The front of the crowd

John H White © Scott Strazzante

John H White © Scott Strazzante

 

I read an interesting article in the BJP this week by Jason Cone “Wanted: The networked photojournalist”

“In an age when the visual image has become a ubiquitous commodity, a photojournalist’s visual aesthetic isn’t enough, writes Jason Cone, Doctors Without Borders’ communication director in the US. Instead, what NGOs are now looking for is a photographer who already has an established audience”

Cone explains:

“Every day, I’m inundated with friend requests on Facebook and LinkedIn from photojournalists the world over inviting me to review their portfolios. They offer to provide free photos to work with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the field in return for helping them get to cover international stories………”

and

“But in this age when the visual image is a ubiquitous commodity – when the barriers to entry for the newest photographers have been nearly eviscerated with smartphones and social apps like Instagram – the photojournalist’s visual aesthetic, artistry, and style are a given and what really separates a photographer from the crowd is the network he or she brings to the negotiating table……….”

and

“Yet, what is essential today is the ability of a photojournalist to bypass the uncertainty of the conventional news cycle and the vagaries of for-profit news outlets to reach audiences with their stories. I’m looking to hire the networked photojournalist. And their network needs to take all shapes and forms: from old (Time, The New York Times) and new (Huffington Post, GlobalPost) media clientele to social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and other distribution channels) and access to influencers (policy-makers, funders, activists, other NGOs).”

Whilst I can understand some aspects of this, part of me wonders how this will work for the photographer.  The media landscape has certainly changed, and as Cole would have us believe it’s now not so much about the abilities of the image-maker, but rather the access they give to a broad audience (however I don’t subscribe to the notion that their ‘skills’ “are a given”, like all abilities they vary from person to person and some people are more ‘skillful’ than others) . So how does a photographer put a price on this at the “negotiation table” Cone mentions?

“It is not only the size of the network that a photojournalist can leverage that is important, but the strength and diversity of the connections within the network.”

So perhaps now instead of a photographer pricing their ‘skills’ based on their experience and what they can offer visually and as a storyteller, they price based on the access they enable to their ‘network’. So if they have 50,000 Twitter followers they say “Hey MSF my price is x cents per follower for ‘ordinary’ people, and xx cents for ‘high profile’ contacts, per month for as long as I distribute my work on your behalf”. Maybe that’s the way forwards? So what this is really about is not the work they can do for MSF, but the work they’ve previously done building their own personal and trusted ‘brand & network’ which they are allowing MSF to buy into.  Is this perhaps what Cone is alluding to when he remarks:

“Photojournalists’ ability to “own” their images, not in the sense of copyright, but to push their work into conversations of influential voices, has the potential to further upend the fast evolving power dynamics in the modern image economy.

That’s a phrase to consider: “to further upend the fast evolving power dynamics”.  Is this a fancy way of saying ‘putting photojournalists back in the driving seat’ ? That would be a novel concept in the current market. But what happens to the incredibly gifted photojournalist who has virtually no social media profile, do they lose out to the less accomplished but better connected and more media-savvy photographer?

And does this requirement that the photographer bring specific ‘connections’ to the table mean that every time there’s a crisis somewhere, a different photographer has to be found, one with a new ‘network’ that MSF can buy into? That in order to successfully ‘feed its need’ MSF has to cast its net wider and wider every time? Or can it rely on the same network every time? And might it be the case that this sort of ‘working relationship’ of necessity precludes long-term involvement for an individual photographer? Or does it mean precisely the opposite?

There’s a lot of questions there, and to be honest I’ve not a clue about what the answers might be. I guess time will tell.

One thing is for sure, Cone expects that some of the costs of producing new work will be borne by social media followers:
“Taking these questions a step even further is the capability of photojournalists to motivate their networks to become a base of support through crowd-sourced funding models, like Emphas.is and Kickstarter, for their reportage. Whether it is to help underwrite the costs of covering under-reported stories or mobilising their base of followers to take actions on their behalf, this is the kind of value that can exponentially bolster the power of the image.”

I’m not so sure this can “exponentially bolster the power of the image” so much as the short-term appeal of the individual photographer to an NGO. It’s almost a win-win for NGO’s: getting to pick and choose the photographer and then asking the photographer’s followers (which is in part the NGO’s potential audience) to underwrite the costs of producing work that will ultimately be used to promote the NGO.

