The Year in Review - Editorial
After the tumultuous year that was 2016, 2017 had a lot to live up to in terms of world events and high-calibre, in-depth, photo-based reportage. But as the shellshock from the US election slowly faded, the now-standard array of regular world catastrophes continued to guide photojournalists’ lenses. But at the same time, some of the industry’s best pushed the limits of editorial storytelling. Sam Edmonds reports.
Sometime around mid-July 2017, a number of the world’s most noteworthy photographers, seemingly in chorus, took to social media in praise of a story in The New York Times – a story told in Australia by an Australian photographer. Photographers like Peter van Agtmael and a plethora of others were celebrating Adam Ferguson’s personal pilgrimage and photo-documentation of a several thousand kilometre drive to the heart of his home country. Breaking a number of readership records for the Times, the series takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of those parts of our country so often at the extreme periphery of both the world and Australians alike. And for those who saw the resulting images, the series seemed to provide a breath of fresh air in an industry presently grappling with a number of its own shortcomings.
But not all is well and good on the home front, as journalistic departments around the country, both visual and otherwise, continued to suffer with amalgamations and funding cuts. At once in 2017, the world celebrated Australia’s photographic prowess while many local photographers faced the threat of a dwindling investment in quality journalism. But on other editorial fronts, several of Australia’s most successful portraiture and fashion photographers are realising new realms within their practice, and a handful of Aussie sports photographers are thriving on the world stage. In a sea of the politics and ideology informing it, editorial photography is white knuckled and holding on for the ride in 2017, and this made for compelling imagery across the board.
A photographic odyssey
In August of this year, a somewhat confronting quote from Donald Weber appeared in the British Journal of Photography: “I’ve just about had enough of photojournalism,” he said – going on to pinpoint “an almost complete lack of self-awareness” as the cause. While such criticism is always a little tough to digest, this might also serve to highlight one of the reasons for the incredibly wide acclaim among his peers of Adam Ferguson’s Through the Outback. Appearing in The New York Times in July, the essay was the result of a solo road trip by Ferguson into the remote expanses of outback that most Australian city-dwellers rarely see. From burned landscapes to kangaroo hunters, remote indigenous communities and crocodile farms, the series speaks of several themes covering identity, youth, socioeconomics, and our relationship with the land. But importantly, the essay, which was both photographed and written by Ferguson, was a personal journey for a Coffs Harbour-born, coastal Australian. Having made a name for himself covering conflict in Iraq, Ferguson has gone on to great success within the industry, and, in typical photojournalist form, has been obligated to turn his back on his home country for large swaths of time. So in many ways, the project was Ferguson’s re-discovery of his home, and was perhaps so upheld by his peers as a shining exemplar of contemporary work due to the fact that the undercurrent of Australian self-awareness is acutely present across the body of work.
Surprisingly, this story was the first that Ferguson has pitched to The New York Times – a process that came with its own sense of both responsibility and ownership. But in approaching the publication, he says that “they didn’t just let me go and run around Australia with my camera, so I was pretty clear that I wanted this to be a kind of critique of regional identity and a look at the Outback”, but also stipulated that “this was going to be a personal journey.” Needless to say, the Times responded well and allowed Ferguson six weeks and an open itinerary – something virtually unprecedented for assignment parameters set out by a publication of the Times’ size.
While Ferguson and the team essentially broke new ground in simply their allocation of such a large amount of time for an editorial assignment, the real innovation came in the weeks and months following Ferguson’s time on the ground in Australia. From his new home in New York City and the offices of the Times, Ferguson and photo editors David Furst and Craig Allen essentially re-wrote the handbook for editorial publication workflows as the trio plus an in-house Times designer implemented not only a custom-built web page for the story, but also a staggering 16-page section in the print version of the paper. “It was actually the largest photo spread that the Times has ever done, which was pretty extraordinary,” says Ferguson.
