is dead. The words dropped from my mouth like uninvited guests
at a Sutton Place cocktail party. They surprised me as much as they
did my dinner companion who had asked the question: So hows
life in the world of photojournalism? Did I really mean what
I said, after all these years of optimism against all odds? I felt
like a child who had used his first curse word in front of adults.
That the questioner did not know how things were in photojournalism
was not surprising. He is a former photojournalist who now makes a
substantial living doing special publicity on movies, of which he
only really needs to do one a year. He can then spend the rest of
the time doing the work that he wants to do, but which, being editorial,
does not pay enough to maintain even a modest lifestyle.
The day after this disturbing incident I did something that I had
been meaning to do for some time. I went to see the photography exhibition
in Grand Central Station called M.I.L.K. This is an acronym for Moments
of Intimacy, Laughter and Kinship. (I hate acronyms, especially those
where the word is thought of first, and the phrase it represents is
worked around it. My dog came from a shelter called S.A.V.E. This
stands for, are you ready, Silent Animal Voices Echo. Yikes!) Anyway
I finally got to go and see this lavish presentation in what is now
one of the most beautiful public spaces in New York. As an exhibition
M.I.L.K. is not the Family of Man that it would like to be. There
are way too many old people, babies, and old people with babies, but
having said that I still found it a worthwhile and satisfying experience.
There are some wonderful images, and the range of emotions covered
is broad enough to go beyond the doom and gloom label
that is so often applied to documentary photography.
It is also a truly global exhibition with entries from most regions
of the world. One of my favorites is a picture by Robert Billington
from Australia. It shows a young boy running into the surf with his
fathers false leg so that dad can get to the finish line on
the beach of the swim race in which hes competing. The fact
that it is called the Shark Island Swim Race makes you wonder how
the father lost his leg in the first place, but it is a wonderful
moment. The Czech photographer Jindrich Streit captures another special
instance of human interaction in his picture of boy meets girl
in Siberia, proving once again that there is love in a cold climate,
even with twelve year olds. At the other end of the emotional spectrum
there is a compelling series of pictures by the American photographer
Jack Dykinga documenting some of the last moments in the life of his
friend Brian as he succumbs to a brain tumor. Jack was one of the
few photographers represented in the exhibition whose name I recognized,
and this also was a plus for me. It reminded me that for all the fine
photographers around the world whose work I recognize and admire there
are many more who are unknown to me and still produce powerful photography,
even without my emotional support, if you can believe that!
Another rewarding aspect of the exhibition was the people looking
at it. They were many and diverse, both in racial, socio-economic
and national mix. They were people who probably dont think much
about how important photography is in their lives, but who were clearly
enjoying spending a few moments viewing it before catching a train
or going to the office. This being New York there was also some fool
on a cell phone standing in front of a picture of a desperately poor
couple on the Steppes in Inner Mongolia. The snatch of conversation
that I heard went: If were only making two million dollars
on this deal its not worth it. I must say that the Mongolian
couple looked a lot happier than he did.
M.I.L.K. caused me to think about the comment that I had made the
night before. While I was pontificating in an over-priced West Side
restaurant about photojournalisms demise, people from New York
and beyond were getting pleasure viewing it, courtesy of dedicated
photographers all over the world. There seemed to be a credibility
gap here between my recent professional experiences and the delight
that the exhibition was giving to its viewers. Unfortunately the gap
was closed somewhat when I was speaking of my experience with a colleague.
He remembered that PDN had done an article about M.I.L.K. and forwarded
it to me. I quote from the same:
A British publisher is promoting a new competition called M.I.L.K.
to build an image collection for its publishing products. Contest
winners must give up all reproduction rights to winning images for
ten years, and contest prizes are considered advances against product
sales. After the publisher recoups the prize money, it will pay photographers
royalties amounting to 10 percent of net sales.
M.I.L.K. project director Ruth Hamilton goes on to justify this onerous
business arrangement by saying that she hopes photographers
will view the compensation and prestige for winners as sufficient
return for granting us the exclusive reproduction rights for one of
their images for 10 years. She goes on to say, Our subject
matter is very positive and it is our genuine hope that the ultimate
Collection and the publishing activity that surrounds it will reflect
all that is good about humanity.
How is it that with photojournalism concern for the good of humanity
never seems to extend to the financial well being of the photojournalist?
Why is it that for every step forward there has to be ten back? Is
photojournalism really dead as I feared? From the visual evidence
of M.I.L.K. it would appear not. Plenty of people are producing it,
and plenty of people still want to look at it. The missing link is
the plenty of people willing to pay for it. What photojournalism needs
to find that link is a new breed of entrepreneur with the vision to
see the possibilities, the imagination to find or create the new markets
that are required, and the integrity to reward the photographers for
As you read this I will be in Perpignan at Visa Pour LImage,
photojournalisms annual festival of self-congratulation and
mutual commiseration in the South of France. One of the hot topics
will be portals, which seem to spring up mushroom-like almost every
morning. Of all of the various solutions that they are offering as
the cure-all for the industrys problems it is likely that most
will fail, and a few succeed. Who is and who isnt amongst the
survivors is not as important as the fact that a lot of talented and
dedicated people are focusing their energy and creativity on new business
solutions, and this is exactly whats needed. Its no longer
enough to find a better method of doing business in the old ways.
The way forward will be found by young people who didnt grow
up with Life magazine delivered to their doors every week, and are
nostalgic for those days, because those days will never return. The
agency of the future will not be Magnum restructured, if indeed Magnum
was structured in the first place. In the meantime while were
waiting for the discovery of tomorrows holy grail check out
M.I.L.K. if it comes to a location near you. The contents not
perfect, and the business plan sucks, but it will at least to demonstrate
to you that, against all odds, photojournalism will only die when
everyone stops doing it.
Ill leave you with words that I found encouraging:
Nobody knows whats going on. The technology people dont
know. The content people dont know. The money people dont
know. Whoever is leading today, I can say with absolute certainty,
will be adrift or transformed some number of months from now. Whosoever
screws with you will get screwed with, too. Its a kind of anarchy.
A strangely level playing field. The Wild West.
Michael Wolfe, the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Guardian
Edinburgh International TV Festival, August 25, 2001.Peter Howe