The face of things to come – Undermining photography as a profession.

I read this article earlier this week and shocked at how unsurprised I was at the report of The Chicago Sun-Times‘ decision to lay-off their 28 staff photographers and training their journalists to take photos with the mobile phones. Unsurprised because this isn’t the first time I have heard of a newspaper taking this step.
What does surprise me is the fact that those in charge of these publications think so little of the photography content that they include with their journalism. I am the last one to diss the iPhone as a photographic tool, I continuously argue the point that it is not the equipment that makes the photo but the person behind it. The iPhone can produce stunning images.

This trend of taking away the photographer from the news production undermines the skill, patience, training, story telling ability and in some extreme cases, life threatening situations  that a press photographer can find themselves in. I am not talking reports on local country fairs, or Mrs Smith and her cat stuck in a tree types of news here, I’m talking real news. Things that shape the world we live in.  It is the iconic imagery that will go on to the next generation, not the wording that went with it.

The claim that public input of photographic news is important is quite valid. Everyone has a mobile phone and there is always someone on the spot to take a photo of an event as it happens. There is even an iPhone app that anyone can install and ‘sell’ photos to news providers. Mostly though, the newspapers will offer a ‘mention’ for image use from the general public. The general public is happy to say they had a photo in the paper, everyone wins.

What if we turned this trend around, what if the newspaper fired all the wordsmiths, the journalists, the hacks. After all, there are countless bloggers with an opinion (yep, like me) who could also record a dictation of an event as it unfolds in front of them, fire that off to an editor and get it printed. For a ‘mention’ Why is the place of the journalist held in higher regard than that of the person who makes the headlining image, or a high quality portrait of the figure in the interview? Because they have years of training and have risen through the ranks to gain a valid and trusted opinion? Guess what, the integrity of a photographer isn’t gained simply by pressing a button either.

Think back in the world of journalism. How do we remember the iconic moments of history? Through an image. A good, well seen and well made image. The words fade, the image stays. Do we really want to remember the world through the snapped opportunist shot of a mobile phone? Really?

I am not for one moment saying that a non-professional cannot take a nice photo with a mobile device, but can they MAKE a nice photo? and more importantly, can they make a good photo at the right moment, to capture the emotion of that newsworthy moment, can they assure the editor that they can do 2 jobs equally well as they can one?
The law of averages would suggest that if enough people shot enough images there would be one usable image amongst them. Is that what the editors are banking on?
Is there going to be a new position at the paper alongside the photo editor to filter all the incoming journalist images and try to process them in a way that is acceptable to print? They could also simply employ someone to re-write, edit and correct the words that a photographer would send in along with their images. What’s the difference?

Luckily, there are still newspapers that are bucking the trend and realising that the image quality is an important factor to accompany first class writing. Full spread quality images that are made by someone who knows what they are doing rather than taken by someone who’s had a 1 day intensive course in maximising mobile photography.
The public are aware of what counts, the public are saturated by photography now and are actually a discerning  bunch when it comes to photography. Ultimately they are the ones buying the newspapers and they are the the ones that should be asked if photography is important in their daily read.

Back to the reported 28 job loses. I’ve not dug deeper to see what’s going on but potentially there are 28 colleagues over there with the same obligations as me, left out in the cold to find new work. I hope they are looked after, I hope they were smart enough to see this coming and had an exit plan ready. I hope that the newspaper is keeping them on as contractors for photos that count. I hope the above report is being over dramatic and The Chicago Sun-Times are not simply dumping people. I hope.

In this fast news world we must not forget one important factor that is linked indelibly to good photography.

‘A photo says 1000 words’

Maybe we can add a new saying to this to bring us up to 2013?

‘A mobile photo says 140 characters’

 

Two key points to remember.

1. There is a vast difference between taking a photo and making a photo.
2. If it wasn’t for staff photographers, we wouldn’t have had Spiderman!

 

I’m not the only one left with these feelings either. I spotted this on Photofocus too.

edit 03Jun another report. Moving one from the people there. and a quote to remember from Rob Hart. Chicago Tribune photographer:

‘Things are changing, and we have to learn to roll with it’

  • Pete Burkwood - Spot on Rob!

    Couldn’t have said better myself!

    P

  • Stuart Webster - Well written Rob, your post says it all.

  • Svein-Frode - Where I come from, Norway, the trend is somewhat opposite. There is hardly any text in the newspapers – apart from bold headlines and pictures. That said, there is an ever increasing torrent of citizen journalism present in the newspapers. Sadly most people can’t tell the difference betwwen a good and bad photo. If it were up to them the world would look “instagrammed”.

  • Liz - Print is dying anyway, so this is their knee jerk reaction as they enter their death throes. I feel for the 28 photographers axed, but your turning tables argument on the journos (axe-able too!) is so true. Citizen media is now a great portion of what we consume and how we interpret ‘news’. Both writers and photographers have to enter a new era in which the true professionals of both crafts will have to reinvent themselves. Photographers may be the easier to axe now, but the hacks are only a breathe away from the exit door too. How prophetic your post is. In Malta, I am never paid for photos or words these days, and yet supposed to be ‘grateful’ for having my work printed by local rags. It would just about be palatable if the sections my work appears in were online so I could gain back links, but that’s generally not the case either. Self media, self mediated is the route we all have to take, whether as producers or consumers.

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