We're Just Sayin'
August 2009

by David Burnett

I am teaching a workshop in L.A. in a couple of weeks and for lack of a better title, I called it "Developing Skills as a Magazine Photographer." My heart was honestly engaged in finding a proper title but somehow that is where I ended up. Even as I write, I think about what it means, and what this world of "magazine photography" is all about, and what it has become. Maybe those skills are as much about survival as they are about photographic esthetics. Of course, there are myriad stories these days about the death of journalism (in general) and the death of photojournalism (in particular) and I must say that having lived through a couple of those death periods already, I'm not quite sure just where this one fits in.

I began working for Time in 1967 while in college, managing to create a fairly active life as a freelancer within months of graduation from college (in Poli Sci – yes, that fairly useless major.) I suppose anyone graduating now would feel I was very lucky to have begun working right away, and looking back on it, I think I did fall into things with a combination of luck, charm and the tiniest bit of pushiness. Nonetheless, I was able to pay the rent at the time (I was paying $165 a month for a nice 1-bedroom garden apartment in Miami at a time when the magazine day rates were $125 a day) and even save enough to buy that second camera body. I went to Vietnam in 1970, as the war was beginning to turn into more of a diplomatic phase, rather than just plain combat as '65-'69 had been, and remained there for two years. There were plenty of situations (the Laos invasion of 1971, and the Spring Easter Offensive of 1972) that demanded much of you, but the fact was, there were still markets for the pictures, and it was still possible to work. (We never "embedded" in the sense that journos do in Iraq. We'd just "go out" with a unit. There wasn't a lot of hoopla or need for 20 officers to sign off on it. It was very open, and in the end, contrary to much of what is said today, the press was more than fair to, and respectful of, the military.) While in Vietnam I started shooting for Life as well as Time, and by the time I left in late 1972, I was on a Life contract, headed back to live in Chicago and work out of the Midwest bureau. Wow, photojournalism was pretty awesome!

Then came December 4, 1972, the day the publisher announced that Life would cease publication as a weekly magazine. That translated to: "Photojournalism is dead!" The fact that Life, the proud weekly magazine that we'd all grown up with, and hoped to work for, was now a thing of the past, made the future look well beyond grim. But four months later I received a phone call from a friend I'd known in Saigon, who asked if I would come work for Gamma, the French photo agency. Having little else to do, I said yes, and how lucky I was. All of a sudden I once again began hopping on planes, and shooting stories (and shipping them to Paris to be processed) all over the world. I was being published in the hundreds of other magazines in Europe, South America and Japan, and even in the States now and then. It was the Second Life of Photojournalism for me. I did that for two years, cognizant now that the real soul of photojournalism didn't lay in one publication, wasn't tied to just a single group of editors, but was in fact a bigger world which had a voracious and curiosity-driven need for pictures. People wanted to know what the world was up to, and we were given the chance to show them. Cable TV news was still unborn, and magazines and daily papers, along with those classic 22-minute TV news programs, still represented the bulk of how people got their information. 

So now we are here in the self-annointed "digital age," trying to figure out if our lives really are made better by the ability to transmit a photo seconds after it's taken. There used to be something we called the Monday letdown. After having worked a story for, say Time, I'd have shipped my film and then had to wait until Monday to see what they actually used. In my head, of course, I was always trying to shoot a story, every story, as if the end product would be eight or 10 pages in Paris Match, or Stern. You wanted to create a complete reportage. You wanted that big opener, the narrative pictures in the middle spreads, and end with some kind of closer which people would just sit there and stare at for awhile, maybe even a minute. A whole minute. In the end, of course, we rarely got those eight pages. Usually it would be a page, and if you were lucky, maybe a spread. So all that anticipation you had built up was on the line when you finally picked up a magazine in your hand the next Monday. You'd open it, hoping to find something sweet, and often as not, see that space considerations had knocked you down to a single picture or two. Not bad, but nothing "special." The anticipation would slowly slip away, victim to reality, and you would be over the rush. In the end, when the pictures were good, you at least knew that you had them, now safely ensconced in a filing cabinet, awaiting that day when the story would revive, and you just might get those eight pages. 

Nowadays we have lowered the tolerance and patience level of our audiences, and created consumers who feel that things ought to be free and available, always, just because, in the naissant online world, they have been. The people I once worked for now count every penny. There is no largesse. Just plenty of picayune. The money that was spent 25 years ago on staffing a G-8 summit in Venice with three photogs and a fixer, and a semi-permanent table at Harry's Bar to feed those downtrodden photographers with Bellinis and risotto, now equals what that same magazine might spend in a whole month on all the photography it uses. The rants are the same: the money, the economy, the Internet, free media. I'm sure at some point there will be some other way of corralling the money back to a place where the balance between the people who take the pictures, the people who publish the pictures, and the people who view the pictures is reborn. Most of the interesting work I see these days is from photographers who are not waiting to be assigned to a story. They do it on their own, however risky that may be financially. The real struggle we have now is how to take so much good work that is "out there" and mold it and shape it in new directions so that the current Death of Photojournalism is, like those that preceded it, just another mile marker on history's highway, and not a gravestone for the visual historians of our time. We're just sayin' …. David B.

© David Burnett

David Burnett is a renowned, award-winning photojournalist and author. Co-founder of the Contact Press Images photo agency, David was named one of the "100 Most Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine. His book, "Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley" (Insight Editions) was published in spring 2009. His latest book, a 30th anniversary documentation of the Iranian Revolution, "44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World" (NG/Focal Point), will be published in September 2009.

Visit David's Web site: http://www.davidburnett.com/ and his 'blob' blog site: http://www.werejustsayin.blogspot.com/.

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