Is the future bright for photojournalism?

The power of the image to help convey a message has never been more important, yet changes to the photojournalism landscape are making for challenging times for working professionals. Amanda Copp investigates.

Photojournalists have images that shocked the world, moved it, brought tears to the eyes of many, but, most importantly, photojournalism has changed the world. Its creators produce images that become permanently etched in people’s minds: a
naked Vietnamese girl; skin scorched by napalm, running from her burning village; a returned soldier on V-J Day passionately kissing a woman in Time Square; an American flag being raised in Iwo Jima; a burning monk; the Hindenburg; a starving Sudanese child watched by a vulture. All these images are iconic, not just as photographs, but in their representation of pain, joy, victory and the essence of human stories. But like many parts of the media industry, photojournalism is another casualty of the digital age. Newspapers – the big buyers of photojournalistic works – are fading. With the introduction of digital media: free online news sites, social media, blogs and citizen journalism; photojournalism has being shaken to its core.

A woman hides on the floor of a cafe with her son and daughter as gunfire continues in Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Kenya. She waited for four hours with her children before being rescued. © Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Australia’s own photojournalism industry was hit by a serious blow in May as Fairfax offered redundancies to thirty of their forty photographers while Getty steps in to fill the void. Mike Bowers, freelance photojournalist, host of Talking Pictures on the ABC’s Insiders program and former chief photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald says that compared to when he first started, newspapers are “unrecognisable”. “I’m shocked editorial photography has disintegrated as fast as it has. The Internet has just fractured the income of newspapers to the point where they can no longer support large numbers of staff.”

Earle Bridger, recently retired senior lecturer of photography at the Queensland College of the Arts (QCA) at Griffith University, says part of the problem is a decline in society’s perceived need for a strong media. “People forty years ago believed newspapers were serious journalism and I think that’s been lost. People are buying newspapers, watching television and listening to the radio for entertainment reasons.” It is clear the advent of the Internet has changed photojournalism forever and photographers must adapt.

Marine Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer, 21, was killed by a
sniper on 21 July, 2007, in Karmah, Iraq. He was from East Northport, New York. His bedroom was photographed in February, 2009. © Ashley Gilbertson
Marine Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer, 21, was killed by a sniper on 21 July, 2007, in Karmah, Iraq. He was from East Northport, New York. His bedroom was photographed in February, 2009. © Ashley Gilbertson

Land of opportunity

Radical changes are afoot, but never fear! Despite doom and gloom surrounding much of the photojournalism industry, photographers, editors and educators remain positive and excited about what the future holds.

Daniel Berehulak is a prominent Australian photojournalist based in New Delhi. He recently covered the Indian elections, but is known for his work in the region, as well as the trial of Saddam Hussein and the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan. “Some people paint a really bleak picture of photojournalism… But with all of this new technology, we have a platform of people seeing our images with Instagram and Facebook. You can post a photo and have that reach instantly, which previously we didn’t have. It’s a lot more exciting now because you can self-publish stories online, you can create blogs, and draw more traffic to highlight the stories you are looking at doing. Although part of the industry is more difficult to get into, now you can raise your own exposure and profile.”

Ashley Gilbertson, another successful photojournalist and winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award in 2004, is well known for his work surrounding the Iraq war. His upcoming book, Bedrooms of the Fallen opens a door to the rooms of men and women who have died serving the US. “They can see that you have 25,000 followers on Instagram. You’ve got a built-in audience.”

Images are also infinitely easier to transfer with the Internet. Tyler Hicks is a photojournalist for the New York Times and winner of the 014 Pulitzer Prize and the 2013 Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for his coverage of the terrorist attack in a Nairobi mall last year. “The whole point is that these photographs are to be seen, and seen quickly with photojournalism,” Hicks says. “So the fact that we can get photos out there immediately is a real blessing for the industry.” Mike Bowers adds that within vivid screen displays that facilitate the digital age is infinite space for photographs. Photographers are no longer limited to a formatted box on the page of a newspaper. “Pictures have never looked better. On a tablet it pops off the screen! It looks absolutely magnificent.”

Creative Funding

Despite these new opportunities, jobs in big media organisations are becoming increasingly rare and funding trips to overseas locations to shoot for long periods of time can be near impossible. As money pours out of the industry, emerging photojournalists must find other ways of making money to fund their passions. “It has nothing to do with the amount of talent,” Hicks says. “There are just as many amazingly talented photographers out there, however the assignments aren’t there. And most people can’t afford to send themselves around the world and fund their own projects.”

