on Life Support
longer want to hear about whether photojournalism is dead or not. Twenty
years ago the legendary Howard Chapnick said that it was a "dying
business" but at the same time it produced outstanding photographers:
James Nachtwey, Chris Morris, James Baalog, Tony Suau, Steve McCurry,
Donna Ferrato and many more. In 1994 after the Gulf War and after a
seminar in Milan in 1989, I realized that new technologies would take
up 80% of a photographic agency's creativity and time at the expense
of content. But I also understood that this was the right road for photojournalism
to take, as it has done from its difficult beginnings.
Have photographic agencies and photographers made a mistake? Yes. How
many hours have been lost discussing whether or not digital transmission
would damage the photo? The reply was crystal clear: digital is a means
just like the telephoto. But this is not the only cause of the discernible
suffering of journalistic photography. I can see a far more serious
and frightening one: very few people in the world know how to look at
photographs and very few can estimate their economic value or their
collocation in analogical or digital archives. Millions of photos exist
and no more that 1.000 people worldwide can understand them and are
able to assess their value.
What does the future hold for photojournalism? I have been asked during
seminars, lessons on photojournalism, by friends, photographers and
rival agencies, both amicable and not. I am not rational. I have always
acted on impulse in everything I do. A swift and logical decision between
passion and rationality. I believe that photojournalism is not dead
but it is definitely in the midst of a serious crisis, and great photo
documentation will suffer as a result. The lack of demand, the low daily
rate, low selling price for the service, the lack of copyright protection
(which appeared to be at its best at the end of the 80s), the serious
crisis that has hit the small independent agencies (the sole producers
of great quality and historical documentation), the impossibility of
finding personnel who know how to combine love of photography with an
interdisciplinary culture, the small number of people capable of looking
at photos and giving them economic, formal and content value, publishers
with a thirst for profit who have been creating problems with photo
editors who are now seen as the enemies of photographers instead of
the sole friendly interlocutors, our weak labor contract, the market
which privileges speed and money saving over quality, grumbling photographers,
news publications transformed into fitness and cosmetics journals, services
requested by agencies which no longer look at the creativity of the
shoot, and the interruption of long and fascinating dialogues between
agencies to defend the photojournalistic dream above all from the dreaded
but useful term "business and practice'.
Give up? No I do not see the need for this. I have enough years behind
me to be able to consider the past a useful history for the future.
After all, weren't the 60s desperate years? Photos stolen, no respect
for copyright, any credit given, photos never returned. It is up to
us (photographers and agencies) and us alone, to fight to reestablish
an honest market, which looks at other possible clients. There is a
market. If there are no able people to challenge it, then we will find
them. Photographic places like World Press Photo, Toscana Workshop ICP
and many others could give us a hand. During the past 10 years talented
and important photographers have succeeded in not only surviving but
also consolidating their position by means of prizes, grants, funding
some of them have become a "Brand name". Others have chosen
a less conspicuous lower profile but have produced photo journalistic
work, which is unforgettable in illustrating our society.
What can be done? I do not have any easy remedies, but at the moment
I see the future in the following way: a modus vivendi between digital
and analog photography only if both can respect copyright, the essential
search for a new photographic market, a cohabiting of documentary and
portrait photography, and between commercial and "artistic"
(a term I do not particularly like) photography.
We need to abandon snobbism surrounding descriptive photography, the
scoop, and portraits of celebrities. The rewards of big exclusives gave
birth to Sygma, Gamma and Sipa in the 70s and 80s, and allowed the production
of great photojournalism to be independent of competition. This permitted
the aimed exploitation of valuable photographers' archives in order
to reinvest in the production of journalistic shoots. I hope for an
economic and qualitative reassessment of current events reporting while
avoiding massacring it through fractional selling, but without thinking
of simply substituting Reuters and AP. A production of fewer, but more
carefully organized shoots. A clear rapport between photographer and
agent in which the role of the photographer is recognized but also recognizing
the possibility of criticizing the photographer's work. An agent aware
of the economic needs of the photographer but also a photographer who
trusts the agent in his or her capacity to steer them down their chosen
career path. An honest agent-cards on the table at all times. A photographer,
conscious of the limits and strengths of the market, who does not ask
for what it cannot offer.
If reportage does not pay? I need to find other spaces. It cannot disappear
because it is the sole witness to history, but in order to exist it
must find economic support and above all, a constant and passionate
assistance from those who love this work. Photographers need to accept
their limits and their moments of "impasse" in order to come
out from under cover with creativity. They need to see criticism as
something positive, They must not yearn for the great layouts of Life
Magazine, The Sunday Times, or Paris Match, but accept that they can
see marvelous publications in company magazines or catalogues and exhibitions.
Newspapers will come back.
The great commotion caused by Getty and Corbis must not be seen as a
limit in my opinion, but as a stimulus to go further across new digital
technologies including films, and video, and should ask for help from
the manufacturers of cameras, film, and technology. Getty and Corbis
have been created using new methods and new technologies. This situation
has been repeated time after time during our history. The rich rapidly
benefit from new discoveries. We cannot ignore however how many new
discoveries will bring support to niche agencies with specialized brands.
And what of the agencies? And here I come specifically to my agency
or others who work in one of the many European countries, We are certainly
not one of the richest as far as fees and day rates, but over the last
few years we have developed a small assignment market and have a small
group of publications as clients, especially women's magazines, which
offer the good layouts which some photographers dream about. How can
we survive loaded with the constraints of new technologies and with
prices "frozen" for 10 years, incapable of guaranteeing the
employees consistent salaries? This is the great-unanswered question.
A photo only exists if it is "looked at" and, memorized not
with the use of a computer, but through the eyes of those who know history
and customs, otherwise it will disappear completely.
I believe there is only one answer. In order to defend photo-reportage
it is important to see photographs and be able to always use them at
the right moment, it is necessary to be a careful journalist who is
aware of TV, radio, the web and other information sources. There is
a need to be passionate about this work, which is not a 9 to 5 job and
does not involve stupid bureaucracy. There is a need to look beyond
the magazines and newspapers to other photographic markets. In the future
people with a literary, social and political culture with knowledge
of photography and computers will be the journalists of the future.
But none of this will exist if the agencies are not able to sit down
with each other, without being jealous, aware of their strengths and
weaknesses and adopt a rigid means of control on copyright. Only they
can guarantee the survival of the photographers and agencies. Today,
while we only meet to talk about the best type of technology, or about
the latest gossip or of a photographer behaving like a prima donna,
or while we fight to get a job at a discount, we must once again show
how the photograph is romantic and the only true witness to our history.
We should be responsible for the countless victims, which include the
photographers who have had to leave jobs half-finished because of budget
cuts, the small idealistic agencies that have been forced to close down,
and not least, the great photographers from the past who now find themselves
in both and economic and existential crisis.
And what about those photographers? Some will disappear, swallowed up
by the young strong and aggressive, good at using digital processes
and open for change. Others will need to reinvent themselves using their
outstanding professionalism and alternative directions (there are plenty
of opportunities); others will use their archives in order to fund new
photographic assignments. (60% of sales in agencies stem from archives),
others will learn how to either build alone or together with an agent
But all this will be useless without personal passion, together with
a watchful lucidity aimed at saving copyright.