This is the verdict of veteran photojournalist Tim Page, as discussed in this ABC News Australia article. For years, photojournalists have been lamenting the decline of the industry and Tim Page’s comments neatly reflect the range of complaints:
“These days, the profession of the photojournalist is a myth. It’s not the fun-loaded world people imagine…. It’s one of those occupations that have been trumped up to be sexy, adventurous, high-paying, constant travel and five-star restaurants….”
“People imagine all these things, and don’t see the downsides of the jobs, which is staying in shitty places, eating shitty food, and being ill – and making miserable money for the privilege of it all.”
“It’s a right old state of affairs and it’s not going to change, because more and more people are uploading photos to social media, and stealing images, and it’s the same as the publications who do the same thing,”
“There’s hardly anything out there anymore in terms of a printed, weekly gazette – it just doesn’t exist. So to get pictures which are strong, out there – it’s hard….”
“It’s also a marketplace where news organisations are gutless.”
And its hard to disagree with him. On a separate but related point, I wrote an article about Don McCullin’s thoughts looking back on his career (unfortunately the original video linked in that article has since vanished). McCullin felt that his images had ‘not made any difference to anything’, which was painful to hear from someone whose contributions are considered among the greatest in the field of photojournalism. Tim Page asserts that only the very cream of the crop have a chance to scrape by in an industry that is happy to aim low and pay low, while Don McCullin suggests that even the greatest contributions are for nought. So where does this leave photojournalism?
Its a bleak picture indeed, but one also supported by my own interactions with photojournalists – even award-winning photojournalists are struggling to remain financially solvent, despite sacrificing everything (personal life, relationships, sanity and solvency) for their work. On top of this is a third problem: the information war is well understood by belligerent groups and photojournalists are now often directly targeted. The spiralling death toll among photojournalists makes embedded work all the more appealing (as least one side isn’t shooting at you and they will help you if the other side succeeds in doing so), but it does of course come with strings attached. Today’s embeds bring many more restrictions than those 50 years ago and you can see it in the images produced, as well as in the images you do not get to see (how long did it take for the US military would allow coffins of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq to be photographed?).
Does the future mean average citizens and activists armed with iPhones snapping slices of events as they occur and, if so, is this a problem? Are we less informed as a result?
Surely citizen photographers produce plenty of literal images that inform very well, perhaps especially so by virtue of their humbleness? While this is difficult to argue against, I am not comfortable with it, yet the thought that many people appreciate the ‘art in photojournalism’ might appear to be uncomfortable, distasteful territory. I’m going to agree with the first part of my previous sentence while completely rejecting the second part, because I think it misses the mark.
Surely art is surely about taking us beyond the literal and providing insights that are otherwise difficult to convey? If this is the case, we need art in photojournalism. We need committed, expert photographers who understand ‘art’ to take us beyond the facts and help provide answers to the questions we seek. We need these people to act as translators, providing images that convey more than mere facts, because at the root of it all, we are interested primarily in fellow human beings…. the human condition. This takes us right back to the beginnings of why people chose to produce art in the first place. That it should occur in the middle of a battlefield is really of very little importance.