The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

Is it possible that photojournalism is not a good profession for young people to enter? Let's look at the downside first.

A decade ago, my path crossed that of a young English photographer who was good enough to be sent to the United States by a British magazine that could have simply picked up an American freelancer and avoided airfare and hotel expenses.

In England, he saved money by living simply with several other photographers in a small apartment. Drawing myself up to my full pomposity, I pointed out he would eventually have to supplement his income with commercial, non-journalistic work, especially if he got married. He looked at me like I was a complete idiot and said, "My work is already 50 percent commercial."

A few months ago I met a young photographer who had attended the University of Missouri at Columbia, certainly one of the very best journalism schools. He had a summer internship with a large news agency. After his first job on a newspaper, he moved on to two larger papers. And he really didn't have enough money to support himself. Today he freelances in the field of advertising. He certainly doesn't spend as many hours shooting as he did as a photojournalist, but he makes more money.

The following story was told to me as true. Even if it is apocryphal, I'm sure it contains great elements of truth. A large news agency was figuring out its budget for photo coverage of Iraq. It figured it could pay $900 a day. It offered a number of photographers $450 a day, figuring it could then bargain upward when its initial offer was rejected. Over 90 percent of the photographers accepted the initial, lowball offer.

When I was told this story, I asked if in addition to the $450, what expenses were covered and what insurance was provided? The source did not know, but remarked that it was the agency's intention to embed as many of the photographers as it could because that kept expenses down.

Twenty years ago, I was paid more than that $450 a day for war coverage. All of my living expenses were taken care of. Usually I lived in a hotel where most of the international press stayed; the sharing of information was an important contribution to being able to do your job. I had complete medical coverage. I was given a driver and a car. That driver was translator, guide to the area, teacher in the manners of the area and my introduction to the people of the area, many of them exceptionally helpful.

Perhaps, most importantly, all this was in return for just first North American rights to my pictures. I owned my pictures, which were resold in other-language markets and used by me in any way that I wanted. When the magazine that had assigned the coverage republished the pictures in an end-of-the-year issue or book, I was paid additionally. Today, most photographers sell all rights, losing not only all future income from the use of the images but, sometimes, even the ability to use the images in personal portfolios, exhibits, promotion pieces, personal Web sites, etc. They are, in essence, camera operators taking somebody else's pictures for them.

The photographers who were my friends and associates when I first showed up in New York almost all worked as photojournalists or editorial photographers of some kind. Today, the great majority of those friends who are still in photography no longer work as news photographers. They do everything from fashion, glamour, weddings, advertising or portraiture to movie work. Those who continue to work in news or documentary supplement their income with work in other areas.

Let's look at the positive side of entering the field of photojournalism.

I do not have any close friends who remain staff photographers with some of the larger, well-known newspapers. But it seems to me that those staffers I cross paths with do well. Sadly, that is a rather small percentage of the jobs eventually available to young news photographers.

Still, photojournalism is not all about money. Not only do you get into football games for free, photographing a war is the most amazing graduate course in the study of human beings that will ever be offered in any curriculum. Nonetheless, there will come a time when you need money, if not for yourself, for your family. (And, if you get old enough, you'll probably need some for yourself.) Those of us who started at another time are in pretty good shape. But, I worry about those who are just starting out. I used to think the fact that many people with a degree in journalism went into public relations was disgusting. What if it's a necessity; that's really disgusting. Oops, I said we were going to look at the positive side.

Here may be the positive side: the Internet.

The mass media is not so mass anymore. A lot of conventional news sources, newspapers, network television are diminishing in reader and viewership. But some very interesting news sources are showing up in increasing numbers on the Web. Many spring from the newspaper and TV news sources. Some, like Slate, are Web originals. There are specialty sites like The Digital Journalist. And, of course, there are a lot of sites that are the new, modern version of yellow journalism.

None of these, as they exist, are really going to provide a new marketplace for photojournalism. But many of them hint at what can be done. Go to There you will see "audio slide shows." Normally the slide shows are a reporter narrating a series of still pictures, but they can be anything you can put together with sound and stills.

"That's television," you say. Oh, no; it's not. When was the last time you saw a series of stills on TV when moving images were available? And, of course, if the TV producers were forced, against their will, to use stills, they panned and zoomed so you wouldn't realize you were looking at stills.

I think those television producers are out of their minds. There is motion picture film shot at the same time that Stanley Forman and Eddie Adams shot their Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures. No one remembers the motion picture images. The stills freeze an important moment and suppress, but do not hide, the unimportant.

If it remains on The New York Times' Web site multimedia pages when you read this column, look at Gilles Peress' "Army of the Night" story. Seen anything like that on the evening TV news? Check out "Vietnam: 30 Years Later," photographed and narrated by Philip Jones Griffiths. Check out a lot of those slide shows. They could be the future of photojournalism. For me, they are the equivalent of stories in the old Life and Look magazines.

And, if this particular aspect of Web presentation does not take off and provide an expanding future for still photojournalism, well, who says money is everything?

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer