We're Just Sayin'
November 2009

by David Burnett

Perhaps the most telling comment about the state of things was the often lampooned statement by New York Times editor Bill Keller on "The Daily Show" this summer that "the last time I was in Baghdad I didn't see a Huffington Post Bureau, or a Google Bureau or a Drudge Bureau." While there are plenty of things The New York Times and the rest of the daily and weekly press don't get right, if we are stuck without them, going forward in this time of economic upheaval, we will soon discover that there are plenty of things they do get right. I have never worked for a daily paper or a wire service, but I certainly appreciate the role they play in trying to inform the public. There are lots of things to bitch about when talking of the "press," but in the end there is a desire to inform, a need to investigate, which is paramount. And at the point where these things become less feasible – money and manpower constraints chief among the villains – the society we like to think we live in will change radically. The idea that journalism can flourish merely by the aggregators aggregating is so flawed. Eventually, with nothing produced by the actual producers, there will be no content available to aggregate. And the bloggers can have all the opinions they want, but it will be based on little that is real. The economic collapse of the last few years has proven several things. That without some kind of active reporting to keep things in check, there will always be people – in government and business – who will take the shortest of shortcuts to make a buck. 

This week there are said to be yet another round of cuts at the Time Inc. magazines, cuts numbering in the hundreds. Part of the ongoing bloodletting that the press as a whole has endured over the past five years. The spiral shows no sign of ending: advertisers moving away from traditional sources (in this case, magazine ads) to either the Internet or nowhere … the fall in revenue, causing the magazines to try and rethink how to be relevant … said relevance nearly always falling short, and leaving the company with much reduced budgets to spend on content. Less money spent on content (photography = content) produces a magazine which fewer readers find interesting. And so it goes as the swirl around the bowl catches more and more of us.

In the end, one wonders how it's possible to even put out a magazine anymore. When I think of what we used to do, the budgets we had – and they never felt extravagant at the time – were essentially an investment in excellence. The overall tone of every conversation with every editor was about coming up with something better than before, something which the readers would react to, and keep bringing them back week after week. That quest for excellence is what drove many of us. It made us want to find those qualities in our own work that would round out a story, and provide something refreshing and compelling to the readers.

In the fall of 1973, the "Kippur" war between Israel and Egypt and Syria was a case in point. I remember sitting in what was then the cramped Gamma office (I'd just joined Gamma after Life folded) in New York, listening to the bidding war on film by Jean-Claude Francolon, the photographer covering the war on the Israeli side. Robert Pledge – then new to the world of photojournalism – was fielding a battery of unending calls from Time and Newsweek, and each call that afternoon upped the ante considerably. For just one photographer's work that week, the bidding eventually reached something like $12,000 for first rights. In 1973 that was enough money to buy two cars with something left over for a good bottle of wine. Today, I suspect the entire photo budget for a complete magazine is something less than $12,000 on an average week.

So what will become of those bodies of work that we used to refer to as "photojournalism?" Will there eventually be a retrenchment that will feed more money back into a system that has broken so badly? We have so much potential now, though at times the new technology seems to be of questionable value. I have been on big-event shoots (political conventions, for example,) when magazine editors, instead of trying to make their own calls, spend their time sifting through the wire service pictures which end up on Yahoo News Pictures, and keep haranguing their own photographers about why they don't have a particular picture. That seems to be one of the lesser virtues of this world of instant communication. (On the other hand, let's face it, copying information from a caption off a wire service picture and using it as your own at least gives you a reasonable chance to get the subjects' names spelled correctly.)

We are facing what will no doubt be a continued period of uncertainty, and the major challenge remains our ability to feed photographers enough to let them do their work and pay their rent. Many photographers work on their own projects, self-supported or funded, or at the very least, self-motivated. These are often the most interesting work of all. Yet at some point, when the budgets that have been cut a dozen times already finally trim off the photography altogether, what in the hell do we do? Where does society find the value in our work? What will be the new venues where photography in general, and photojournalism in particular, might find some kind of rebirth? Will it be strictly on gallery or museum walls, or will some new form arise which can take the vision of photographers, rather than just aggregate? I am convinced that the power of the still picture remains a vital force, all the more so now that our daily lives are so inundated with bad video. At some point, perhaps that magic formula will arise, and photojournalism can be profitable again. It would be a pity if, at a time when so many good photographers are producing so much good work, there would be no place for it to be seen, save for a corner of an aggregator's screen. We're just sayin' … David B.

© David Burnett

David Burnett, a Digital Journalist columnist, is a renowned, award-winning photojournalist and author. Co-founder of the respected Contact Press Images photo agency, David was named one of the "100 Most Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine. His book, "Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley" (Insight Editions), was published in spring 2009. His latest book, a 30th anniversary documentation of the Iranian Revolution, "44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World" (NG/Focal Point), was published in September 2009. Visit David's Web site: http://www.davidburnett.com/ and his 'blob' blog site: http://www.werejustsayin.blogspot.com/.

blog comments powered by Disqus