The View From
the Rocking Chair

By Peter Howe

I don't remember at what point the ICP Infinity Awards went from being a moderately tedious obligation to a pleasant, even inspiring, evening out, but they must have at some time. In the eighties they were characterized by long rambling speeches from worthy but very old recipients, or uncontrolled displays of ego from younger but equally trying honorees. One especially egregious example of the former was a sage pioneer who was born in, let's say, 1911. He felt that it would be fascinating if he took us through his life year by year, and nobody told him beforehand that it wouldn't. This prompted the observation by a friend of mine that she went to the bathroom in 1933 and returned in 1942.

This year, and indeed for the past few occasions, the evening was a delight. The presentation was sophisticated without being slick and David Halberstam was serious in his role as host without being dreary. Maybe because several of the awards concerned September 11th the evening was very moving. Equally moving was the warmth and affection shown to Cornell Capa, and the enjoyment that he seemed to get from the event. But for me the highlight was seeing the work of two of the award winners, Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks. They are both young, very young. In fact if you added their ages together the total would only be a little older than I am now, but although their careers are still in the beginning stages, they have achieved a remarkable amount and their work is highly intelligent and sophisticated. They both represent to me the way that young people coming into this profession need to approach the challenges that it presents.

When students and others planning their entry into photojournalism ask my advice as to what their strategy should be, my suggestion is always to look for a job on a newspaper, the smaller and more provincial the better. For kids who get the news headlines on their cell phones this recommendation is clearly the demented rambling of an old has-been living in the past, but it is still, even in this age of file transfer protocols, the best way to learn the trade of photojournalism. If the way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice, then the way to become a star shooter for the New York Times is via the Wilmington Mercury Star in North Carolina, and the Troy Daily News in Ohio. That's how Tyler Hicks did it, and he just won the Infinity Award for photojournalism, as well as first place in "News" and "News Picture Story" in the Pictures of the Year contest. There was also a third place in the World Press "Spot News Stories" so I suppose that his career wasn't too badly damaged by working for a couple of smaller newspapers. On the other hand neither were the careers of Jim Nachtwey, Steve McCurry, Eli Reed, or Maggie Steber. The newspapers of this country have been the proven breeding ground for some of the finest photographers that America has produced, and they continue to be.

For Lynsey Addario the way in was the other tried and tested route, the wire services. But this former AP photographer's greatest asset now is her ability to find and immerse herself in stories that are important, complex, and not necessarily the easiest to sell. To pursue her interest in the status of women in the developing world she lived in New Dehli for a year, and now she's based in Mexico. This is a young woman who doesn't wait for the phone to ring but follows where her curiosity and compassion lead her.

I just finished writing a piece for another publication about the state of photojournalism and its likely future. It's maybe the five or sixth time that I've responded to this same request. The trouble is that it's depressing to do it, and if it depresses me to write it, I assume it has the same effect on those poor souls reading it. Yet when you see a display of work produced by young people that is as compelling and powerful as the images on the screens at the Infinity Awards you realize that whatever hand wringing the rest of us are going through trying to see the path forward, Lynsey and Tyler are the future because they're doing it. They are clearly captivated by their work, and for them the future of photojournalism isn't nearly as important as the present. Having said that, I just hope that they're smarter about business and protecting their personal futures than many of my generation were.

I see so many of my friends and acquaintances now in their fifties with little if anything in the way of financial reserves, still having to go out and hustle for work, and compete against photographers twenty years younger than they are. I was forty one when I shot my last professional photograph, and I remember exactly when I took the decision to seek alternative employment. I was in Bogota, Colombia, covering a hostage crisis at the Dominican embassy, a complete non-story from a photographic point of view. Each day the only pictures were when the masked negotiator for M19, the rebel group that had taken the hostages, came to the front of the building to let in the government representatives. In situations like this you snatch at visual straws, and so when somebody said there was action at the back of the building we all ran. Now Bogota is at altitude, and the air is thin, and this particular photojournalist, running with the pack (my initial mistake) with his Domke bag on his shoulder, felt the first brush of middle age. I asked myself whether I wanted to be doing this in ten or fifteen years, and the answer was a resounding "No." Many others among my peers showed more courage and fortitude than I, and continued to work in the field, even the best of them struggling not only to keep up with the physical demands of the job, but to maintain an income level that would allow them to get a small mortgage or have a small family. Taking a vow of poverty is OK when you're young, but even monks and nuns have a support system for when they get too old to be missionaries or teachers.

The real criminality of the $400 day rate is not just that it makes it difficult for you to live as a young photojournalist, but that it makes it impossible to do so when you're older. That's why so many photographers look upon their archives as photojournalism's version of the 401K, and that's why it's important that the Gettys of the world don't chip away at the percentage rates too radically.

This column, which started out as a paean for youth, has ended up as a lament for old age. Maybe it's not the state of photojournalism that's depressing. Maybe it's just me. I certainly don't remember being depressed by my profession when I was the same age as Tyler and Lynsey, only excited by its possibilities. So you go out and take wonderful photographs and perform important and courageous acts of witness while I oil the wheels on my walker and renew the antidepressant prescription. I'll see you next month. That's if I'm here of course!

© 2002 Peter Howe

Contributing Editor

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