Nearly departed?

Several people have written of late about the demise of photojournalism as we know it. Neil Burgess’ comments appear to be the latest seed that replanted the notion that photojournalism is dead. (Do a Google search on Neil Burgess and photojournalism and start reading. It’s worth being aware of but be forewarned that it's also depressing.)

A similar seed sprouted 20 years ago. I wrote a rebuttal piece then for a magazine that Reid Callanan produced through his Santa Fe Workshops.

I told the Geekfest gathering last week that I think photojournalism is stronger than it ever has been. What is dead is the business model that has supported good, but mostly bad, photojournalism for several decades.

Among the core disparaging elements - then and now - that people most raise to say that photojournalism is dead is: The way things have been done no longer works. Publications that long supported compelling photojournalism no longer can; entities that guided the profession are not as strong as they once were; stock sales are down; newspapers generally suck. Woe is me, the cup is nearing empty.

In other words, the business model that supported the profession is crippled and will probably die because the monoliths that once funded us no longer make the profits they once did. Boohoo for them. In retrospect, while we carried our torch of shining light on the world through informed and compelling photography, the corporations that supported us were raking exorbitant profits because they were the only game in town. Now they’re not.

Had communication companies brought innovation and evolution to what they did, things might be different today. But they’re not.

So to say that photojournalism is dead today is like saying that the transportation industry was dead when people stopped buying horse-drawn carriages as their primary way to get around.

Though it’s not a perfect parallel, some people still make horse buggies and some people still make a living by making pictures for traditional sources in a way that they always have. Without a doubt, photojournalists who adhere to what they’ve always done will continue to diminish in numbers, if not relevance. Change is often seen as bad, as if doing things differently were inherently negative.

No question, some change is bad. A lot of publishing environments change by going backward. They have gone back to institutional structures and approaches to content generation that existed in the 70‘s while heralding these changes as ground breaking and forward thinking.

Large publishers haven’t figured out new ways of making a buck, in part because they hold on to an economic model and skill sets that only work with ever-growing, unrealistic profit expectations derived from one or two sources. Add to that the fear of losing existing, dedicated-but-dwindling readerships to further inhibit their innovation. Speaking to one type of reader with a text-driven voice using the mass media model in an age of ever-increasing segmentation and visually-driven media experience will inevitably lead to demise, or at best a diminished existence. People do still make buggies.

Another aspect of this evolving work environment is more clear to us here in Portland, Oregon, where more and more people are choosing to exchange the old economic model (make more money) for a new, less money-oriented one. Satisfaction with what you do, happiness in the pursuit of your profession, working with like-minded people, connection to a community are great trade-offs for health insurance and paychecks and the inevitable frustration of traditional work environments.

In truth, most of what publications produce, especially those geared to mass audiences, is schlock. It’s of little value beyond today. Working in them is inherently negatively stressful too much of the time. You work with a group of people who you may or may not respect. And after years of working there, you may be able to hold up a slim handful of stellar work.

I’ve worked for a range of entities during the past 35 years, until taking a buyout nearly a year ago and following a model that is crafted on the positive attributes I mentioned two paragraphs ago. In the past year of creating my own business, I’ve so far had the privilege of working with about 80 photographers on bodies of work that are more significant and interesting and connected than most of what I’ve been involved with until stepping out on my own.

That’s not to take away from the top layer of many years of working with talented photographers; rather, it’s to point out how little of that time was spent producing what we consider great work. And most of that great work happened on what would be called overtime, if there were such a thing.

In the first year of this new venture, I’m making less money than I did while on salary. I’m working more hours - I think I’ve taken about two days completely off so far this year. I have to run my own business, pay health insurance and all that stuff. But I’ve never been more satisfied. Geez, could it even be called happiness?

There was a time when I knew about most of the good work being produced and I was familiar with, and sometimes connected to, the people producing that work. As little as 10 years ago, I knew of virtually all the leading new photographers. And I was aware of most of the industry leaders, because there weren’t that many people connected to supporting the best work and there weren't that many venues. There’s no way I can say any of these things today.

So many more people are producing compelling work, so many more photographic cooperatives, so many more parts of the world are emerging as hotbeds of talented photographers, the range of people supporting work is incomprehensible, there are more contests and more grants and more outlets than ever before, the definition of what photojournalism is continues to expand and the types of content people are producing is limitless.

Is photojournalism dead?

On contests and the passing of years

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