Photojournalism on Life Support

by Grazia Neri

I no longer want to hear about whether photojournalism is dead or not. Twenty years ago the legendary Howard Chapnick said that it was a "dying business" but at the same time it produced outstanding photographers: James Nachtwey, Chris Morris, James Baalog, Tony Suau, Steve McCurry, Donna Ferrato and many more. In 1994 after the Gulf War and after a seminar in Milan in 1989, I realized that new technologies would take up 80% of a photographic agency's creativity and time at the expense of content. But I also understood that this was the right road for photojournalism to take, as it has done from its difficult beginnings.

Have photographic agencies and photographers made a mistake? Yes. How many hours have been lost discussing whether or not digital transmission would damage the photo? The reply was crystal clear: digital is a means just like the telephoto. But this is not the only cause of the discernible suffering of journalistic photography. I can see a far more serious and frightening one: very few people in the world know how to look at photographs and very few can estimate their economic value or their collocation in analogical or digital archives. Millions of photos exist and no more that 1.000 people worldwide can understand them and are able to assess their value.

What does the future hold for photojournalism? I have been asked during seminars, lessons on photojournalism, by friends, photographers and rival agencies, both amicable and not. I am not rational. I have always acted on impulse in everything I do. A swift and logical decision between passion and rationality. I believe that photojournalism is not dead but it is definitely in the midst of a serious crisis, and great photo documentation will suffer as a result. The lack of demand, the low daily rate, low selling price for the service, the lack of copyright protection (which appeared to be at its best at the end of the 80s), the serious crisis that has hit the small independent agencies (the sole producers of great quality and historical documentation), the impossibility of finding personnel who know how to combine love of photography with an interdisciplinary culture, the small number of people capable of looking at photos and giving them economic, formal and content value, publishers with a thirst for profit who have been creating problems with photo editors who are now seen as the enemies of photographers instead of the sole friendly interlocutors, our weak labor contract, the market which privileges speed and money saving over quality, grumbling photographers, news publications transformed into fitness and cosmetics journals, services requested by agencies which no longer look at the creativity of the shoot, and the interruption of long and fascinating dialogues between agencies to defend the photojournalistic dream above all from the dreaded but useful term "business and practice'.

Give up? No I do not see the need for this. I have enough years behind me to be able to consider the past a useful history for the future. After all, weren't the 60s desperate years? Photos stolen, no respect for copyright, any credit given, photos never returned. It is up to us (photographers and agencies) and us alone, to fight to reestablish an honest market, which looks at other possible clients. There is a market. If there are no able people to challenge it, then we will find them. Photographic places like World Press Photo, Toscana Workshop ICP and many others could give us a hand. During the past 10 years talented and important photographers have succeeded in not only surviving but also consolidating their position by means of prizes, grants, funding and
some of them have become a "Brand name". Others have chosen a less conspicuous lower profile but have produced photo journalistic work, which is unforgettable in illustrating our society.

What can be done? I do not have any easy remedies, but at the moment I see the future in the following way: a modus vivendi between digital and analog photography only if both can respect copyright, the essential search for a new photographic market, a cohabiting of documentary and portrait photography, and between commercial and "artistic" (a term I do not particularly like) photography.

We need to abandon snobbism surrounding descriptive photography, the scoop, and portraits of celebrities. The rewards of big exclusives gave birth to Sygma, Gamma and Sipa in the 70s and 80s, and allowed the production of great photojournalism to be independent of competition. This permitted the aimed exploitation of valuable photographers' archives in order to reinvest in the production of journalistic shoots. I hope for an economic and qualitative reassessment of current events reporting while avoiding massacring it through fractional selling, but without thinking of simply substituting Reuters and AP. A production of fewer, but more carefully organized shoots. A clear rapport between photographer and agent in which the role of the photographer is recognized but also recognizing the possibility of criticizing the photographer's work. An agent aware of the economic needs of the photographer but also a photographer who trusts the agent in his or her capacity to steer them down their chosen career path. An honest agent-cards on the table at all times. A photographer, conscious of the limits and strengths of the market, who does not ask for what it cannot offer.

If reportage does not pay? I need to find other spaces. It cannot disappear because it is the sole witness to history, but in order to exist it must find economic support and above all, a constant and passionate assistance from those who love this work. Photographers need to accept their limits and their moments of "impasse" in order to come out from under cover with creativity. They need to see criticism as something positive, They must not yearn for the great layouts of Life Magazine, The Sunday Times, or Paris Match, but accept that they can see marvelous publications in company magazines or catalogues and exhibitions. Newspapers will come back.

The great commotion caused by Getty and Corbis must not be seen as a limit in my opinion, but as a stimulus to go further across new digital technologies including films, and video, and should ask for help from the manufacturers of cameras, film, and technology. Getty and Corbis have been created using new methods and new technologies. This situation has been repeated time after time during our history. The rich rapidly benefit from new discoveries. We cannot ignore however how many new discoveries will bring support to niche agencies with specialized brands.

And what of the agencies? And here I come specifically to my agency or others who work in one of the many European countries, We are certainly not one of the richest as far as fees and day rates, but over the last few years we have developed a small assignment market and have a small group of publications as clients, especially women's magazines, which offer the good layouts which some photographers dream about. How can we survive loaded with the constraints of new technologies and with prices "frozen" for 10 years, incapable of guaranteeing the employees consistent salaries? This is the great-unanswered question. A photo only exists if it is "looked at" and, memorized not with the use of a computer, but through the eyes of those who know history and customs, otherwise it will disappear completely.

I believe there is only one answer. In order to defend photo-reportage it is important to see photographs and be able to always use them at the right moment, it is necessary to be a careful journalist who is aware of TV, radio, the web and other information sources. There is a need to be passionate about this work, which is not a 9 to 5 job and does not involve stupid bureaucracy. There is a need to look beyond the magazines and newspapers to other photographic markets. In the future people with a literary, social and political culture with knowledge of photography and computers will be the journalists of the future.

But none of this will exist if the agencies are not able to sit down with each other, without being jealous, aware of their strengths and weaknesses and adopt a rigid means of control on copyright. Only they can guarantee the survival of the photographers and agencies. Today, while we only meet to talk about the best type of technology, or about the latest gossip or of a photographer behaving like a prima donna, or while we fight to get a job at a discount, we must once again show how the photograph is romantic and the only true witness to our history. We should be responsible for the countless victims, which include the photographers who have had to leave jobs half-finished because of budget cuts, the small idealistic agencies that have been forced to close down, and not least, the great photographers from the past who now find themselves in both and economic and existential crisis.

And what about those photographers? Some will disappear, swallowed up by the young strong and aggressive, good at using digital processes and open for change. Others will need to reinvent themselves using their outstanding professionalism and alternative directions (there are plenty of opportunities); others will use their archives in order to fund new photographic assignments. (60% of sales in agencies stem from archives), others will learn how to either build alone or together with an agent a "brand".

But all this will be useless without personal passion, together with a watchful lucidity aimed at saving copyright.

Grazia Neri
Contributing Editor

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