Perhaps, in almost picture-perfect antidote to Weber’s concerns, the brilliance of the essay would seem to come from Ferguson’s acute awareness of not only the cultural facets of his subjects and his surroundings, but also his own MO as a photojournalist returning to his homeland, and what some are calling his magnum opus, which has come at the peak of his photographic career.
On the home front
Although Ferguson’s essay proved wildly effective at putting both regional Australia and Australian photojournalism well and truly back on the map, the Australian press photography world itself has continued its battle for survival in the face of funding cuts and diluted journalism. At the centre of this has been a number of Australia’s largest newspapers, but of note is the country’s most well-resected photo department, at the Sydney Morning Herald. Over the last decade or so, the Herald has been no stranger to the trimming down of departments, and photography has suffered heavily in this respect with an obvious overarching theme that photographic content is less important than its text-based counterpart. As veteran Herald photographer Nick Moir explains: “They see visuals as being secondary… that is until they actually realise that people will look at a story more if it has powerful imagery.”
The Herald, which this year has been running on a skeleton photographic staff of roughly six full-time employees, has long been known within Australian journalism as producing some of the country’s most memorable images by a long list of noteworthy photographers including Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, Dean Sewell, and Nic Walker. But as Moir details, the ever-trimming down of photographic departments in most news outlets across the world is drastically affecting the quality of visual content overall and the cumulative effect is a loss of genuinely experienced, passionate, and reputable professionals. “There are loads of people doing combat photography, but it’s people like Kate [Geraghty] that keep going off to cover that sort of thing,” says Moir, referring to Geraghty’s ongoing commitment to coverage of war in the Middle East. “She recently came back from Mosul and her work there… she’ll almost undoubtedly pick up a Walkley for Press Photographer of the Year for it because it is just epic. I think she’s got a very good chance for a World Press Photo award.” And similarly, Moir refers to long-time Farifax photographer Nic Walker as an example of the loss of genuine talent and experience to a publication by funding cuts: “It was a real loss to lose Nic Walker because he had really established his skill. You could look at a picture and say that’s a Nic Walker.”
One port in the storm remains for photographers in the Australian press and documentary world: Oculi – a group partially founded by Moir himself, approaches its twentieth year, harbouring some of the nation’s best photojournalists. As 2016 saw the addition of three new full-time members to the group with Matthew Abbott, John Feely, and Alana Holmberg, 2017 saw the first round of Oculi’s new internship program which seeks to pair budding Australian photographers with three senior members of the group for a year’s worth of mentoring. Reaffirming its position as the country’s bastion of visual documentary practice, Moir details how the internship program was very much a reflection of the need for encouraging emerging talents. “There’s been times where we’ve looked around and wondered whether Oculi was going to make it,” he says. “Apart from helping each other survive and providing strength in unity, it is also about finding those new talented photographers.”
Welcoming Mridula Amin, Sinead Kennedy, and Ella Rubeli as the inaugural interns, Moir is optimistic that both the talent and the number of applicants for this year’s mentor program is a positive sign of a continued Australian institution in documentary photography. And as he describes, the immediate future looks good for the group that now boasts a spectrum of ages and technical abilities encompassing virtual reality and design practices.
While hard photojournalism and documentary practice has seen a slightly rough ride so far this year, things have been a little quieter on the sporting scene, however a number of the world’s largest sporting events are scheduled for 2018. But as Australian sports photographer Cameron Spencer explains, this hasn’t stopped the industry from proceeding at full pace as most professionals and a number of companies heavily involved in supporting them have taken the reprieve from work to focus on enhancing technological abilities that will make the upcoming Olympics, and other events, particularly spectacular. This has involved not only upgrading DSLRs, but also a focus on new robotics systems, iPhone photography, and action cameras. “Next year is huge for sport with the Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and the FIFA World Cup,” says Spencer – drawing attention to the sheer number of opportunities that will be on offer for excellent imagery. “The use of underwater cameras and robotics has grown and been taken to another level,” he says. “And with the rise of 360 cameras and action cameras, there are new angles rigging these compact cameras, such as GoPros to boards, wings, helmets, and new types of VR photos that are surfacing as well.”
