Rumor of Our Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
December 2009

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

In May 1897, Mark Twain wrote that his cousin James Ross Clemens "was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now." He added, famously, "The report of my illness grew out of his illness," and "the report of my death was an exaggeration."

Our readers now know that the demise of print media is epidemic and spreading to online publications, even threatening The Digital Journalist. However, rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

As we struggle for survival, our own publisher is appealing to the generosity of those who can afford to help keep us going until we secure other sources of funding to sustain our zine. We think we are vital, and we believe we perform a service to the visual journalism community. Over the years, we've gathered and presented the best of the photojournalism community and hopefully inspired countless young photographers and videographers with energy to develop their careers.

I hope I'm speaking to photojournalists everywhere, especially ones facing scarcity of work: the news of your demise also is greatly exaggerated. You have plenty to do. How to be paid may be a problem, but not necessarily so, and the subject matter is there in copious amounts.

We may find that the production of meaningful photojournalism returns predominantly to the hands of the passionate, regardless of economic considerations. This is how photojournalism began. It was not a business, it was a passion. Business for business' sake dies, a phenomenon we are witnessing firsthand. Passion - the creative urge - by nature gives birth, constantly spawning something new.

Newsgathering and reporting is morphing and reorganizing, and we may find newspapers being replaced by indices, as evidenced by an interesting new source called "Newsmap." Click on the image to see more about this site, based in Japan.

For those who don't know about it, opportunity is open to everyone at one of the most innovative photo agencies around. Zuma Press is alive and well and thriving, and represents the best in the evolution of delivery vehicles for visual information. Founded by publisher Scott McKiernan, Zuma operates a high-end service for "stories that need to be told," and represents a host of photographers working worldwide, freelancers welcome. zReportage presents visual essays of both hard and soft international news, breaking news and contemplative pieces. Over a hundred photographers are individually listed and linked on the site. Altogether, Zuma represents over 1,200 professionals worldwide.

Zuma's photographers include McKiernan himself, who continues to do stories as well as running a massive information distribution system that encompasses Zuma Press, zReportage, and the interactive site PICTURESofTheDAY (POD), featuring the best photos of the last 24-hour period from Zuma's wire services. McKiernan also publishes DOUBLEtruck Magazine, a showcase for cutting-edge photojournalism, and Zuma Press Books, books that bear witness to social, political, economic and cultural issues of the day. He also founded The Kona Gallery in San Clemente, Calif., billing it as "a place for photojournalists to display their work in the best way possible" and BIGwednesdayshow – a non-profit organization to gather and help aspiring photojournalists.

More stories than ever are begging to be witnessed in every corner of the world. Because this column is devoted to visual information found on the Web, and lest we forget why stories need to be told, I want to refer you to a rarely seen documentary produced in 1945. In April of that year, British and American camera crews accompanying the military produced a 53-minute documentary of Nazi death camps in Germany and Poland. Deemed too grisly by the British Government to release after World War II, the film contains very graphic images many of us have seen over the years. Two years ago, UK's BBC aired 15 minutes of the black-and-white production, made 64 years ago by a crew that included the then-future master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

As a child, I attended an elementary school that showed a film containing similar footage as in the above to the entire student body. Maybe we were shown this same Hitchcock Holocaust film, or excerpts from it. I don't remember my age at the time but I was very young, and it may have been the first documentary I had ever seen. The day of the showing, there was a mysterious hush in the air. My classmates and I were quietly escorted into a transformed lunchroom. Tables had been removed and chairs were lined up in rows in front of a portable screen to create an impromptu, makeshift theater. Black fabric was stretched over the windows to darken the room enough so we could see the projection clearly, and as the lights went out we were told without much fanfare or explanation just to watch the film. Our questions, they said, would be answered later.

When it was over, we stunned children filed back to our classrooms in utter silence. Showing such disturbing images to young children may have been a questionable thing to do, but it made such a deep impression that we have never stopped asking questions.

Judging from our erupting world of 2009, the same questions from the past still have not been adequately addressed. Showing images of reality to today's adults is an imperative. Journalists and visual documentarians everywhere are charged with showing that reality, asking more questions, and finding the answers. We ask you and ourselves, please do so. If we do not do it, who will?

There is no death of photojournalism. It is just getting started. If anyone tells you otherwise, it is a great exaggeration.

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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