The Digital Journalist
News from the Photo Agencies
April 2007

by Ron Steinman

The two parts of this column go together for reasons that will become apparent as you read on. Looking for connections as I do, each part of this column deals with photographs, photographers and photo agencies, some well-established, others budding. All, though, are players in a business that seems to have unlimited growth, even if part has to do with what I call the bandwagon effect. And part has to do with not wanting to be left out in the cold in the ever-changing world of photojournalism.

First, there is Magnum, an agency originally formed when the photojournalists Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour got together to form an agency to distribute their pictures and protect their ownership, thus their rights. The agency has flourished for 60 years – with more than 60 photographers -- and in celebration of this anniversary, it is making a unique offer to newspapers around the world. It will give a Magnum photo of a newspaper's choosing free of charge if the newspaper places said photo on its front page. Called "Magnum Front Page," the only condition is that the photo of choice must be credited with the photographer's name followed by "Magnum Photos / 60th Anniversary." Not a bad idea and not a bad way for Magnum to publicize its anniversary. Here is a chance for editors to "pick a photograph from Magnum's digital bank of more than 350,000 images and publish it for free on the front page of their paper to illustrate a topic that is covered in the same issue." In return, Magnum asks only for a .PDF of the page, a note explaining why the choice of that particular photo, as well as an original tear sheet of the paper's "Front Page." Magnum might include these in the next International Festival of Photojournalism, Visa pour l'Image, in Perpignan, France, September 2007. Also, Magnum will display the front pages on Magnum's Web site for the remainder of the anniversary celebration. For more information, contact Sue Brisk at

Continuing the theme of photo agencies and photojournalism, there is a new wave in the world of visual reporting. It seeks to take advantage of the citizen journalist, the person out there, somewhere, everywhere, cell phone at the ready, digital snapshot camera at the ready, snapping away furiously at anything and everything.

A famous comedian once said, and here I paraphrase, "everyone wants to get into the act." That is what is happening. We are now witness to a new drive by established photo agencies such as Getty Images and its recent acquisition of Scoopt, and new agencies, such as Citizen Image, to corner the market on the millions and millions who indiscriminately take pictures, snapshots really, of everything they see. These agencies plan to pay for the use of any photo they market. Nothing wrong with that, except how many of these pictures will be unique? The new army of would-be photojournalists click at all that moves and usually with poor cell phone cameras and low-end digital cameras, both the Brownie of this era. Each of these agencies hopes to profit from that one-time-only great photo, a serendipitous shot that makes front pages everywhere. They also hope to create a photo bank or archive they can profit from when people need to buy a shot of a sunset, a smiling baby, a cuddly animal, or anything of that sort.

Snapshots will dominate. Quality will disappear. When quality dies, reproductions suffer. Clarity diminishes. Sharpness becomes muddy. Yes, there will be a lucky winner now and then when someone is in the right place when a big story breaks, his or her cell phone at the ready. You would think it would happen more regularly with the many millions of cameras and camera phones in use daily. Alas, it does not. Most snapshots provide very little of interest except to one's family and friends. I predict the new photo bank ventures will not have great success. They will create hope. Hope is not photojournalism. Talent, instinct, putting oneself in the right place makes the difference. Not a Web site that will store your snaps or pay you if someone wants a pretty picture they can shoot for themselves. Photographers still have to venture forth in search of the action.

I am naturally suspicious of citizen journalism on all levels. I don't believe it is the answer to our survival as a craft or profession. I do not believe it is an answer -- especially with its lack of professionalism and training -- to what some call "the elites," those among us who supposedly govern and guide professional journalism. For me the reliance on citizen journalism is a lazy excuse for not improving what we as professionals already do. From what I have seen on file-sharing sites, Magnum and other agencies that pride themselves on quality from superior professionals should not worry about losing their place in the photojournalism pantheon.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.