Adam Khan, 45, a heroine addict,smokes the drug in his cave-like stone-built shelter, in a drug community, where he lives along with approximately 500 other addicts, on the outskirts of the city, on 3 October, 2013 in Herat, Afghanistan.  © Daniel Berehulak

Photographers just have to get creative. “If you can’t find someone to buy your pictures, you’re not trying hard enough,” Gilbertson says. “The market’s out there. Publications give you a very small amount to try and cover a story you think is so important. So what one needs to do is go out and find alternative methods of funding. You might be an advertising photographer on the side. You might go on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, appealing for money from the public at large. It could be going to NGOs and finding some sort of partnership. There are government grants, private grants, and there are very wealthy individuals who want tax right-offs, but with purpose. You could set up a non-profit and try to get that work for yourself. It’s not rocket science by any means. But it’s definitely a lot more work for the same product.”

More than a photojournalist

Although the industry may appear harder to get a foothold in, emerging photographers have been able to succeed through diversifying their skills. “Today you need to be a multimedia expert,” says Bridger. “You need to know how to shoot still and video, record professional sound and edit all of those into multimedia. So it’s a different set of skills photojournalists need to have. You need to be able to walk into an interview and say ‘I shot this video piece. This is the interview, the documentary, the short story, this is a multimedia version, this is the audio version and this is the well-designed six-page package.’ If you can go to a newspaper and present those kinds of skills that can be used in many departments, you’ve got a chance. But to turn up and say ‘I want to take photographs’, well, editors will just say ‘next!’”

The toy of choice for young children on Kiribati is an old car tyre, masterfully driven with two sticks. This
young boy from a squatters’ settlement near the airport had his face painted blue. © Mike Bowers

“You have to embrace the ability of the new digital landscape and the opportunities that it offers for you as a storyteller,” Bowers adds. “Those who don’t, aren’t going to be able to survive. Even the really famous people are shooting all sorts of stuff. No one is immune from this. You need to get as versatile as possible,” Bowers says. You need to be your own IT expert who can troubleshoot in the field. Be savvy.”

Jim Dooley is the Executive Administrator of the Alexia Foundation, which awards grants to skilled photojournalists to fund their projects. He says being multi-skilled is essential now. “With the Alexia Foundation, last year we had 250 professional photographers apply for one grant. So the competition is pretty intense. You’ve got to have technical skills like video editing, video shooting and stills photography. But the baseline is being a good journalist.”

Dangers of the Net

Unfortunately, the ease of communication the Internet created also comes with risks. Often we become our own publishers on blogs and Twitter updates. You are the proofreader and the editor, and this comes with its own set of challenges. “You have to make sure you’re doing the right thing,” Mike Bowers warns. “Because you’re responsible for publishing, you’ve got to think of where you’re liable and all the things that go with publishing. You’ve got to think about legal repercussions and the wording of things. We’re notoriously bad spellers, us photographers, and I’m no exception to that!”

Alongside this never-before-seen connectivity are millions of people sharing images and information. “Once you have pressed the button and sent your picture out there, you have no control over what happens to it. It will be stolen; it will be used, retweeted and resent,” Bowers says. He describes a picture he shot in Gallipoli of a bugle player at sunset, which he has seen pasted all over the Internet without his permission, so watermarking your work before you send is definitely something that you should consider.

Rise of the citizen journalist

Another concern of many people in photojournalism is the arrival of the citizen photojournalist – people who simply happen to be in the right place at the right time to capture spot news events, and usually on their iPhones. The recent James Packer fight on the streets of Sydney which was splashed across headlines is one such example. Jim Dooley muses at how “people say, ‘I’m a photographer, I’ve got a camera phone. I’m a photographer, I’ve got a point-and-shoot.’ Well, you are. You are a photographer, but that does not make you a visual storyteller. It doesn’t make you a serious photojournalist.”

Tyler Hicks warns that with so many photos out there “it’s difficult to verify the authenticity of what pops up on the Internet or what people send in. Now editors have to be much more careful with what they choose.” The problem with citizen journalism is not everyone has the practices and ethics of a trained photojournalist. Daniel Berehulak stresses how he and his colleagues are always “ensuring the integrity of the information we host and pass on.”

Ashley Gilbertson remembers how photographs came out on Twitter and Instagram from the Boston bombings that were very much of the event: plumes of smoke, people on the ground, emergency vehicles. But a photograph taken by Boston Globe photojournalist John Tlumacki summed up the entire event. “Not one photo you saw on Twitter or Instagram captured that. And that’s the difference between a good news photograph, which is a factual picture of something that’s breaking, and a great news photograph. In one photograph is a representation that we can look back on in 100 years and say that’s what happened. We don’t have to look at 50,000 pictures on Instagram. We can look at that one frame and say ‘that’s it’.”

