Is It Art or Commerce?

by Tom Hubbard

It's time we stepped back for a better perspective on photojournalism. It's an individual art existing in a corporate environment. Throughout the industrial/commercial world, workers try to introduce some creativity into their routine activities while photojournalists have the opposite problem. Photojournalists are in a creative occupation, working under pressure to routinize their work. This is difficult because the photographer's mind, psyche and wherewithal are in their images. A photo is unique and will always be a part of the photographer.

In contrast, corporate buyers see photos as raw material, a commodity. All those psychic strings between the photographer and image are invisible from the corporate viewpoint. In contrast, if a car manufacturer buys steel, it's an outright purchase. The steel producer doesn't expect a royalty based on the car sales, or to follow the car and get a cut of each resale. Editors wonder, "Why can't we buy photos like we buy ink, by the pound?"

Photographers have never accepted journalism as a manufacturing industry, Newsrooms are a factory with workers enhancing the raw material coming in. After almost 200 years, the industrial model may seem the only way to accomplish a professional group task, but it's not. There are other models.

Any well-run democracy is a better model. A think tank or monastery may be better models. A shop, a bazaar, a commune, a tribal village, even a potluck dinner may be better model. Don't laugh at the potluck dinner. It's a lot more innovative than rearranging the newsroom furniture and calling it "pods." For a potluck, everyone brings their best dish and all consume what they need. Why not organize a newsroom this way? The staff individually finds the best news they can and bring it to the 'feedroom" for the nourishment of the audience in a cafeteria setting. If you think I'm being silly, you are locked in obsolete thinking.

If you have trouble with the potluck idea, think about doctors. Photographers share a lot with doctors. We each work with several subjects per day and must be physically and emotionally ready for each. We must interact with these subjects and accomplish something. Each subject is different, but if rushed, we can fall back on standard treatment while hoping to do better later. Photographers and doctors recent histories are similar. Doctors used to be individuals who utilized their training and personality to derive a personal style. Doctors and photographers were virtually autonomous in an industrial society. Doctors were introduced to the Industrial Revolution with HMOs and tighter insurance directives. Good doctors try, but watch closely on your next visit. Watch for all the efforts to make your visit an assembly line affair. (The work is efficiently divided between doctor, nurse, aid, clerk, etc.) When you get back to the newsroom, turn this observation on your own professional environment. Are you on an assembly line or are you an individual craftsperson/artist?

Photographers met the industrial revolution in a push-pull effect. Photo editors were the instrument to push the Industrial Revolution into the photo department. Before, photographers managed to be autonomous craftpersons. Now, there is a division of labor right in the photo department. Many gifted photo editors broadened photographers and photography through nurturing, sympathetic relations and understanding of the vagaries of photography, but it was still an industrial concept, a fundamental change. It brought the corporate weight into an area the photographer had never shared. The result, the photographer is a cog in the machine. The pull was pulling raw images away from the photographer. The history of photography is a history of photographers controlling their images from click to print. Digital technology allows "original" images to be public around the newsroom, making "original" meaningless. What would reporters say if they had to turn in their notepads and head out for another story? It's an unnatural division of creative labor.

As you look around, the Industrial Revolution seems to be the only way to achieve group tasks but it's only one model that may prove historically brief. Farmers have worked differently for eons. Creative workers were not organized to tasks before the Industrial Revolution became the model. The assembly line created a need for precision integration of tasks. You can smelt, melt, pound and contort metal but you can't do it to ideas. The industrial model is simply not the best structure to gather, synthesize and deliver information because, in information delivery, the worker can't be separated from the product. Information delivery depends absolutely on the independent creative and intellectual capacity of the individuals participating. Hierarchies distort this process. Journalists like to talk about objectivity but it's impossible to separate the observation, synthesizing and delivery of the message from the person doing it. Ask any communication authority outside of journalism.

