There’s a conversation happening in the photojournalism world about the future. Photographers are grappling with how to keep the business of their craft alive by incorporating new tools and platforms without sacrificing traditions.
While some say photography in the traditional sense is dead, others say the industry is just going through perennial changes.
Increased access to photography equipment, photo editing software and the means to publish in the past decade have made the technical side of photography mainstream. This has also vastly increased the number of photographers competing for critical recognition and economic results.
The extra competition is blurring the line between industry-backed professionals and freelance or citizen photojournalists. For professionals with solid skills, experience and training, economic survival is intertwined with the need to have platforms for displaying their work that will move them into the next phase of photojournalism.
Professional photographer-filmmaker Tim Hetherington is taking the road to creative and financial survival into his own hands. Hetherington spent several years of the past decade living and working in West Africa, documenting the tail end of the war in Liberia and daily life and change in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other countries. He recently published a collection of his work in a book titled “Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold.”
More recent work in Afghanistan with Vanity Fair colleague Sebastian Junger has garnered him praise and attention, in part for his unconventional approach to his work. Hetherington and Junger spent a year going back and forth to Afghanistan to document the life of a platoon of U.S. Airborne soldiers in the Korengal Valley.
The resulting documentary, “Restrepo,” recently debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Hetherington’s access to people combined with his knack for being in the moment garnered him gritty, unique images such as his intimate photographs of soldiers sleeping in their bunks in Afghanistan. His style clearly demonstrates a lack of attachment to the form, and a focus on the content.
“People are trying to protect the photograph as some kind of infallible object,” Hetherington said. “Photography is finished. That frees you up to think, ‘What am I trying to say?’”
One approach Hetherington takes is to shoot both still photographs and video. With a still camera on one shoulder and a video camera on the other, Hetherington “intuitively decides what to shoot,” based on the immediate circumstances. It’s not a common approach, but it speaks of his unusual philosophy about the craft of image-making.
“On the whole it was always thought that you couldn’t do both at the same time,” Hetherington said. “I understood image making was going to be broadcast years ago… [so] I started to make a parallel career in broadcast.”
And he’s proven that the approach — which some purists might deem impractical or eccentric — works. He’s done it repeatedly, most recently with an installation called “Sleeping Soldiers” that was shown at the 2009 New York Photo Festival. The installation is a setup of panels around a small platform that the viewer steps onto. They then view and hear video, photographs and related audio in an eerie and bone-chilling sequence that leads to the soldiers discovering that one of their fellow soldiers was killed. The imagery transports the audience into a world of danger, confusion and ultimately death.
While the traditional elements of the craft of photography form the foundation of “Sleeping Soldiers,” it weaves a story with a 21st-century format.
Hetherington isn’t attached to how he uses his equipment; he relies on his deep sensitivity of human nature to communicate through his work.
“I will use any means necessary to get people to think,” Hetherington said of his varied approaches.
Other photographers who take a more traditional approach understand the value in work such as Hetherington’s.
Ashley Gilbertson, a VII Network photographer who’s worked extensively with The New York Times and spent eight years documenting the war in Iraq, is among them.
“That was a completely new level of photojournalism,” Gilberston said of “Sleeping Soldiers.” “Tim did such a good job of telling us psychologically what those soldiers are going through.”
Gilbertson, who has recently been focusing on photographing soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, stands by the power of a single image. But he admits that there’s “no gauge of success in photojournalism.”
“I find it really trying to do multimedia work,” Gilbertson said. “As much as I respect film, I still think one still image is more powerful.”
For Gilbertson, what drives and motivates some people to be photojournalists is a key aspect of longevity and success in the business.
“Unless you have a very strong sense of social purpose, I think it’s very unlikely that you would want to be a photographer,” Gilbertson said. “I think the great photojournalists come out of that tradition.”
Others who have come through decades of work in traditional photography think that providing broader platforms for skilled journalists is the key to moving into the next era.
Gary Knight, a veteran photojournalist with decades of experience, co-founded VII Photo Agency as well as a new reportage journal called “dispatches.” Each issue features long-form versions of the work of a select group of journalists and photographers.
Knight thinks the changes in the journalism field and shrinking resources are affecting available space for photographers in a way that is lamentable. That’s part of what he and his colleagues are trying to counterbalance with “dispatches.”