But while the dip in sporting action for 2017 has been noticeable, Spencer insists that in contrast to the world of hard news reporting, sports photography remains a feasible professional arena for aspiring photographers. “There are plenty of opportunities for sports photographers globally, while the media landscape is shifting with traditional newspapers growing to larger online models, the demand for imagery has increased,” says Spencer. “With online and social platforms growing, there are more and more outlets requesting imagery from sporting bodies. There are probably more sports photographers working than ever before making it more competitive.” But despite that, Spencer is quick to posit some advice to those seeking to enter the market in 2018: “Those who have a quality product, a good knowledge of what they are covering, are up to speed with technology, and the right work ethic are getting consistent work. With online content growing, clients are expecting more imagery and faster. For the modern editorial photographer, the ability to file quickly is paramount; speed is critical.”
In and out of fashion
Between press photography, documentary, and sport, many differences may appear obvious as to the state of each discipline and the external influences upon their operation, but one aspect that escapes no genre of photography is the precarious nature of its audience. And this was perhaps no more true than for fashion and portrait photography in 2017. Often at the centre of photographic controversies and whispered criticisms over time, fashion photography especially has been punctuated with events that most would prefer simply to forget. And at a time when political correctness is at its peak of sensitivity, fashion is treading on egg shells more than ever. This was noted quite prominently by Laurence Butet-Roch in her article for The New York Times Lens blog in August of this year that considered current fashion photography as a political reflection of society. But what contribution have Australians made to this? And given our seemingly disproportionate political voice on the world stage, how are our fashion photographers reflecting Australian society in 2017?
According to celebrated Australian fashion and portrait photographer Michele Aboud, some of this genre’s professional elite are diversifying their practices in the face of increased industry competition, and while some are reviving vintage methods of photo reproduction for the sake of exploring new aesthetic tangents, others are furthering fashion photography’s reflection of society by branching out to an even broader swath of visual mediums. Having just returned to live in Australia after spending a considerable amount of her life living and working in the USA, Aboud has recently embraced the medium of film as way of tackling larger, more generic human themes. “I’ve spent a good twenty years photographing fashion, but now that I’m going into motion I can start exploring the greater aspects of humanity,” Aboud says. “When it comes to motion pieces that I’m conceptualising, it is really just what I feel like doing, and mostly that is about people and about their stories.”
But at a time of particularly fervent political turmoil, tackling larger human issues is no easy feat. And especially in a world where so much visual information is consumed by only the few who are visually literate. In this way, fashion photography seems to have taken on an intrinsic and perhaps unwelcome and large responsibility as photographers are faced with the very real prospect that their images, as facilitated by social media, could be seen by millions of people in an instant. “The thing now with the world we live in is that a powerful image will say it all. But what goes with that is manipulation,” says Aboud. “We are living in the age of the image.” And in a Trump-ridden world, it is more important than ever for people to have the ability to filter out the fake news. “People have asked me if I moved back to Australia because of Trump,” Aboud says. “I’d be much more worried about other countries around the world that have actual dictators. Everybody wants the world to go back to how it was… whatever that means to them. And how does that come out in images? People just want to go out and try and capture what they see is the truth. But the camera lies.”
Time will tell
From Australian odysseys to technology, fashion and everything in between, the year of 2017 has proved just as turbulent for editorial photography as the few years prior. While photojournalism continues to grapple with some of its own vices and seasoned press photographers struggle to scrape a living in the face of funding cuts to photo departments, our obsession with sport continues, along with even larger camera sensors. But there is hope in other arenas. Australia’s beacon of visual documentary practice, Oculi continues to provide safe refuge for our journalistic prodigies, and some of the country’s most talented expats from both photojournalism and fashion photography alike are returning to our shores for some kind of reflection or another. 2018 has much in store for editorial photography.
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