Perhaps it’s the influence of the forthcoming annual south of France grumble-fest, but the web has recently been awash with discussion of one of photography’s hardiest perennials: is photojournalism dead or merely in a coma? And if the latter how can it be resuscitated?
The most dramatic contribution came from NB Pictures director Neil Burgess on the Editorial Photographers UK website, where he announced: “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12 GMT August 2010”. Presumably he sent a memo to the photographers he represents before he let rip at EPUK.
Burgess’ article attracted a lot of attention. So much so that the London Photographic Association, in an audacious piece of grave-robbing, heisted the piece from EPUK, re-branded it as their own, and sent out a blizzard of tweets and press releases announcing their new exclusive. M’Learned Friends are now involved: hopefully EPUK’s lawyers will appreciate the post-modernist irony of an organisation that purports to support photographers stealing an article about the death of photojournalism from a website run by photographers.
Co-incidentally, and within hours of the Burgess article, Black Star’s blog published a piece by Jim Pickerell that reached almost the exact opposite conclusions to Burgess. In Pickerell’s view photojournalism is undergoing a revival through video and multimedia. However he provided nothing to support his thesis, and there’s considerable evidence to the contrary. Photographers and publishers have been experimenting with multi-media and video for some years: but circulations continue to plummet, and titles continue to close.
Paul Melcher’s usually grumpy Thoughts Of A Bohemian also saw grounds for optimism, but from a different direction: photographers and agents as self-publishers. Melcher’s arguments – essentially that people will pay for quality – are attractive, but rest on foundations that are at best unproven. And his sole example of an agency – Wireimage – successfully selling images to consumers is a poor choice. Wireimage specialise in red carpet celebrity and paparazzi material, for which there is an obvious consumer market. There’s no evidence of a similar consumer market for serious photojournalism: if anything quite the opposite.
Meanwhile Gerald Holubwicz has been publishing an excellent and growing series of 30 minute video interviews on the state of photojournalism: so far there’s Polaris Images’ JP Pappis, Magnum’s Mark Lubell, Melcher [again] and Vll’s Stephen Mayes. They’re all worth a look, but it’s Mayes who’s the most illuminating:
Vll have clearly put a lot of thought into their survival strategy, and like Melcher they view self-publishing as a key part of that strategy. Even so Mayes struggles to circumnavigate the very obvious elephant in the room: that photojournalism has historically been consumed as part of a larger package, and that Vll as publishers are unbundling that package when, in his own words, “there’s no history of people paying for news, and no evidence that they will do so”.
Despite their many differences all the articles and interviews do however have one interesting thing in common: none are the thoughts of working photographers. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it is more than a little odd that such a debate should be taking place between industry agents and observers, while excluding the actual practitioners. This is one occasion when it might be more appropriate to talk to the monkeys than the organ grinders.