Stop The Parade

By Peter Howe

I've lived in New York for 23 years. I'm a naturalized American citizen. I travel on an American passport. I still don't get parades. What is it about a bunch of people marching in fake uniforms or desperately trying to control large inflatable Snoopy balloons that is so appealing to America? In this city we have more parades than you can possibly imagine. Any group that represents any constituency has to have one to reinforce its self-esteem. We have Puerto Rican parades, Greek parades, and Gay Pride parades, not to mention that annual outpouring of Irish American joy and body fluids, the St. Patrick's Day parade. Maybe it's my British upbringing where the nearest thing to a parade is the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace or a really good funeral. (Have you noticed how good the Brits are at putting on funerals? I think it reveals a lot about the national character.) Whatever it is I'm always secretly delighted when it rains on anyone's parade.

Which brings me to the alleged rebirth of the golden age of photojournalism. Now here's a parade that needs a serious downpour. Ever since the attacks of September 11th there has been a wave of euphoria over the sudden importance of meaningful photography. There was plenty of evidence to support this optimism. The New York Times did, and is still doing, a remarkable job of not only visually covering the events as they unfolded, but gave more real estate in the paper to photography than anyone would have dreamed possible during the days of Abe Rosenthal. Special issues of magazines almost exclusively photographic in content have been selling out, as did the Magnum book on 9/11, conceived and delivered by Nathan Benn in a stunningly short gestation period. There were rumors of vast sums of money being made from the pictures taken that day, and even one of the lumbering monoliths, Getty Images, suddenly found that they could generate what they refer to as a revenue stream from news photography. Hollywood stumbled in its reaction to the tragedy leaving a vacuum of celebrity photo opportunities, and one of the leading publicity harpies declared that she found it difficult to motivate her people because everything that they did seemed irrelevant in the light of the event. I personally think she could have left off the words "in the light of the event", but maybe that's just me. (They soon found their feet however and dispatched Julia Roberts et al. to mingle with the troops in exotic far-off locations such as Camp Pendleton.)

Anyway it looked as if the American public in this moment of national trauma had acquired an almost insatiable appetite for serious images of real people involved in real events. It was apparent enough for articles to be written about, including a fine piece by Ingrid Sischy in Vanity Fair. In a commentary entitled "The Triumph of the Still" she makes a compelling case for the importance to the American public of not only the pictures taken in lower Manhattan or at the Pentagon, but also stories about Islam, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and others that have lain dusty on the shelves of photo agencies for too long. She talks about the inadequacies of television that, as she puts it, "repeats rather than illuminates", and as an eye witness to the attack she recalls that "it was only later, when I began to see the still photographs, that the human scale of what had occurred started to come into focus." All of this is undeniably true, and the photography that was produced that day will remain burned into the retinas of our collective memory for a long time to come. However she also discusses an aspect of that day that gives me cause to think that the local leaders of ASMP chapters shouldn't be ordering gold braid yet, anymore than Nikon should be wasting money on large balloons depicting its latest digital camera. That aspect is the nature of the event itself. The attack on the World Trade Center was so overwhelming, and also so visual that almost anyone with a camera shot amazing pictures. That doesn't mean that the best photographs weren't taken by the best photographers. They were. What it means is that the worst photographers shot more powerful photographs on that day than they will ever take in their lives again. It was the event that overwhelmed the need for more than a basic ability, and it was the event that was the cause of the hunger for images, not the brilliance of the photographers.

Everything that Sischy says about the value of still images is true, and we've known it for years. Still photographs do have a power that enables people to hang on to them in times of crisis, liferafts in a turbulent emotional sea. Their value also grows over time, its alchemy transforming even leaden images into golden windows on history. All this we know. What we also know, and maybe during this period have chosen to ignore, is that the value of documentary photography is not reflected in the marketplace. This has been true for the past twenty or thirty years, and however large photographs are reproduced on the front page of "A Nation Challenged" it's still the case. In fact since 9/11 the situation has actually deteriorated.