In an excellent interview by Jeremy Lybarger with Fred Ritchin on Mother Jones, “Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram Era?”, in response to the question:

MJ: One of the most fascinating parts (of the book) concerns humanitarian and NGO photography. This is an area where a image’s credibility and rhetorical power are crucial, yet so much of what’s produced is almost propaganda. What do you see as the responsibility of an American photographer working to raise awareness or aid in a foreign country?
Ritchin responds:

FR: The ideal relationship is for the photographer to work on an extensive documentary project (if they can find the financial support), and then for an NGO to find that there is a shared interest in that particular region or issue. Making imagery to conform to an NGO’s mandate is a slippery slope which can be effective in publicizing a crisis but can also be inauthentic, a form of advertising. There may be short-term gains but a long-term loss of credibility.

It’s not insignificant that Ritchin sees the story as important and, crucially, the credibility and integrity of the storyteller  (see the Comments section here for a flavour of what I mean), and once again it’s the photographer taking the lead, divining that story, and working ahead of a crisis and NGO involvement to give it media traction. Who said photojournalism is dead?

This neatly demonstrates the power of disruptive technology, and its apparently divisive effect. Ritchin’s stance is that of the ‘makar’ as we say in Scotland, a ‘maker’ of images, words, poetry, whilst Cone is a ‘shaker’ one who sees the connections, indeed needs those connections in order to deliver his organization’s message.  These might seem like opposing stances but in truth I think they are both on the same side of the coin, it’s all about creation and delivery, but also now about ‘reach’ and crucially, credibility. The same crowd that can ‘make’ you, can break you should they choose if they perceive your integrity has lapsed.

Ironically the article referenced above, in Mother Jones, kicks off with the example of the Chicago Sun Times which recently laid off virtually its entire photo staff in an unprecedented action that took many by surprise,  not least the staff themselves, which included Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist John H White. The Sun Times intending in future to utilize iPhone-trained staff writers and solicit ‘contributions’ from the public for its image needs.

There’s been enough comment on this already and I’m not going to add to it, but here’s something else to consider – if ‘the social media network’ is really that significant, by taking this action the paper may actually have benefited its competitors. Why? Because I’m pretty sure the social media profile of these photographers will have increased as a consequence of their dismissal, gaining them many new followers on Twitter and Instagram anxious to show solidarity, or simply to see how their careers evolve.  More followers = better market ‘reach’ (presumably), something I imagine their ex-employer would find extremely valuable; but that increased social media ‘popularity’ has been lost by the Chicago Sun Times, to the benefit of any other paper that employs their dismissed staff on a freelance basis. That’s the new media economy for you.

In many of the discussions I see about ‘iPhoneography’ few actually make the point that its not something apart from photography, it IS photography. The only real difference between an iPhone and a compact camera is the networking capabilities of the former. But there is often a failure to acknowledge that the ‘smart’ in smart phone is something the user brings to bear. You can put one to your ear and say something profound, or to your eye and create visual magic, or alternatively communicate nothing of any consequence at all. And often in a breaking story there is a crowd of citizen journalists all pointing at the action and recording it in intimate detail, and doing a fantastic job. But in front of them all is sometimes one individual, their back to the action, looking  towards the crowd of onlookers and recording their response: whether one of joy, or sadness, surprise or terror. Some events need distilling down to an individual human scale for them to make sense to all of us.

Oh Yes, the image at the top? A wonderful shot of John H White taken by Scott Strazzante and published as part of a portfolio in the Chicago Tribune – have a look for yourself – its a beautiful set of images of the renowned photojournalist, taken by another equally skilled colleague. John H White is a good example of someone profoundly affected by the new image economy, he’s lost his job to the iPhone. But ironically that same disruptive technology might have increased his social reach and his ‘value’, in ways few of us could ever have foreseen.

I just noticed that 1610 people on Facebook ‘liked’ Scott Strazzante’s portfolio when I published this post; I hope as many people, and more, follow John H White on whatever social media sites he frequents, perhaps enabling him to “further upend the fast evolving power dynamics in the modern image economy” in which he unexpectedly finds himself. He’s earned his place in the front of the crowd.

I’m leaving the last word on this whole issue to Paul Melcher, from his excellent and perspicacious blog post ‘Photojournalism eats Instagram for Breakfast’

“As we transition to the many to many publishing model, the importance of photojournalism is not disappearing. In fact, it has never been so important. What is shifting is how we create new trusts channels inside the huge amount of information we receive daily. How we hand over the power of information not to those who aggregate it but those who actually create it.”

