100 students in the last six years went to work at newspapers; approximately one-third are ‘visual producers’ (perhaps what were once referred to as ‘photo editors’); another third run their own freelance multimedia or design businesses; and the rest work at an array of places like Greenpeace, the Prada fashion company, Rapha sportswear, BuzzFeed, Bon Apetit, the Library of Congress, and more.
The Need for Speed and the Magic of Photography
Besides the ‘democratization’ of camera equipment and the financial pressures on media organizations, perhaps the other variable that challenges photographers is the marketplace’s insatiable need for more pictures (or video) delivered faster, and newspapers and other publications’ obsession for measuring ‘value’, or ‘page views’ on their websites. This seemingly insatiable appetite for more, and faster, and the need to quantify worker output, has permeated the entire business.
As an example, Olivier Calas compared how an international wire service covered an event like the 100-meter finals at the Olympics in the age of film versus digital.
“In the film days, we’d deliver perhaps ten photos to clients…. today, photographers cram remote, infrared-triggered cameras into as many nooks and crannies on the track as possible, not to mention the one against their eye, turn on the motor drives at the starting gun, then send at least 300 images of the winners, the finish line, literally every second of the race, within a few minutes after it’s done, to newspapers.”
“This seems to be what clients want,” Calas says, “but it’s harder to find magic in the deluge.”
This ethos isn’t just practiced by the big players like AFP, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Getty; even small town and medium size daily newspapers expect photographers to file from the field several times a day, and to post to FaceBook, Twitter, a blog, and Instagram, according to Davis.
What has all this done to the state of the art?
“There is no doubt in my mind that photography has been devalued,” says Peter Essick, “and in no small measure because of the ease of using an inexpensive camera, and other stresses on photographers.”
“And there are a lot of things I like about the ‘democratization’ of cameras…. but it used to be that photographers were special. We carried this heavy equipment that was really hard to learn how to use, we went into these strange, dark, smelly places to work, and a few hours later our pictures were in a newspaper,” he says.
Win McNamee offers a more measured view---but he’ll concede that Peter Essick and Olivier Calas both have a point.
“Adaptation is necessary in this business. Competitive, market pressures have forced photographers to diversify their skills, which include the ability to maximize the technology of the day,” McNamee says.
“We can’t do what we love (shooting pictures) without customers; and we largely have to deliver what they want.”
Still, while he doesn’t think it’s compulsory to have an apprenticeship like Calas and Essick are suggesting to be a compelling photographer—that is, experience dealing with bygone things like film, f/stops, shutter speeds, etc.--- he thinks that it’d be valuable.
He remembers going to The Washington Post darkroom with his father, Wally McNamee, for the first time when he was four years old and watching a print develop in a tray.
“Most of the young photographers that work for me haven’t experienced this, the most magical notion of photography. And I can sometimes detect it in their work,” he says.
Advice Before Entering the Profession
To anyone contemplating this profession, McNamee advises to consume as much photography as possible to get an idea of the niche where they’d like to work---and get out and shoot pictures.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid or not…. and there’s not really an excuse to do otherwise anymore, because you can burn through megabytes of memory and it’ll hardly cost a dime,” he says.
He also says that they need to answer three questions about themselves.
“Are you someone who is self-initiating and doesn’t need to be told what to do? Can you thrive in very demanding, constantly changing circumstances? Do you have a strong work ethic? If the answer is ‘yes’ to all three, then I tell them they’ll probably be fine.”
Davis says that it is very important to “connect with a subject that interests and engages you, then produce work that compels others, and finally, find a market and audience.”
“Because the work that you produce is the work that you’ll get,” he says.
Competition + Pressure = ‘Visual Storytelling’
After spending several days looking at the POY winners and speaking with these luminaries, I’d also say that the work of today’s best ‘visual storytellers’ has never been better. Because competition continually intensifies, photographers have to hustle more to distinguish themselves. Also, since they have to work for diverse clients and in different mediums, their approach has had to become more flexible to make a living. This has likely made photojournalism more artistic, or at least more genre bending.
“Photographers have always been an adaptable bunch...and as long as there are talented people behind the camera, there will always be a market for professional images,” says Win McNamee.
It’s probably harder than ever to get that work in front of the market, but that’s the nature of competition in any business.