Although the simplistic argument is that television killed Life, Look and other magazines that provided sustenance to photojournalism, in fact the reality is more complex. There was also a downward spiral that was caused by the scramble for advertising. The "Journalism 101" course will tell you that advertisers take space in a magazine or newspaper based on circulation (also demographics, but mostly circulation). In order to get higher circulation a publisher reduces the cover price of his or her publication. This usually works, but in doing so the amount of revenue from newsstand sales and especially subscription is drastically reduced, making the magazine even more dependent on advertising for its survival. One thing that we as photojournalists should never forget or underestimate is that advertisers do not like the work that we produce. The reason for this was made starkly apparent in the days after 9/11 where photographs of dazed, ash covered survivors co-existed unhappily with ads for diamond earrings. In fact many of the special issues carried little or no advertising.

Since the attacks there has been an ironic twist to this formula. Circulation has soared at the same time that advertising has plummeted. In the magazine market ad sales are down between 30% - 40%. This leaves publications with unrealistic cover prices and reduced ad revenue. These are not conditions under which the new Golden Age of Photojournalism can be born. In fact the difficulties that photojournalism faced before 9/11 remain and are even more pronounced.

Before I lose you to a suicide hot line let's see if there is an answer to this. There may be several. One is the development of new markets. If there is one thing that 9/11 has dramatically demonstrated is the continuous value of this genre of photography. It's not the intrinsic value of the material, but its value to a market that is in question. Many of us looked to the Internet as being the most hopeful solution, and in some ways it has fulfilled its promise. There is much more serious documentary work to be found online than on magazine pages, but you try and make money out of it. The Digital Journalist is a good example. It has not only become one of the most successful photography sites but holds its own with many of the more popular generalist locations. However all of us associated with it are still waiting for our first pay check, especially Dirck Halstead who is gallantly heading towards destitution to keep it going. This isn't just a Not-For-Profit, it's more like a Not-For-Money.

While the development of new markets is out of the hands of photojournalists for the most part, there is one area of improvement that is firmly within our grasp, and that is the adaptation of the craft to the present market. This means less of an emphasis on those subjects that you know are going to send advertisers running for the door. I don't think that this necessarily means that you have to compromise your integrity as a witness either. Compromise was one of the last things of which you could have accused W. Eugene Smith, and yet I believe that essays of the power of "Country Doctor" or "Spanish Village" would find a market today. It's not a question of compromise but of acceptance of market conditions.

The other act of acceptance that those entering this calling of photographic documentarian should make is that this is not, never has been and probably never will be a profession through which you are ever likely to make more than a marginal living. If you want the lifestyle of Avedon, Herb Ritts or Pete Turner then become an advertising, fashion, celebrity or commercial stock photographer. Being a photographer is similar to being a medical doctor in the choices it offers to its practitioners. You can be the highly paid cosmetic surgeon on Park Avenue, or work in a community health center in the South Bronx. The choice is yours, but once you've made that choice you're pretty much stuck with it. Maybe a better analogy is being a missionary where the compensation is substantial, but not financial. We seem to live in a society that rewards professions in inverse proportion to their social value. Talk to any school teacher about this, or to the New York City firefighter who works at least one other job apart from the one that risks life and limb on a daily basis. Talk to your peers.

The reality is that we're not in a parade kind of profession. With the exception of a few gifted and/or lucky individuals most photojournalists work unnoticed and un-celebrated, if there is such a term. The mark of success is survival, both financial and often, like the firefighter, physical. The lesson that we should all take from the successes following the destruction of the Twin Towers is not that this is heralding a new age where all of these problems disappear. Rather what it teaches us is the validation of this work, its value to society both short, and more importantly, long term. As you continue to work in a market that will inevitably turn its attention away from the stories that are most important to your heart, remember that for a few short months during one of the most traumatic occurrences ever to inflict itself upon our society it was to "eye-witness" photography that our fellow citizens turned for solace, connection and understanding. Nobody can rain on that.

2002 Peter Howe
Contributing Editor

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist