The King Is Dead! Long Live The King! Visual journalism will survive

May 23rd, 2008Stephen Mayes

On what we can learn from American culture about photojournalism for the next generation

To the generation of the dead the world looks bleak; everything they believed in is washed away and soon forgotten: the struggles, the values and the knowledge that took a lifetime to collect are gone, ignored and often derided. Meanwhile, as though living on a different planet the young rejoice in the possibilities of the future, driven by the excitement of discovery and the opportunity to fulfill everything they believe to be possible. At one and the same time everything we believe in is gone and everything we believe in is possible.

So it is with photojournalism. Photographers are struggling to fund their work and can’t get it published when they do; newspapers and magazines meanwhile aren’t sure what the value of photojournalism is nor what to do with it when they have it while they reformat like crazy to cope with the decline of advertising on the one hand and new consumer habits on the other. To the producers of serious news work it seems like the world has ceased to care as journalism trails invisibly behind celebrity gossip and lifestyle specials. It’s a trajectory of decay that appears to be driven by the American consumer: still the world’s biggest economy the culture is fueled by Maddison Avenue advertising, Hollywood movie culture and TV entertainment where opinion is now more important than information.

It’s all true, and yet it isn’t. Shift perspective slightly and you see that the same American consumer is also pushing back. The same culture that led the demise of the old is simultaneously building the new. In Spring 2008 the US-based Project For Excellence In Journalism has published its fifth annual report at the centre of which is an amazingly bright spark of hope: they confirm that the consumer appetite for real news is undiminished. What has changed is that they are looking in new places and they are consuming information in different ways, led by the Internet (of course) where 50% of every page must now be given over to directing the reader to other sources and alternative interpretations, and also through newly formatted TV (with remote-driven skip functionality and split-screen variety), video games, cell phones and Pods of all shapes and sizes (small, smaller and smallest…). Even radio is a growth medium that is finding bigger audiences and new commercial structures to support them.

And what about print? Here is the rub: most readers of this article are familiar with the struggles of the old publishing media to stay connected to their audience and even more importantly to stay connected to their revenues as advertisers drift in search of entertainment-hungry punters. We have all seen the explosive growth of online publishing and we all know that it hasn’t yet found a way to pay for itself, let alone fund the creation of new work. And meanwhile too many photojournalists are sitting back, waiting for the publishers to sort themselves out in the expectation that they will be back asking for more just as soon as they’re ready. But it’s not going to happen like that. While many photojournalists see themselves as custodians of the true values that must be protected against the tides of change that are sweeping around us, the world has moved on and they’re not going back to the old standards of the 20th Century. It’s time for a complete re-think – it’s simply not enough to animate a slide show with a few graphics and some atmospheric audio.

There’s a joke: how many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Four: one to change the bulb and three to sing about how good the old one was. Wherever three or more photojournalists gathered together I find the song is sung, but it’s not a joke. The “crisis” in photojournalism is not an absence of newsworthy events, nor even the absence of an eager audience, it is the absence of imagination in bridging the two, and we are limited by the constant backward hankering for the way things used to be. Who is the new Robert Capa or Eugene Smith? But the question is misguided, and just as so many innovations have been misunderstood because they were defined in terms of what went before, so we are missing the opportunity to make a meaningful step forward in photojournalism because we are hanging onto the old references. How long did it take for people to realize that the automobile could be so much more than a horseless carriage?…

Let’s start by reinventing the word “photojournalism” – the associations are too strong with old ways of working, old ways of thinking, old ways of seeing. It starts with the very subjects that we expect to see covered: photojournalists are out there, covering the globe to document the suffering of the poor, the disenfranchised, the diseased. Photojournalists habitually explore the powerless victims of the world’s problems, depicting the consequences but rarely the causes of our ills. What of the wrongs at home (meaning the minority world of the rich northern hemisphere which is the home of most published photojournalists): the perils of affluence, the corrosive effects of power, the over consumption of everything, the inequities of education and health care, the influence of political propaganda, anything and everything to do with our food and our water?… I might know one or two significant pieces on each of these themes produced over the last twenty years, compared to the tens, hundreds and thousands of pieces produced “overseas”. The MySpace generation is more than ready to hear about the immediate issues facing the homeland culture along with the impact of our behaviours in other parts of the world. Yet somehow photojournalists don’t have that self-reflective gene, and even when working at home they still look at the “other” rather than at their own, although it’s all connected. Here’s the first area of change: photojournalists need to engage the new audience by recognising their own place in the world and integrating this new self-awareness into their coverage of the world at large. Photojournalists are no longer disembodied observers; in the world of blogs, citizen journalists and hyper information sharing, we are all participants in the affairs of the world and in the reporting of events.

Another deeply ingrained photojournalistic trait is the visual style of coverage, and much conservatism in the photojournalistic community can be traced to the entrenched belief in the integrity of the photographic format, which is sometimes valued even above the integrity of the author. The facts recorded by the lens are assumed to be sufficient to communicate the truth of a situation, and the news frame becomes a sacrosanct territory that cannot be touched, except by a headline or a caption as explanation. Somehow the format has become more revered than the information we’re trying to impart. At the most basic level the style is rooted in 35mm stills (which is itself ironic given that 35mm film was appropriated from the movie industry), the format of the “eyewitness” is rectangular, representational and increasingly restricted. Yet in 2008 our visual culture is dominated by advertising and with it the audience has developed an understanding of photographic language that has broken the boundaries of the rectangle and which speaks as much of metaphor as of facts. Ideas and concepts are understood as easily as descriptive likenesses, and today’s “multimedia” (another restrictive term from the late 20th Century that should be banished) engages photographic components alongside composited elements, illustration and graphic conceits. No one is confused by the line between “factual representation” and “truth” – the audience has become more sophisticated than the producers and stuttering slideshows of sequential images look somewhat amateurish next to the super-slick, layered productions of the arts, entertainment and commercial worlds, all of which are inhabited effortlessly and without conflict by the modern audience. To a generation brought up on music videos photojournalism looks old, very old, which is no reflection on the seriousness of the subjects photographed but speaks volumes about the styles of work.

Of all the changes facing the photojournalist, learning the needs of the new audience might be the most significant. There is a qualitative difference in the 21st Century audience for news and information, which goes beyond the simple factor of seeing more data; our relationship to information has changed and yesterday’s “consumer” has transformed into a participant. We are all somehow involved in processing information, either as participants or as commentators, or as conduits as we pass it on via email, blogs or online rating systems. It is no longer enough to publish in magazines which drop by subscription whether wanted or not, it is necessary to find the audience and to engage them in an active dialogue with the work and the issues represented. If the key role of photojournalist is to communicate information (rather than to protect information, as it sometimes seems) it is necessary to seek out the audience and connect with them on their terms. The fatal information trap that is built into the Internet is the ability to find people around the world who think like you, and to talk to them to the exclusion of all others; in this aspect the Internet is the antithesis of mass communication and its ability to filter ever-narrower interests is a snare as much as it is a liberation. The challenge is to break out, to find wider audiences and to connect meaningfully. And to do this, new languages must be learned.

Is this a case of educating the old leaders of photojournalism in the new language of 21st Century communication, or do we hope that the young bloods of the new millennium have learned enough about the ethics and ethos of journalism to carry it forward for the new generation? The King is dead. Long live the King!

First published Dispatches magazine 2008