Revisiting the Death of Photojournalism
Editorial By Dirck Halstead

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a young photojournalist. She was distressed about some of the columns and editorials that we have written in the past months, about "the death of photojournalism." 

She had been bitten by the same bug that has drawn blood from us all. The desire to tell stories visually. She had graduated from journalism school, learned her basic photography, and was dismayed to see us here on The Digital Journalist saying that her dreams could not be fulfilled. 

I have heard this question innumerable times from audiences that I have spoken to in the past few years. So, let me try one more time to share my thoughts with you. 

I say in my lectures that "photojournalism as WE KNOW IT is dead." What I mean is that for a generation of photographers who grew up in the days when LIFE and LOOK were still publishing weekly editions, they aspired to be part of a culture that would allow them to follow the stories of the day to the far flung regions of the world, at the expense of a huge publication, that would then help them to display their images over page after page of editorial space. Someone recently said that I came "from the wild west of photojournalism," and they were right. I worked in a time when shooters like David Douglas Duncan, W. Eugene Smith, Ralph Morse, and Douglas Kirkland were roaming the visual terrain. Budgets were not a concern. All that mattered was that the photojournalist come back with meaningful and wonderful images. 

We still have photographers of this incredible talent working today. The Turnleys, David Hume Kennerly, Ken Jarecke, Sebastiao Salgado, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey, Tony Suau, and David Brauchli, are just a few that come to mind. However, any and all of them would readily tell you that the publishing world in which they work now, is a far cry from what it was when they started. Space constraints, budget constraints, and the rise of celebrity journalism have all contributed to a very difficult arena in which to work. 

On the entry level of photojournalism, there are far more photographers pursuing fewer jobs than ever before. The result is that salaries and fees are held at bare subsistence levels. The picture gets gloomier as the would-be photojournalist tries to climb to the next level. Those lucky few who hold full time jobs in photojournalism are clinging to them. Younger photographers are being shuttled from publication to publication without any appreciable increase in earning power. It is the time of the eternal intern. 

On the higher level of magazine photojournalism, powerful forces have been arrayed against the photographer. Editorial departments no longer have final say over budgets, but must bend to the will of the publishers and lawyers. Rights grabs are commonplace. Fear and dissatisfaction stalks the halls of formerly proud editorial institutions. 

So, there is the case for "the end of photojournalism as we know It." However, that is only the headline of the story. What is happening is that changes are occuring at blinding speed, and these changes far outshine these negative developments. With the arrival of the world wide web, we are only beginning to comprehend the implications for visual storytellers. Empowerment is at hand, and it will allow the Photojournalist to transcend the current marketplace, whether it is in newspapers, magazines, or even television networks. 

When you reflect on the history of photojournalism, you are immediately struck by how short the story is. If you were to start with the proposition that Matthew Brady was the first "photojournalist," you understand that we have only been around for some 140 years. A short time indeed, when compared to art, poetry, music, and writing. If you talk about "modern" photojournalism, you have to start with Dr. Erich Solomon in the 1930s, and his invention of the Ermanox. The glory days of LIFE spanned only some 45 years, and have been left behind years ago. However, if you think in terms of visual storytellers, you go back to the stone age, and the artists who drew images on the walls of caves. The tradition has been around far longer than we can ascribe to modern means of picture capturing. 

When I speak of photojournalism as being dead, I am talking only about the concept of capturing a single image on a nitrate film plane, for publication in mass media. In the near future, visual stories will be told primarily through moving images and sound, on both on television and the web. The web will increasingly replace printed media. However, the role of the storyteller who can capture the events and people of our time, and place them in perspective for our history, will only be enhanced. 

Happy New Millennium! 

Dirck Halstead  


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