How can photojournalism survive and thrive?


ONA UK meet-up at the Telegraph

Has social media killed photojournalism? That was the question debated at an ONA UK event at the offices of the Telegraph Media Group earlier this week and it sparked some lively exchanges.

Panellists who led the discussion were Turi Munthe, founder and CEO of photo news site Demotix, Paul Lowe course director of the Masters programme in photojournalism and documentary photography at the London College of Communication and Edmond Terakopian,  an award winning photojournalist.

We ranged over many issues, among them: Is agency boss Neil Burgess correct, that the profession of photojournalist no longer exists? Who or what is a photojournalist? What’s a picture worth and who sets the rate? How can photojournalists survive? What’s the business model? Are amateurs being exploited?

When you strip away emotional reactions, it’s technological change that is at the heart of these issues. The barrier to entry has been lowered, the kit is in the hands of millions of people, it’s easier to use than it’s ever been and the ability to distribute images is open to all.

All the hand-wringing from professionals that amateurs are undermining their livelihoods isn’t going to alter the fact.  As attendee Frank Wales pointed out, portrait painters had the same beef with the early practitioners of photography, but it didn’t make a blind bit of difference.

We’re now in a world with a super-abundance of images and the laws of supply and demand apply. A picture may be worth a thousand words but what’s its market value?  The simple answer is its worth is what someone is prepared to pay.

In the news industry that’s likely to be determined by the elapsed time between the event and the image’s publication or broadcast, its exclusivity and its merit in the broader news agenda.

Quality matters, but not as much as pro-photographers seem to think, and only if there’s choice.

The first images of the Air France Concorde in flames taken by planespotters at Charles de Gaulle Airport were blurry and poor quality. The 7/7 Tube train image of people exiting a train down a tunnel was indistinct and grainy. The Hudson River plane crash-landing was an iPhone shot taken by Janis Krums and uploaded via Twitpic.

In this world, first is good enough no matter what the quality.

As to what they’re worth, Krums’ picture would have been a licence to print money had the plane sunk within a minute or so of coming to rest.  The longer it stayed afloat the more pictures were taken and it’s then that the quality issue arises.

In future, breaking news images are increasingly likely to come from social media.As the preamble to the gathering stated: “We live in a world where anyone with a mobile phone camera and social media account can break a story faster than you can say ‘photojournalist’.”

Was that ever really the beat of the great photojournalists of the past, anyway? I think not. Consider, too, that the world is a smaller place, much less “foreign”, we’ve all seen more and travelled more since photojournalism’s heyday through the 1930s-50s).

With shrinking budgets hitting commissions from news organisations, agencies covering diary events and set-piece stories, and outfits like Demotix brokering deals between user-generated contributors and media buyers the outlook for pro photojournalists does, indeed, look bleak.

The transition to a business model that works is still in flux, but there are pointers to a way forward from crowd-funding operations like – which I wrote about last year – and Kickstarter.

The questions I posed then remain unanswered but the opportunity to break free from pitching only to editors and commissioners remains.

Would you, as an individual, put money into a photography assignment?  Larry Towell surpassed his target of $12,000 to fund a trip to Afghanistan in this way, promising “a personal handshake if I see you on the street corner of my home town” for those who stumped up $10, with a rising scale of rewards for the more generous.

Documentary photographer Daniel Cuthbert calls that kind of funding a virtual begging bowl, while photography consultant David Campbell sees it as a way of creating communities of interest.

Whichever view you take it requires more entrepreneurial effort from the photographer to get going, greater transparency about how the money will be spent and greater interaction with the backers/audience.

Paul Lowe also mentioned self-publishing through sites like Blurb which I’ve done myself, but only as a vanity act, not to make a living, and I’d be interested to hear if anyone’s making a success of this.

Chewing over all of this the following day with BBC Online’s picture editor Phil Coomes he raised the possibility of photojournalists selling their work bundled up as PDFs in a content marketplace like an app store.

We are, after all, ready to pay for music, so why not for atomised content at a threshold so low that it’s taken up by millions.

This is, essentially, what Rupert Murdoch is trying with The Daily – 99 cents a week or $39.99 a year.

The thing is we’re so used to advertising invisibly subsidising content that we expect to get content for free; the idea of paying is anathema.

Advertisers no longer want to spend millions of dollars just to reach mass audiences. They want smarter spend, to pay only for the people their product is aimed at, and as the metrics get better spending will be squeezed still further.

I fervently believe in the editorial merit and power of picture-based storytelling. The greatest stills capture a moment, give the viewer pause for thought and imprint themselves on the mind in a way that video does not.

Think of the man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Sq, Robert Capa’s D-Day landing shots, the Vietnamese girl running down a road after a napalm attack.

Far from being dead, I think a new golden age of photojournalism lies ahead with tablets opening the door on intelligent, picture-led storytelling the equal of anything served up by Picture Post, Life and Paris Match.

It’s not so much the photography that needs vision, but the business model to sustain it.


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