The Digital Journalist

After the Fall

by Peter Howe

I have all my favorite Internet stocks listed on MSN so that I can see how they're doing at any time during the day. Don't get me wrong. This isn't the act of a man gleefully counting his untold millions. It's more along the lines of the kind of religious fanaticism that causes Iranian fundamentalists to flay themselves with chains in order to get spiritual revelation. I'm still at the flaying with chains part. The spiritual revelation will probably come when the Nasdaq finally climbs back past the three thousand mark, should that happy day ever arrive.

One of the side benefits of this kind of financial masochism is that I'm only a click away from the work that Brian Storm and the other folks at MSNBC are doing with photography. This is nearly always a much more rewarding experience than Nasdaq watching. A recent example of this was a gallery that they put together on the devastation of the Indian Earthquakes. My two reactions after going through these photographs was first of all how incredibly good some of the wire shooters are nowadays, way better than I remember when I was out there with a camera, and secondly that pictures like this were what attracted me to photography in the first place. There is no medium that compares to ours in its ability to powerfully and instantly communicate human emotion and the human condition and I miss being exposed to that power. The problem in many careers is that the more you progress in them (at least people tell you it's progress) the further removed you get from why it was that you chose that profession in the first place. I now spend more time talking to lawyers, venture capitalists and technologists than I do to photographers. I'm more likely to be reading Barrons than Jim Nachtwey's latest essay in Time. Hence the Nasdaq anxiety.

But another anxiety I have, and I have many, is that when I do take the time to look at some of the excellent work that is to be found on the Internet nowadays I worry about how long it will be there. We have already seen many of the major media companies pull back or entirely eradicate their new media divisions. The pendulum has swung so far the other way after the so-called dot com crash that Henry Ford himself would find it difficult to get funding in this environment. Is it just a matter of time before we see all of the possibilities of the Internet disappear before they ever fully became a reality? Will those of us who have been advocating the wonders the Internet will bring to photojournalism end up looking like sixties hippies who smoked too much of the wrong stuff? After all some of us are sixties hippies who seemed to have at least come back to some form of reality.

Only time will tell, and time seems to be pretty tight lipped at the moment. One thing I do know is that the swing of the pendulum is a necessary function before it can settle in the center, and the center is where it has to be before we can move forward. Fortunately the days of have gone, and the insanity of companies with no business plan and no hope of ever turning a profit getting millions in funding are way behind us. Unfortunately their demise will inevitably take a few companies that should have survived with them.

Where does this leave photography? On the sell side will Corbis and Getty be the only companies to survive? On the buy side will the only photographs available to Internet users be those little Tony Stone, PhotoDisc and Stock Market thumbnails that you see on the home pages of the portals? You know the kind I mean. Interesting little snippets such as: "Does society discriminate against bald men?" are illustrated by a thumbnail of a bald head shot on a super wide angle lens to accentuate its fleshy globe. As one of the bald men who may be discriminated against this is important to me, but I certainly don't feel it's fulfilling the promise of the Internet as a future home for photojournalism.

I think that the hope for our digital future lies in one word - infrastructure. It's a dull word but maybe one with exciting possibilities. The rush to wire America is on. In order to supply the increasing demand for high-speed Internet access telecom companies are ripping up streets, sidewalks and sometimes water mains to get as much fiber-optic cable in the ground as quickly as possible. In a recent Wall Street Journal report there were some astonishing figures, not the least of which was that in 2000 alone over 19 million miles of fiber were laid in the US. Over 50 million miles have been laid since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act. (And yes I do know you all read the Journal after the dozens of e-mails I received the last time I claimed you didn't.)

What this means of course is that whatever happens to the stock market a substantial investment in high-speed access has been made. But of course there's no point having access to nothing, and you can't fill up the Internet with reruns of Hogan's Heroes like you can cable TV. So don't shy away from the term "content provider" because believe me they're going to need content, and you may be just the person to provide it. If reality programming is popular on television, reality photography may just make it on the Internet, and photojournalism is reality photography.

Talking about the stock market I just checked MSN. The Nasdaq plunged to its lowest level in two years today. The report should've been illustrated with a PhotoDisc thumbnail of a bald man blowing his brains out. I must say I don't ever remember covering Northern Ireland and El Salvador being this stressful. Oh well, I didn't want to retire yet anyway. I'll talk to you next month if I can still afford to work for free!

Peter Howe
Photography Licensing Group


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