Is Photojournalism Still Alive?

In June 2002, as one of the four masters at the inaugural Asia-Europe Workshop for Young Photographers, I presented a talk on the state of photojournalism.

IN 1990, Nalin Meegama, a former staff at National Geographic Magazine, told a group of us to get out of the photojournalism business.

I was then an idealistic student at the Missouri School of Journalism and therefore did not take him seriously.

That was more than 10 years ago, long before magazines like American Photo asked the all-important question: Is Photojournalism Dead?

That such an ominous question was asked is itself disturbing.

Never had the same poser been put to fashion photography or advertising photography.

Even in the dawn of digital takeover, nobody questioned the future of film. So why is the future of photojournalism doubtful?

That photojournalism might now be dead, or dying, must mean it was alive before.

In the heyday of photojournalism, photographers worked for extended period on a single project. Magazines and publications generously devoted more space to pictures. Photographers were listened to. The personal point of view was tolerated, if not celebrated.

Hardcore reportage, often of controversial subjects, prevailed. Photojournalism had at least one noble mission – to bring light to the dark.

Fred Ritchin, former picture editor of The New York Times magazine and presently an academic at New York University, made a startling comparison in his book – In Our Own Image.

In 1965, LIFE Magazine photographer Bill Eppridge’s essay on drug addiction was published. The pictures were insightful, personal and deep. In 1986, a similar topic was tackled by photographer Grey Villet and the result was shallower and had fewer pictures.

Two decades, and many things have changed. If the same story was commissioned today, the result could be even worse.

In the name of space and competition for time, editorial direction has taken that of the McPaper’s. Stories have to be shorter and pictures “more precise”. Everything boils down to packaging.

Market researchers tell publishing executives that they need to compete hard for readers’ time and the only way to survive, thus, is to give them what they want – bite-size news nuggets, easier to chew.

They tell them that we are living in the television age, and more lately, the Internet age, and the average attention span of a reader is pegged at 10 seconds or less.

If they are to be believed, then newspapers and magazines should not exist. If the hunger for information is so acute, then the SMS would be 10 times more effective.

The escalating price of newsprint has always been used as another excuse to cut news holes, and to reduce coverage. And pictures, I can guarantee you, are always the first to be sacrificed. If they are used at all, expect headlines, and increasing captions and story, to crowd the already dismal space.

This is the question that I have always asked: If readers are indeed so busy and their attention needs to be grabbed, isn’t a good photograph, used well, not a better choice for grabbing eyeballs?

Yet, day in day out, pictures are used the size of postage stamps. Or they are used in ways that don’t do justice to the subject or the photographers. And we, the idealistic photographers, are gathered here to discuss what? Point of view?

The bean counters will tell you: get a life, the freedom of the press, and therefore the right to murder your great masterpieces, belongs to the majority shareholders.

Never mind the photographer’s point of view, because in the real world, it isn’t worth much.

If George W Bush makes a keynote speech celebrating rapid economic growth, and he says that he is happy, editors will be looking for an image that illustrates the joy and happiness. What if an observant photographer captured a series of pictures that actually said otherwise – that he was worried sick?

Most editors often go for the safe choice, which means one that is coherent with the tone of the day. The National Geographic magazine, which I believe many of you would want to work for, calls their staff who edit images “Illustrations Editor”. Need we say more?

In my estimate, there are fewer than 20 photojournalists who can say, without reservation, that their clients will pay for their vision and that they don’t have to take on non-editorial projects. Even then, I can’t say for sure it is true all the time for the select group.

The rest of the photojournalism fraternity, therefore, shoots, from time to time, to the specifications often dictated from the corporate offices in New York or London, or from the local newspaper offices.

The luckier ones get to deal with compassionate picture editors who still try to hang on to the virtues of photojournalism. Others have to be content with news directors, whose agenda is always to illustrate the story angle.

Yet even more photographers endure the insults of art directors, or designers, whose instructions range from “shoot with more space so I can put the headlines” to “make sure the subjects face left … actually, it doesn’t matter because I can always flip it in Photoshop”.

Alas, not every photographer can have the stamina and guts of W. Eugene Smith. If you haven’t got a copy of his new book on the PIttsburgh project, get it.

Smith was fired from LIFE magazine because the editors had enough of his tantrums. But Smith could be considered the ultimate photojournalist, if only he had not superimposed the saw and hand in the portrait of Albert Schweitzer.

Invited by his friend Stefan Lorant to work on a three-week commissioned project on Pittsburgh, Smith ended up staying for a year, and more.

But things are however not totally grim and dark.

At least in Europe, I see sparks. Magazines like Stern, Der Spiegel, Paris Match still present photojournalism in fairly decent manner. But I disagree with the treatment of some softcore subjects, like the “day in the life of an actress” type stories pretending to be in-depth reportage.

I decided I wanted to be a photojournalist almost 20 years ago, when I accidentally stumbled upon Don McCullin’s book, Heart of Darkness. The grim images of dying people, printed in McCullin’s signature dark palette, did not depress me. Instead, they made me want to make pictures to show people what a beautiful world it could be, if there was no war, no famine and no poverty.

Now that I am a little wiser and older, I have problem even calling myself a photojournalist. In the past few months, I have not shot a single news photograph, I have not made a single cent from newspaper or magazine commission.

My last three paying assignments were all commercial projects, shot almost entirely like a photojournalistic job. In one shooting day, I probably make more money than most photojournalists earn in one month. Do I feel good? No. But it pays the bills.