If an editor, who is not there, who is dependent on sources with their own agendas, directs the field journalist, how do you expect to get news out of that relationship? We have wasted years covering pseudo events arranged for our and others' convenience. The first tragedy is, this system seems to work. Media companies are very profitable. Audiences think they are being informed. The second tragedy is individual creative effort is hushed by this system. Too much efficiency destroys the message in journalism. It's the individuality of a creative staff that produces an exciting news product.

The Platypus and convergence may be a new age of freedom of expression, or stark regimentation. It all depends on which twist the future takes. Will creative control expand or will the work expand? The essence of the Industrial Revolution was to divide jobs into segments easily taught to the farmers brought into the factory. The key was non-thinking obedience. Platypus may go the opposite direction by creating an autonomous craftsperson/artist, or, extend the Industrial Revolution by creating ever-busy lackeys.

Photographers were lucky. They avoided the Industrial Revolution for years. They managed to perform as craftspersons right in the middle of this industrially-organized newspaper. They had their little workshop called a darkroom. They worked on their product until it was ready and offered it to the market (newsroom.) This was tolerated because no one understood photography, they worked with words. Editors and reporters wrote words, edited them, etc. They had to "buy" the product of those craftspeople in the darkroom.

The digital camera changed all of this. Auto focus and exposure removed the mystery. It brought photographers into the Industrial Revolution. A photo was no longer the final product, a print. It was part of the final product, the publication. Even the photo was divided. The click moment, the image selection moment and the print moment were separated.

Now, this new moment of technological convergence offers an alternative. Photographers can be craftspeople/artists again. They can produce the entire product ... still, video, sound, narration, even on-camera. In a way, this is a return to the craft age after a brief visit to the industrial age.

This is wonderful, except for one detail. Throughout the history of buying and selling, in ancient and modern bazaars and markets, the buyer and seller were functionally and economically equal. If you bargain at garage sales, you know what I'm talking about. You and the seller want the transaction to happen. And, it does happen, when each reaches that secret moment of being satisfied with the deal. In a supermarket, you never meet the person who set the price.

The problem today is buyer and seller are not equal. It's a corporation vs. an individual craftsperson, sort of like the king riding up to the cottage of a cobbler. Something must equalize the buyer-photographer relationship. ASMP equalized the relationship for years by setting minimum rates which magazines and corporate clients respected. Higher fees could be negotiated, but the minimum guaranteed a fair return on time and talent. That model may or may not work again. Medieval craft guilds controlled prices by limiting the number who practiced a particular craft. This is not possible today. The opposite has happened. Watch a wedding photographer tripping over a gaggle of amateurs. Or, watch a colleague hiding in a gaggle of amateurs at a concert or political appearance.

For professional photographers shooting for publication in print, web, cable, etc., only one thing will change the dynamic of photojournalism. THE PHOTOGRAPHER MUST CONTROL THE INITIAL CREATIVE IMPULSE TO CREATE AN IMAGE, FROM CONCEPT TO EXPOSURE TO IMAGE SELECTION. When this happened in the past, photography soared.

Rates-and-rights are hot topics today, but photographers really want the freedom to create their own images. Photographers want to fully participate in their art as did their idols, the FSA photographers, W. Eugene Smith and others. Those FSA photos became icons because the photographers, though strongly directed, were on their own when they photographed.

Photography is practiced today as an other-directed art. If photographers created their own photographs from scratch, they would truly own their product. The sad part is, I don't think this generation of photographers is capable of this. Today's photographers, in their training, in their work and in their thinking, have accepted this model of other-directed photography.

Beyond pressure to conform to this obedience role, photography is fundamentally at odds with today's industrial economy. Industrial products are successful because they are all the same. Photos are successful because they are different. Only photographers can fight for this difference which is the essence of the photographic art.

Photojournalists MUST fight for their position in this environment. If your mind is filled with assignments, equipment, the digital revolution, getting a better image tomorrow, the photographer/buyer rates-and-rights wars, you're absent from your own cultural revolution. The rates-and-rights war is an all-around failure to see this controversy as a cultural clash between the craft/artist mentality and the corporate/industrial viewpoint. It is the very definition of what we do that is at stake.

Tom Hubbard

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