A trillion photographs

It is estimated that 2014 will see the world take a trillion photographs in one year. James Estrin is a senior staff photographer at the New York Times and co-editor of their blog, Lens, with David Gonzalez. He asks what this will mean for photojournalism. “Does it mean there are so many images that you can’t stand out, you can’t gain attention? Or will it mean more people are interested in photography and everyone will be more visual?” In light of this flood of images, Mike Bowers thinks good photography will always have a market. “Really good photography stands out from the blizzard of images that gets thrown at you every day from the Internet.”

When your audience is constantly assaulted with images, originality becomes even more important. “If you’re going to Syria tomorrow to shoot a bunch of pictures, it can’t be the same pictures of scared civilians and angry men pulling triggers of AK-47s,” says Gilbertson. “You need to go there and do something different. That’s what the currency is. Twenty years ago, the currency was great pictures. Today, it’s ideas and doing something different. And that’s what the editors want, what the aid organisations want. They want people who think.” The reality is that if you don’t do it, someone else will.

Rebel lines appeared to crumble near the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya, as forces loyal to Gadaffi pressed an offensive with tanks and artillery east towards strategic oil towns. Fighters react after the air strike, 11 March, 2011. © Tyler Hicks/ The New York Times

In the past, Tyler Hicks says that getting published in a physical newspaper was the most important thing for photographers. “Today, the most important thing is to have a good display on a news website. That’s really the target now compared to just having a photograph printed in ink which is a much smaller audience.”

Love it or leave it

Regardless of all these opportunities, the bottom line is to love what you do. It’s always been difficult getting into photography, and it’s certainly a lot harder these days. People need the commitment and drive to want to work hard says Berehulak, who has been covering the Indian elections for the past five weeks. “I’ve been averaging three or four hour’s sleep a night. Getting up early, shooting mornings, jumping on a plane, flying, shooting until last light, then coming back, editing, grab whatever food you can, and constantly travelling. That’s the kind of thing that gets people to notice your work, for you to stand out, for you to grow. It has to be more than just a job. It has to be a passion. And if you have a passion and a love for what you do, then I think you are going to be successful at it.”

James Estrin ponders what separates people. “Who is successful and who is not successful? A lot of it is hunger. How much you want this. How important it is to you. How hard are you willing to work for this? Intelligence is important and visual sense is really central, but the people who succeed are the ones who are just the hungriest. They want it more.”

Just talking to photographers and educators interviewed, their passion for photojournalism is palpable. It is clear they believe in the essential role their craft plays in society. Mike Bowers says that at its best, photojournalism should show you something, make a statement and tell stories people don’t want told. “It should show human achievement at its best and at its worst. It should be able to celebrate human moments, both good and bad. It should be able to hold a mirror up to the rest of us, and at its finest, should be able to change the way we behave. I think it’s a necessary skill to have in our society.”

Sgt. Shawn Boothby of Maine, was among soldiers in Karbala, Iraq, who were treated for severe dehydration
during fighting in intense heat on 8 May, 2004. The Army was sent in to Karbala two weeks prior to gain control of
the city from Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. © Ashley Gilbertson
Sgt. Shawn Boothby of Maine, was among soldiers in Karbala, Iraq, who were treated for severe dehydration during fighting in intense heat on 8 May, 2004. The Army was sent in to Karbala two weeks prior to gain control of the city from Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. © Ashley Gilbertson

James Estrin stresses the vital role of photojournalism. “I think what we do is critically important to achieving a free and just society. I believe journalism is important. And I think photography is a very effective tool for storytelling and communication, so I have a profound belief in the importance of what we do. When we tell these stories, it doesn’t mean things automatically change. Often you take photographs of wars and famine, and it doesn’t stop wars and famine. Sometimes we have an effect, often we don’t. But the act of witnessing and communicating what we saw is a bedrock to democracy, to human rights and to freedom. I don’t think it could be any more important. It’s probably not the best path to material riches, but I can’t imagine a more satisfying, enjoyable and meaningful way to spend one’s life.”

It is clear that emerging photographers in the industry need not be disheartened by shrinking newsrooms. There remains boundless opportunity for dedicated and passionate photojournalists to go out there and show the stories the world so desperately needs to see. The so-called ‘golden age’ of photojournalism was frozen in the past. The Internet emerges as the hammer that is fracturing the industry’s solid and stable beginnings, but a wealth of opportunities has been revealed underneath. All photographers have to do, is dive in.


Daniel Berehulak:
Mike Bowers:
Earle Bridger:
Jim Dooley:
James Estrin:
Ashley Gilbertson:
Tyler Hicks: (search: Tyler Hicks)

This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of Capture.