Against All Odds

by Peter Howe

“Photojournalism 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 how’s 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 father’s false leg so that dad can get to the finish line on the beach of the swim race in which he’s 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 don’t 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 we’re only making two million dollars on this deal it’s 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 photojournalism’s 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 their efforts.

As you read this I will be in Perpignan at Visa Pour L’Image, photojournalism’s 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 industry’s problems it is likely that most will fail, and a few succeed. Who is and who isn’t 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 what’s needed. It’s 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 didn’t 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 we’re waiting for the discovery of tomorrow’s holy grail check out M.I.L.K. if it comes to a location near you. The content’s 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.
I’ll leave you with words that I found encouraging:

“Nobody knows what’s going on. The technology people don’t know. The content people don’t know. The money people don’t 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. It’s 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

Peter Howe
Contributing Editor

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