Alive or dead? The evolution of photography in the digital age.
Photojournalism has been on its knees for some time, with newspapers and magazines no longer willing or able to fund international stories that require high expenses.
This is a bad and painful thing for photojournalists who have had their livelihoods kicked out from beneath them. I never met a photojournalist who didn’t genuinely want to make the world a better place, so in theory their marginalization should also be a bad thing for good democracy and governance, which is dependent on a free press holding those in power to account.
I have another theory.
The photojournalism of the developing world that gets published, alongside the text it’s published with, often only helps to further reinforce a narrow view of the world in which people with money live glamorous lives and everyone else is deep up to their necks in poverty and suffering. It certainly had that effect on me because when I moved from the UK to live in Ethiopia I kept wondering where Africa had gone? It was there of course, just not how I had been led to believe it existed.
Journalists in developing countries are often very poorly paid. Many of them have second jobs. Photojournalists especially struggle because of the cost of equipment. Up until recently many NGO’s and the western media have ignored local photographers, spending a lot of money on sending their own photographers to shoot stories. The end result is that many local photojournalists just can’t make enough to survive and either hang up their camera or try to make a living in another field of photography (like fashion). That’s disastrous for democracy because it means there is no local talent turning the lens on corruption and human rights abuses.
I once wrote to the photo editor of a very large international NGO that I greatly admire. I wanted to know why they never used local photographers in Africa and I got the rather disappointing reply that it was because:
1. They didn’t know any
2. That local photographers might not be able to deliver exactly what the NGO wants
Of course they won’t be able to deliver if they never get any commissions, which means they don’t have any money, which means they are never able to develop their talents. Its a vicious circle.
That said though there are plenty of talented photographers in Africa and yes not all of them are white ex-pats.
So if less international photographers are getting flown around the world to document misery in often a very two dimensional manner maybe more local photographers will get commissions and be able to sustain a living in the profession.
Things are starting to shift. I recently met Jessica Crombie, the photo Editor at Water Aid and was massively impressed with her commitment to developing local talent to photograph Water Aid’s projects. Recently she commissioned the Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif to widely praised effect.
Of course the truth is there is a need for a balance. Local photographers can benefit greatly from meeting and working with international photographers; they’re all part of the same family. Another day I’ll set out a new model that I believe NGOs could implement which would improve the standard of the photography that documents the developing world, as well as benefiting local photographers. And that has to be a good thing for democracy and governance.
Bruno De Cock, MSF’s photo editor has raised an important and very valid point:
‘I think the situation in Asia is different than in Africa. Sadly enough African photographers seem to have a lot more trouble getting access to usefool tools like the internet and a website, which makes it harder to find local talent.
I recently checked the list of photographers participating in the African Photography Festival in Mali and was kinda dissapointed to find that most selected photographers are no longer living in their country of origin.’
duckrabbit agrees. The internet plays a big part. But I also think that had NGO’s developed better relationships with local photographers we’d see more of them appearing at festivals. It is a vicious circle. If people aren’t allowed on the bus, how can they travel, let alone sit at the back?