We all need to remember we can be at the front of a crowd. We just need to decide which way we want to face.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (16 Comments)

  1. tonemeister says:

    Great article again, John. I’d seen the Jason Cone article on BJP a few days ago and had very mixed feelings about it. Your piece here, has though, put a more positive light on it and has given food for thought.

    • Hi Tony – yes it’s a complex issue. But one view could be that it empowers pj’s more than previously thought. Its a rapidly changing media landscape for sure but I don’t think its one that will not respond to particular influences. It’s certainly not a tsunami we’re all being swept along by, in my humble opinion.

  2. Wow, after reading this and then reading Jason Cone’s original piece, one has to wonder how effective he really is at his job as the Director of Communications for Doctors Without Borders/Mèdecins Sans Frontiéres . The fact that he needs the network of the photographer to help get his messages out suggests he isn’t very successful communicating the mission and campaigns of MSF and instead wants to add another to-do item to the photographer’s repertoire. This is like asking a communications director to do a commercial photo shoot because he knows where to market the images. Either way the quality of the work takes back seat.

  3. Maybe MSF should hire Trey Ratcliffe (http://www.stuckincustoms.com/) or Thomas Hawk, if they are more concerned about getting a photographer with 50,000 Twitter followers? Trey can lead one of his photowalks for his followers, a gaggle of sycophants who “want to shoot like Trey shoots” … maybe in Darfur or someplace off the grid. HDR for NGOs.

    re: “photojournalists the world … offer to provide free photos to work with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the field in return for helping them get to cover international stories………”

    So if the likes of Steve McCurry or Ken Jarecke or Tony Suau or Dave Butow … (name your choice of comparable proven photojournalists) offer to do this but don’t have 50k followers, they’d be turned away? Every minute playing the time-suck social media game is time away from shooting, editing, researching, traveling, and soliciting assignments that pay. Money that comes in handy if you need to pay the bills in advance in order to take weeks to go work for MSF for free. MSF has apparently been spoiled by the wealthy doctors who take a few weeks off to donate their time to MSF (and God bless them, truly), but few PJs (PSTF … Photojournalists Sans Trust Funds) unless they are Salgado, can afford to do this often without a guarantee that the work is salable down the road. And in The Age of Free, that is getting ever more endangered.

    re: “John H White is a good example of someone profoundly affected by the new image economy, he’s lost his job to the iPhone. But ironically that same disruptive technology might have increased his social reach and his ‘value’, in ways few of us could ever have foreseen.”

    ENOUGH on John White… plenty of other great, much younger photogs with years left in their careers have fallen to the axe. John will be fine, unless his pension is in the toilet. The others, and I’ve heard from many of them, are literally trying to survive financially in a market where there are 10x as many good photogs as assignments, and competition from the trustafarians who can work for cheap of give their work away. Like the podiatrist or whoever he was, whose stock shot ran on the cover of TIME (a jar with coinds in it), and he was paid $40 and thrilled for the exposure, while 10-20 years ago TIME would have assigned the same shot and paid $3000 or whatever in space rate. The marketplace has been devastated.

    re “In many of the discussions I see about ‘iPhoneography’ few actually make the point that its not something apart from photography, it IS photography. The only real difference between an iPhone and a compact camera is the networking capabilities of the former. But there is often a failure to acknowledge that the ‘smart’ in smart phone is something the user brings to bear. You can put one to your ear and say something profound, or to your eye and create visual magic…”

    Precious few people are creating really interesting and good work consistently with the smartphone. David Kennerly comes to mind, but they are generally interesting personal “artsy” photos and portraits, not documentary photojournalism as I know it. Sure, Tyler Hicks used one in Afghanistan and PJs will often post something immediately from an assignment, but few to none have replaced their serious working tools with smartphones. Of course, with the right SLR setup (EyeFi card and hotspot) one can post straight to the web almost immediately … my friend AL Seib does it daily at the LA Times, but he has an editor assisting as his images roll in automatically. He’s not posting to Instagram from assignments (did you follow the brouhaha on TIME’s hurricane coverage, making the photogs use iPs and Instagram? Bad idea.)

    RE: “… And often in a breaking story there is a crowd of citizen journalists all pointing at the action and recording it in intimate detail, and doing a fantastic job.”

    I can cite a perfect and recent example to refute this: The Boston Marathon Bombing. “Citizen Journalists'” photos were a mixed bag of for the record shots, mostly poorly framed, shaky, point and shoot images, and many were pure rubbish except for the fact that they were taken at a big news scene. The video was even worse. There was ONE photographer whose work stood head and shoulders above everyone else’s: John Tlumacki of the Globe. He’s a veteran and real photojournalist with >25 years experience, and when the blasts went off he showed his cool under fire, ran towards the danger (while the Citizen Journalists panicked and ran away), kept his head and made brilliant pictures which ran world-wide. That is the work of a photojournalist, not someone with 100k followers and a smartphone.

    Could Tlumacki have shot it with an iPhone if he’d been there only with that, on his day off? Surely he could have, but that wouldn’t have been his first choice is my guess. Not only that, the last thing on his mind, I’d bet a million, was Instagram and tweeting photos as he shot. Shoot first, edit as well as you can on the fly, and the world can wait a few minutes or even hours if needed. This insanity of instant gratification and immediately posting images for its own sake – because we have the technology – has to stop. Posting immediately, “If you can, when you can” should be the modus operandi.

    re “once again it’s the photographer taking the lead, divining that story, and working ahead of a crisis and NGO involvement to give it media traction. Who said photojournalism is dead?”

    Photojournalism is on life support, and this has almost been universally declared. Jeffrey Smith of Contact posted this the other day http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/26/opinion/26corrective-rape.html “I posted Sunday with great pride about publication in The NY Times of the remarkably, powerful and brave project by Contact contributor Clare Carter.” Drop Jeffrey an email and ask him how hard it’s become to place good stories like this that are photographer or agency-generated. Budgets for the work are a pittance now, and media outlets are always looking for free/cheap. Very few editors are willing to stick their necks out and publish a story or project or give a guarantee to shoot one, for an idea that hasn’t already been validated by the media. They are always willing to lead from the rear, are mostly days if not weeks/months behind and following the few leaders, rather than (in the old days with Arnold Drapkin and others) taking a new idea presented by a great agency or photographer and saying, “Run with it. Bring me back the great stuff you always do.” That takes courage, and it’s seriously lacking in a world where editors are just trying to survive the beancounters and stay employed.

    People like this MSF guy are selling snake oil, and it pisses me off greatly. They benefit, but the cure for the buyer is unproven. Yes, there are PJs who work the social media game pretty well (e.g., Ed Kashi, John Stanmeyer) and have large audiences, but they are constantly singing for their supper and trying to raise money to fund projects and I imagine it’s exhausting. There are only 24 hours in a day. Not to mention being willing – like Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington – to go off on stories which can get you KIA, which guarantees lots of post-mortem coverage. Unsat, to use mil-speak.

    I write this with some perspective, as a photojournalist for the LA Times for twenty years and former Photo Editor for their Sunday Magazine for two. I get an earful from freinds still trying to survive as photojournalists.

    • Thanks for the considered response Patrick.

      I don’t disagree with much of what you write.

      I didn’t say John H White is the only example, just that he’s a good example, and one many people reading this will have heard of and it’s (he’s) relevant to the social media aspect I was considering.

      RE: “… And often in a breaking story there is a crowd of citizen journalists all pointing at the action and recording it in intimate detail, and doing a fantastic job.”

      There was a hint of irony in that comment that illustrates the difference between USA and UK language. You cite the Boston bombing – which I’ve already used as an example here in which I said (and I quote)

      This astonishing week underlined for me why photojournalism matters. Why it cannot be replaced by crowd-sourced image gathering. Why it should be supported by all of us. And why we should be grateful to the likes of the Boston Globe photographers who were on the ground in that fine city when the two bombs went off.

      I watched the event unfold on the web, the detailed images immediately available. And noticed the remarkable synchronicity of image-making by two Globe staff (mentioned already here), an image by David L Ryan showing John Tlumaki making his iconic image that has now circled the globe. Two professionals doing what they do best. When most of us hear a bang! we instinctively turn our backs, run away from it. They turned towards it. Faced it, instinctively.

      but most importantly here in which I remarked upon the work of John Tlumacki.

      My use of the word ‘fantastic’ is intended to be a broad brush comment about the fact that despite the often amazing amount of stuff captured the significant detail – the ‘story’ – in such moments is not captured by the citizen journalists but by the seasoned professional.

      re “once again it’s the photographer taking the lead, divining that story, and working ahead of a crisis and NGO involvement to give it media traction. Who said photojournalism is dead?”

      Sorry, but that’s more irony, only not ‘a touch’ but a whole lot of it.

      But on the whole I agree with your assessment of the situation. Where it will go in the next few years I have no idea. Will we be worse off in terms of coverage of really important stories? I think so. It will only become harder and harder to fund such work. And that’s a real shame.

      • Thanks John. We’re on the same wavelength. I’m sorry to seem cynical and doomsday-ish. I just hear from and of many friends and FoFs who are really great PJs, and for whom steady work is elusive and dwindling. I don’t know where it will go, but it seems we are in a Perfect Storm for photojournalism. Not photography – one look at Flickr and you’ll find a ton or high quality landscape, portrait and artsy work (which people seem more than happy to give away cheap or for free), but documentary and PJ work, not so much. Maybe people don’t want it, and don’t miss it. That would be a terrible tragedy. Much of what I conjure in my mind about the world has great images attached.

        • Hi Patrick – I grew up sitting in a room filled to the ceiling with magazines such as Life, Picture Post and National Geographic etc and was lucky that although living in a small rural town I had a father who was interested in the wider world and the issues that affected it. Yes things have changed today, and pj’s are taking a hammering in all kind of ways, but I’m an optimist.

          This period is one of (technological) disruption in all sorts of ways, as the digital revolution affects all sectors of society. But, and it’s a big but, it enables as much as it disables, and at heart (and I think this is what drives all pj’s and thinking photographers) as a storyteller I believe we have a fundamental human need to tell ‘our stories’ and to listen to the stories of others, and it has been so for thousands of years. We cannot exist without ‘the story’ and whatever ways need to be found to enable that we’ll do it. Will social networks enable MSF in the ways Jason Cone aspires to? Probably. But it will also bite him, of that I am quite sure, as the same hand that can hold its money-filled palm out towards him, can just as easily punch him.

          Somewhere in all of this is still the storyteller and the story. And there’s one thing that rises above all else in this and its our need to be moved, amazed, surprised and simply entertained by them.

          Good luck with your future, and writing your own story. Here’s part of mine.

  4. duckrabbit says:

    Sorted. Thanks Patrick.

  5. Thanks John!

    BTW, I want to make it clear that in my comments above, I don’t speak for anyone I mentioned, particularly Jeffrey Smith of Contact. I know he and other great agency editor/reps like him work very hard to get placement for photographers’ stories and pictures, and I don’t want to make life harder in that regard for any of them! After a few decades, I have a few friends in the business and hear some of the war stories and frustrations (and read others that are shared publicly, like in Ken Jarecke’s excellent blog “Mostly True.”). Thanks.

  6. One funny, seen via Twitter, re citizen journalists’ job description from the recent plane crash:

    1. Escape burning aircraft.
    2. Run 20 feet.
    3. Shoot Instagram picture.
    4. Select filter(very crucial).
    5. Post to Twitter
    6. Write Wikipedia entry.
    7. History has been fairly and accurately recorded.
    Although this is probably a whimsical exaggeration on someone’s part I wonder if this is the photojournalist of the future or even the present?
    In documentation of news and events, Instagram (used carelessly) weakens the public trust and is not a true depiction of what is in front of us. The development of technology has captivated the masses and the hidden persuaders of advertising have created a reality through a keenly crafted perception to make it so. Take for example the advertising used to promote Vine, the six second video by Twitter: “You don’t have to be a trained photographer to create a mini-masterpiece.” A masterpiece in six seconds? I embrace the advancements in technology and the creativity and fun they provide but the capabilities also blur the lines of fair and accurate reporting leading us to question, is what I am seeing real? If that was a question of concern before it is even more so now.”

    • Although this is probably a whimsical exaggeration on someone’s part I wonder if this is the photojournalist of the future or even the present?

      It’s not.

      This is luck, being in the right place at the right time by accident.

      A great deal of photojournalism is being in the right place at the right time by being interested, researching, investing and waiting.

      These are two different things.

      As for the “mini masterpieces” – well I’ll simply refer to my comment about the smart in smart-phone being something the user brings to the party.

      Thanks for your response.

      John

  7. Matt Aslett says:

    I use Klout.com to gauge my reach, it’s proper handy like.

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