“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
— Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince (1532)
Many photojournalists and documentary photographers are struggling to earn a decent living and yet they are still not willing to embrace the changes that are happening around them.
There are plenty of places where your images can be presented and displayed but not all websites have money and a lot of traditional media organizations are increasingly less willing or able to pay good rates and a reasonable travelling allowance.
Due to tighter budgets some media organizations have changed the way they acquire images and, with their use of mobile phone-wielding citizen journalists, are competing with each other in the race to the bottom. Send us your images; the catch cry goes out to the general public. These are not trained photographers; they are not fulfilling the requirement that Robert Gale, international photographer and photojournalism teacher at RMIT, assigns to photojournalism. “The photojournalist must report the facts as they see it and they must verify it. In fact journalists are required to verify it from three separate entities that are reliable before they can write it. Because it’s the news and it will be our history, we cannot have falsified events”.
Time after time the media gets caught out when using citizens’ images, with misinformation and pictures that are not what they purport to be. Earlier this year a Fox network affiliate in America displayed an image with the tagline, BALTIMORE IN FLAMES. The problem was it happened to be a picture of Venezuela, not Baltimore.
Social media has rapidly changed the way we think and work as photojournalists. We are now uploading a staggering 1.8 billion images on to social media each day and some social media organizations are trying to persuade us that these sites are the “Real News”. But again you have this problem of credibility. Using a mobile phone is not the issue, after all it’s just a capturing device, it’s the fact that a number of the images on these sites are altered, falsified and changed. They do not, as Gale would say, “adhere to the definition of photojournalism.”
Also, when making use of citizen pictures you get what author Alain De Botton in his book, The News A User’s Manual calls “corroboration images, which do little other than “confirm something we have learned about a person or an event through the accompanying article.” De Botton went on to say, “Then there is another, rarer kind of image, the photograph of revelation, whose ambition is not simply to back up what the text tells us but to advance our level of knowledge to a new point.”
And this is what photojournalists should do. Seize the opportunities offered by the range of proliferating social media sites and shoot photographs that reveal and not just confirm an event. It’s not hard to find websites and media outlets that are willing to pay for strong images that tell a new story or an old story in a new way. In an interview with Capture Magazine New York based photographer Ashley Gilberson said; “If you can’t find someone to buy your pictures, you’re not trying hard enough”.
There are many photographers who can shoot good images and that’s all well and good but photo editors want people who have ideas, a definite style and the ability to shoot images that are not just corroborative but give a new insight and revelation to the story.
Some people though have gone too far in their quest to embrace change and are stretching the core of photojournalism into other genres. Richard Mosse went to the Congo and photographed the local people and environs with infrared film. The South African writer Chandra Frank labeled the series, “Congo war horrors in bubblegum pink”. Mosse claimed that he was documenting a forgotten war and using beauty as a way to attract more eyes to this sidelined conflict. His images have been used in the media as news and that takes his work into the documentary/photojournalism area.
“A lot of hardcore conservative photojournalists have been offended by this because they think that I am ridiculing my subject, which is far from the case – I am very interested in the complexity of the situation there,” Mosse told Dazed & Confused magazine in 2010. Mosse constructed his images by setting up situations, asking people to move, pose and play to the camera. Robert Gale says, “If you change or set up something it is a construct. It is not the truth, you are not documenting. It’s okay to make pictures like this as long as you say what they are. It’s not photojournalism; it’s an artist’s interpretation of an event or subject.”
It is difficult to reconcile beauty with conflict, rape and genocide, with a time where the ravages of war wiped out more than five million people. It’s also hard to understand how hanging these artistic images in galleries will help to give an insight or encourage viewers to think about the plight of these unfortunate people.
Many photojournalists have diversified, added extra skills and become multimedia experts. They have learnt to shoot videos, acquired interview skills and been taught how to write articles. All this helps the photographer to have more control over projects and offer extra value to a media organization. After all, when you pitch for an assignment you need to offer something that sets you apart from your competitors.
Change in photography is nothing new it has always happened. In fact, one of the reasons that agencies like Magnum and Black Star started in the mid 20th century was to help photographers get better rates, recognition for their work and keep the copyright to their images. Sound familiar? Change is constant. No point in saying I didn’t sign on for this version of the world… it’s the version of the world we’ve got… embrace it! Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says, “The only certainty is that everything is in a state of change.”