First Find an Audience
February 2003

by Peter Howe

Trivia question #1: Who was it that said, “Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my gun?”

Answer: Neither Goering or Goebbels to whom the saying has been attributed, but in fact the German playwright and Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst.

Trivia question #2: Which of the regular contributors to the Digital Journalist agreed with the quotation until recently?

Answer: The writer of this column

Now I would like to state quite clearly that I’m not normally a follower of Nazi ideology, and it is mere coincidence that one of the leaders of the Third Reich and I agree on this minor point, but the fact is that whenever I hear about gallery shows of photojournalism I can feel my finger easing off the safety catch. What worries me about this professional crisis that we’ve been living through for the last God knows how many years is that it’s turning us inwards as a community, which is exactly the wrong direction for a solution to the situation. The essence of photojournalism is communication, preferably communication on a large scale. My biggest fear is that because the traditional outlets for this work have all but disappeared those of you brave souls who are still plugging away at it will embrace any venue that will display your photography, even though this will ultimately have a marginalizing effect by limiting its exposure to a small, elite audience. My model for these gloomy thoughts is the art world. From the little art history that I absorbed from a BFA course, I slept my way through I seem to remember that painting during the Renaissance was a part of everyone’s life. For a mostly illiterate population the frescoes on the walls and ceilings of churches were the ways that the stories of the Bible were told, a sort of spiritual photojournalism. Today most modern art is bought by and resides on the walls of a very few rich people. It would be a tragedy if the power of photojournalism were constricted in a similar manner.

However the key word in trivia question #2 is “recently.” A couple of things changed my attitude to the gallery display of documentary photography. One was the relocation of the International Center of Photography from the outer edges of Museum Mile at 94th Street to the bustle of corporate America at 43rd. I think that it’s one of the smartest moves that the ICP ever made, and to be in those galleries during lunch hour is to see a real cross section of the midtown community. I don’t care if they only came in to get warm or cool depending on the season. The fact of the matter is that by being where the people are the institution is giving them exposure to work that they probably wouldn’t normally see. I also love it when the museum-like calm is shattered by the screams of school kids as they careen past pictures from New Guinea, or the living history of photographs of the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War. Maybe they don’t stand transfixed in front of every frame, but maybe they too will absorb something in the same way that I absorbed my minimal knowledge of art history – just by being there. My new appreciation of work on walls was reinforced during my interview with Lauren Greenfield for last month’s Digital Journalist. She made me realize that some of the elite that visit the private galleries where she shows are people who purchase work for museums, and although not many people will come to a small show in a commercial gallery, a lot of people go to museums.

The point is that it’s too easy to fall into a victim mentality, and paranoia is a natural response when you’re being persecuted in the way that photojournalists are by publishing corporations and some agencies. However I’m firmly convinced that the answer to this frustrating situation in which the profession finds itself is to look for new ways to reach an audience and thereby find an income stream. Like Willie Sutton said about banks, you’ve got to go to the audience because that’s where the money is. This also means you’ve got to give the audience what they want, at least from time to time. I haven’t been an editor for many years now, but people still send me projects to review, and so often the subject matter is the same that I’ve been seeing ever since I became an editor, which is now twenty years ago. It may be painful to face up to, but the market has been saturated by stories on homelessness, drug addiction, AIDS, and pollution in Eastern Europe. This doesn’t mean that all of these issues aren’t still with us and as important as they were twenty years ago, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t photograph them. It just means that you probably won’t be able to sell them.

The reason that I chose the topic of combat photographers for the book that I recently published was because I’m fascinated by them in the first place, but also because I felt that if the subject was approached from the right angle, and if the book was marketed correctly this could be a photography book that would appeal as much to war buffs of which there are many as to photography buffs of which there are fewer. One of the kicks for me on the book tour was to look out into the audience at a signing and see how many vets were there, and interestingly enough they weren’t that difficult to identify. Their presence was living proof that you can bring a larger audience to a photographic project if the subject’s right.

I don’t have to make a living out of shooting pictures anymore, and it’s always easier to pontificate about something than to do it, but I just can’t give up on the idea that there is a future for photojournalism. It’s too powerful a tool to not be able to find a new voice with a broader audience, but it’s up to us who love it and are part of it, be they photographers, editors, or agents, to be creative about finding these audiences, and realistic about what will interest them. In the end nobody but us is going to find the solution.

And now the Good News

A recent issue of the Zandl report stated, “young people are focusing on personal reflection and expression in reaction to the current political and economic climate.” Among the activities that the newsletter cites as becoming popular because of this is photography. The biggest hope that we can have for our craft is that the next generation will find it as rewarding and satisfying as we have.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor


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