The front of the crowdWritten by John Macpherson
“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”
“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………”
“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……….”
“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).”
“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.”
“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.
“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?
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.