“We’re trying to give some space to long-form storytelling; whether it’s with words or photos matters not,” Knight said of “dispatches’” purpose. “We want to give photographers space to be storytellers.”
The publication even goes as far as not imposing an editorial standard, which Knight said can be overwhelming for some photographers who are used to being tightly controlled and guided in their work.
Knight has a confident idealism that the traditions of photography remain fully intact. But he thinks that the business side of the field has suffered truly significant disruptions in recent years.
“I don’t think things are changing in the journalism field in a fundamental way,” Knight said. “I think things are changing in the journalism business.”
As a seasoned professional who has seen many ups and downs in the industry over the years, he’s not alone in this assessment.
David Burnett, co-founder of Contact Press Images and a photographer with over four decades of experience, thinks the power of an image and photographers’ love of image-making will carry over into the next phase.
But he admits it is and will continue to be an uphill battle.
“The business of press photography is in real trouble as traditional media is replaced, especially for younger readers, by the Internet,” Burnett said. “As of now there is very little pay-for-content, so work is still produced, but it’s more and more difficult to be paid. As the world becomes more wired, the traditional sources of photography and traditional sources of distribution are flooded by some very unhealthy conditions.”
He said that with diminishing magazine and newspaper budgets and increased competition, some of the glow of the old days is quickly fading.
“It makes what used to be a great business much more cutthroat and less likely to produce the kind of quality imagery that was available for so long,” Burnett said.
He also thinks that the declining attention span and interests of the general public are contributing factors for what types of photographs are in demand.
“As red carpet and paparazzi work takes more and more of the interest of the public and their media, the chance for serious work to be published diminishes,” Burnett said. “In what should be a time of great joy — enjoying the fruits of the new technology — we find ourselves wondering which publication might be interested at all in the next great reportage.”
Others think that the changes in photojournalism are simply a sign of the times.
Fred Ritchin is a professor of photography and imaging at New York University and author of the book “After Photography,” which deals with the perils and possibilities of photography in the digital age. His take is that current changes we are witnessing in photojournalism have been drastic, but the impetus was not necessarily the photographers.
“Sometimes we think a revolution happens from art, but this was corporate,” Ritchin said during a recent talk in a panel forum at VII Photo Studio in Brooklyn.
Ritchin said the element of citizen journalism is worth paying attention to, and he points to Iran as a turning point. Most media were prevented from reporting during the protests that began in Tehran in June, so the vast number of protest photos and images of violent attacks on protesters were taken by bystanders. They were then broadcast via online platforms such as Flickr.
According to Ritchin, this and other developments point to the fact that the Internet is the biggest source of change in the photography world. He said it includes the best platform for consumers of photographs to understand stories photographers want to tell.
“The online [format] gives you potential — print journalism is less and less a factor; it’s more and more screen (online) journalism. It’s not a revolution if it’s not revolutionary.”
But the increased reliance on technology — whether on the Internet or photo editing software — also introduces potential temptations and pitfalls that put the honesty of the work at risk.
Burnett is wary of the craft straying too far into the realm of images created on the computer and not in the field or in a traditional darkroom. He said it is easy to overstep the bound-aries that constitute simple enhancement.
With modern photo editing software, it’s easier to introduce totally new elements into a picture or alter elements in the original photograph until it only vaguely resembles the original.
“Traditionally, we tried to bring to a photograph, to a print, the look of what was happening at that time,” Burnett said. “It was common to burn in a sky where the sky was overexposed, for example, as a way of presenting a final picture which was, nonetheless, fairly true to what the photographer saw.”
As photo illustrations become more commonplace on the covers of major magazines, consumers are trained to no longer assume an image is a true depiction. In many instances it is an interpretation or expounding on some point the publication wants to convey. An image of President Barack Obama as a doctor on the cover of Newsweek, for example, emphasized his role in health care reform.
“There are generally accepted rules for news photography or anything which you are attempting to portray in a journalistic way, and we try and stay within those lines,” Burnett said. “However, when you cross into illustration where the end product has much more to do with what was in the mind of the photographer, the limits are less stringent.”
The key might be the correct and ethical application of the tools.
“If we want people to believe our photographs, we need to present them in an honest, forthright way,” Burnett said.
Genevieve Long is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work is regularly published by various media in print, online and broadcast.
Correction: Photographer Ashley Gilbertson was originally noted in this article as working directly for The New York Times. His affiliation with the Times has been updated to accurately reflect his employment.