The Digital Journalist
But is it Journalism?

by Peter Howe

I took a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree course during the silly but wonderful 1960s, at a time when Pop Art was hitting both the market and the minds of undergraduates with revolutionary zeal. During this period nothing was off-limits. My fellow students incorporated everything into their artwork, from rotting cabbage leaves to gum wrappers and strange new things called printed circuits. I myself was responsible for a bas-relief sculpture of Buddy Holly that rocked when you touched it, rather like those bobble-head dolls of Derek Jeter that they give away at Yankee Stadium. An anomaly of the degree course was the lectures on technique given by a woman called Prudence Bliss. Not only did she have a remarkable, and to my mind, oxymoronic name, but also an unusual attitude to art: she believed that painting had been going steadily downhill after the death of Piero della Francesca. Since that sad event occurred in 1492, well before the invention of the fiberglass that I used to immortalize Buddy, it goes without saying that we didn’t pay much attention to her teachings. In fact our attitude to her lectures was made clear when two pranksters substituted hard-boiled eggs for the ones she was about to use in her egg tempera class. Since none of us ever attended her egg tempera class I’m not sure what her response to this act of villainy was.

The reason that I’m regaling you with these truly inconsequential moments in the history of British art is that I was reminded recently about something another of the lecturers used to say. His name was Victor Pasmore, one of the best-known British abstract painters of his day, whose aesthetic was diametrically opposed to the likes of David Hockney. He would critique our latest visual ramblings, commencing with the phrase, “This is interesting, but is it art?”

What occasioned the memory was an argument that occurred between the judges of the Pictures of the Year competition, of which I was one. The dispute was over the value of a body of work that some of the judges thought was obscure and introspective and others felt was “pushing the envelope” stylistically. I shared the views of the former group, and realized that I had become as seemingly retrograde as Victor Pasmore. The work might be interesting but was it journalism? I have been worried for some time that, because the well that used to gush with magazine assignments has pretty much run dry, some photojournalists are taking refuge in work that is so personal its natural setting is on the walls of galleries rather than the pages of magazines. Even fine documentary photographers such as Luc Delahaye are more likely to be found in a gallery than in print. In fact if you do a Google search on Delahaye the first 15 listings are all galleries. The interview by Roger Richards in The Digital Journalist is the first example you come across that isn’t. I have also been told on good authority – actually by one of the photographers who may or may not constitute good authority – that Magnum now makes more money out of print sales per year than assignments.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with galleries, and any opportunity to get an additional audience for this work shouldn’t be rejected. What gives me concern is the possibility that books and exhibitions will be the only places where photojournalism will be seen. I truly believe that photography is the literacy of the 21st century, and one of the things that I love about the medium is its ability to cross barriers of language and culture. But for it to be effective as a means of communication it has to find a wider audience and to have a clarity that makes it accessible to a large number of viewers from diverse backgrounds. While I applaud those artists who take the medium of photography and stretch it stylistically and intellectually to produce new and imaginative visions, journalism is not art. The reason that I turned to photography, although trained as a painter, was that I found its potential as a means of mass communication powerful and appealing. Art, it seemed to me, was more about the artist, while journalism was more about the audience.

God knows there are enough envelopes to be stretched in photojournalism beyond style, the market envelope being the most urgent in need of expansion, but if you want to exercise your creativity as a photojournalist take it to the Web. For me the most exciting part of the POY week was judging the multimedia categories, and it had the added benefit of allaying my fears about photojournalism becoming increasingly introspective. It’s not just the big names like the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, MSNBC, the Washington Post or the Philadelphia Inquirer that are doing excellent work, but smaller companies as well, including a couple of terrific sites from universities, and even individuals. Take a look at “Chiloe Stories” from the University of North Carolina, or J. Gwendolynne Berry’s “From Behind the Veil” at to see what I mean. The entire winners’ list has multimedia at the very bottom of the page, a position that it will not occupy much longer if the quality of the work of this year’s submissions is anything to go by.

However, as good as they were, the entries did highlight what is still a problem for those working in this medium. As one judge put it, we’re good at being photographers, but not much good as radio reporters yet. The reality is that to make a compelling presentation on the Web a photojournalist needs skills that go far beyond capturing a powerful image, even though this is still the sine qua non. For the most part the audio tracks were simple and often flat narratives by the photographers themselves, sometimes with a little music, but very few with ambient sound. It is remarkable how much impact a good soundtrack, or even an indifferent one, makes to a slide show. Try running any of the ones mentioned above with the sound switched off on your computer, and then run them again with it on. The richness that this addition brings to the images is evident, as is the need for photographers to develop their skills with tape recorders and video cameras.

As people turn to the Web as their primary source for news the term photographer in this environment is likely to become obsolete, probably to be replaced with some awful nomenclature such as “audiovisual communicator” or “multimedia reporter.” Whatever they call you, it’s going to be much more satisfying to be the author of a segment rather than the provider of a three-column illustration. I am also firmly convinced that it is going to be the way that documentary photography will regain an importance that it had in the pre-television days, and indeed may exceed in relevance to the audience what at the moment we consider to be the golden age of photojournalism.

For those of you who are regular readers of this column, and I’m figuring there must be some, you will remember my astonishment at finding a live bait vending machine in Loxahatchee, Florida (Digital Journalist, February 2005.) Well it appears from the many e-mail responses that I got on this subject that I’m the last person in America to be aware of their existence, and therefore my amazement that anyone would need such a service betrays a lot about my own insularity. Either I don’t get out enough or I’m the victim of my Northeastern media establishment elitist view of the world. However even this doesn’t explain my ignorance since I’m told that there either is, or was, one such convenience at Chelsea Piers, which is only 5 miles from my apartment according to Mapquest. What that vending machine would contain to lure the denizens of the Hudson River to bite on a hook I shudder to imagine, although I do know that the term “night crawler” has a whole different meaning on the west side of Manhattan than it does on the east coast of Florida.

Once again I have to end this column on a sad note. On March 31st a good friend of mine and of many photographers died of emphysema. Her name was Jocelyne Benzakin, and she was one of the most passionate supporters of photojournalism and photojournalists that I have ever met. At one time she was my agent, although that word so inadequately describes the part that she played in my life. I wrote a much fuller description some years ago for The Digital Journalist:

“For me when I was shooting my guardian angel was Jocelyne Benzakin, who at the time was running the New York office of Sipa. This was in the days when a transmission meant the Telex unless you worked for a wire service. I cannot tell you the number of times when we laughed, cried, screamed and sulked with each other. She was my news antenna, my mother, my accountant, my travel agent, my bully and, most of all, my friend. She paid my American Express bills and calmed down dates jilted by a story that had to be covered. I don’t see how a piece of software called JB 1.0 would ever do all that.”

The poignancy of her passing makes this all the more true.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor