Identity Crisis in Photojournalism — You Can’t Be a One-Trick Pony Anymore

If you have some spare time, read the excellent “Identity Crisis in Photojournalism” on American Journalism Review. Here are the key excerpts. There is a new question concerning every working photographer: who is a photographer and who is not. It’s the age of the advent of the “super journalist.” In news organizations around the world, reporters are increasingly providing visuals with their copy. Freelance writers are rebranding themselves as multimedia journalists and journalism schools — conscious of where the jobs likely will be for their graduates — are training all their students to write and capture audio, photos and video.

This über-journalist, the photographer who writes and the writer who takes photographs, is creating one of the biggest upheavals in modern journalism since online platforms gave everyone, including monthly magazines, a 24-hour news cycle. In this new world, a world in which everyone is a photographer, what then happens to the photojournalists?

Whether such superhuman journalists already exist or can be trained to do it all — and do it well — is the source of much contention rippling through the industry. Says freelance photographer Scout Tufankjian who has documented President Obama, the Haitian earthquake and Arab Spring:

Anyone can get lucky with a few pictures, just like pretty much everyone has one or two dishes they’ve mastered in the kitchen. That doesn’t mean that they can produce solid, compelling and ethically produced stories on demand. I make great hummus and kibbe. That doesn’t mean I’m capable of running a restaurant.

For many photojournalists, the problem is not the iPhone, which is merely a device, after all. The problem is that using it — or any camera — professionally requires an understanding of visual storytelling, which is about sequencing and patience, framing, knowing what to exclude as much as what to include.

The article goes on quoting working photojournalists using the iPhone to help “break out the DSLR faster,” says Bill Putnam, a freelance photojournalist who returned this summer after 16 months in Afghanistan. He used his iPhone to document photos in Helmand province and then posted them to his Instagram feed:

What is loved about the iPhone in today’s photojournalism is that the camera is always with the reporter, no matter what. For breaking news, the most immediate images are the most valuable. These can come from staff on the ground, citizen journalists or eyewitnesses as long as they have the moment.

But nothing replaces the quality of storytelling, in long or short form, of a photojournalist. Just as nothing replaces the insight of a reporter. In the end it’s all about the photojournalist using tools. Whatever camera, they’re just a tool, just like a Leica is a tool and an SLR is a tool. They each give access to different images and a different look. Tufankjian:

I’ve shot stories on my iPhone that would have not worked as well on my SLR, just like I use my Leica when I need control and quality of an SLR but the subtlety and slowness of smaller, quieter camera.

But the moral of the identity crisis is this one: you can’t be a one-trick pony anymore. You may not write as good as the writer. But think multimedia. Which writer is going to take pictures like you do? Find your edge to give the reader more.

Reporters, photographers, video journalists, editors, managers and staff need to think more expansively as journalists.

It’s the new era of photojournalism. Think wider, think broader — and you’ll deliver a more competitive, more comprehensive product more people want to see and read.

(via AJR)

  • Manfred Rist

    Thanks Daniel for selecting that piece, and make it known to a wider public!