A few days ago, I had to forgo an unpaid documentary assignment to photograph medical aid workers volunteering in a remote part of Indonesia. Instead, I opted to go to Sydney to prepare for my first solo exhibition. Going to Indonesia would help me go back to my photojournalism roots. Going to Sydney means a quicker solution to my financial woes.

When I met former Magnum photographer Eugene Richards a decade ago, he told me, among other things, he didn’t earn enough to have a credit card. How could it be possible? I was full-time student, without any income, and I had at least three.

Taiwanese Magnum member Chien-Chi Chang, told me he wished he made enough money to live in Manhattan. For the time-being, he rents a small little room in Queens. His landlord is a sympathetic newspaper photographer who has a regular job. Bangladesh-based photographer and educator Shahidul Alam gave up a steady academic career as a chemistry professor, to teach photography in his homeland.

In all the darkness, I see bright lights.

Gene is still making pictures, though not necessarily in the traditional photojournalistic medium. A friend who just returned from the World Press Photo workshop in Jakarta couldn’t stop talking about his essay on AIDS patients. Chien-Chi has just published two books – The Chian and I do, I do, I do. Shahidul’s bi-annual photography festival in Dhaka is still alive and growing.

I am not in the class of Gene, Chien-Chi or Shahidul, and perhaps will never get there. But I intend to continue my belief in telling truth with my camera.

In Denmark, there is a resurgence of traditional black and white documentary work. My hope was elevated somewhat when I read an interview with Bjorn Larsen, winner of the World Press Photo a few years ago. He talked about how things at his newspaper changed with the hiring of a new picture editor who in turn hired other photographers who want to make a difference. Erik Refner, another young Danish photojournalist and 2001 winner of the World Press Photo, made his winning picture of the sick child long before the September 11 tragedy.

I grew up in a time when spirited photo advocates decided to take things into their own hands.

Colin Jacobson started Reportage in the UK, Peter Howe started Outtakes in the USA. Countless other ones flowered in different parts of the world. Not all are still around, but I believe the spirit of photojournalism remains.

I am therefore not as pessimistic as Nalin. And thus will not tell anyone to get out of the photojournalism business. On the contrary, I would encourage more people to face up to the challenge and change the world. But I do have one piece of advice: work smart, expand your horizon.

Today, and everyday that I am in the company of new and old believers, I feel an urge to go out and change the world with photography. And believe me, in each of our own small way, we can make a difference.

Believe in the power of photojournalism. Believe that photojournalism is in some ways a form of evangelism. Go the distance with your photography, and with that, I don’t mean traveling the world to seek out subjects you know nothing about, and worse, care nothing about.

Photojournalism is not about war and famine. In death, there is always life. Showing the atrocities of wars, to help people understand the true value of freedom, is all high and mighty. But you can also make a difference by showing the joy of love, and new life, to help people remember the value of peace and living. Go to a war and a conflict if you believe you can make a difference, not because you can make an award-winning picture.

War is inconvenient enough for the displaced people to have to accommodate another selfish photojournalist out for some fun and adventure. I have seen and heard of young adventurers who think dodging bullets is a fun way of spending their days. They, unlike the true war photographers, don’t have a mission or a calling. They have no reason to be in those places.

I was personally moved by a wonderful picture of childbirth, taken by American photographer Steve Ringman, In the image, collected in the book, The Power To Heal, a newborn adorns the center of the frame, surrounded by his mother, grandmother and the surgeons.

Freelance Randy Olson’s winning portfolio at the Pictures of the Year contest several years ago consists of single images and picture stories shot all within walking distance of his community in the Pittsburgh area.

My classmate Mary Beth Meehan, formerly at the Providence Journal newspaper in Rhode Island, anchored a weekly column, which featured people she photographed and interviewed on her daily assignments, all around the neighborhood her paper covers.

Robert Capa said, “If your pictures are not good enough, it’s because you are not close enough.” Please remember Capa’s words, but take it beyond the literal sense.

Getting close to your subjects means understanding them, immersing in their world. It also means to point your camera inward, and look at the world you live in. I have traveled quite a distance to learn a little more about myself. Photography started out as a shield and barrier against things I was afraid to face. Now, photography is like a moving bridge, connecting me to the places and the people.

I have often wished I could be like the Indian master Raghubir Singh, whose life work centered around his country and his people. I spent a good part of my life trying to get out of my country, only to be back here when the opportunity to immigrate finally materialized. I dare say that I could now stay and work in Singapore because I found a project I can work on for the rest of my life. There are no dead assignments, only dead photographers. Photographers should be making pictures, not excuses.

There are all kinds of stories awaiting to be told and brought to light and 99% of them exist in our own backyard. Photographers who spend all their life looking for the one big elusive overseas break will always miss out on the opportunity to document something equally important at home.

Photojournalists are communicators and storytellers, but most, unfortunately, choose not to tell the common tales. Instead, they let the world events dictate their agenda.

Successful photojournalists all over the world have found little stories to share with the rest, in war as well as in peace. This group of storytellers continues to lead the profession and continue to shed light.

Photojournalism is not an easy profession, but what is? With new technologies and plunging cost, self-publishing is now much easier.

Personal projects are important for every photographer. They are there to keep us sane and focused. They exist to give us a goal to work towards.

The rice bowl is indeed important. But we as individuals set the standard as to what is enough. Photojournalism is in no way a mean to get rich, but the joy and privilege of being able to be in the midst of strangers, to gain their trust, to listen to their tales, is often enough for many.