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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Professional Photojournalist's Demise Greatly Exaggerated

A lot of people seem to be talking this morning about Dan Gillmor's "The Demise of the Professional Photojournalist." About five people have sent me the link.

Well written and well reasoned though his piece is, I don't think I agree with his premise much at all. The reductio ad absurdum of what's he's saying is that because there are now so many people with cellphones and digicams, we no longer need photojournalists.

Put aside, for a moment, the inherent confusions, in the piece, between primary sources and reporting...I still don't buy the argument. Because everybody is literate and occasionally an amateur writes a good book, does that mean we no longer need book authors? Is your local church obsolete because you can just watch a sermon on TV? Does "outsider," primitive, and amateur art negate the need for artists?

Even one of Mr. Gillmor's own arguments——seems to me more like an argument against his point than for it. Useful though YouTube might be for disseminating information and providing direct access to primary source material, is it really any substitute for movies or documentaries, or segments on the evening news, or even professionally produced ads? Maybe Bob Sagett and Tom Bergeron are more important to the culture than I realize.

The fact is, good news reporting has always used primary source material. But having more primary source material hardly means we have less need for professional reporting. The opposite might be the case. A photojournalist is someone who makes a concerted investigation into an important event, situation, or condition, trying to tell the truth visually instead of verbally (or at least illustrating words with pictures). That's still as important as it ever was.

Being an eyewitness to ephemeral events as they unfold has never been easy for journalists. But it's also not all that's required of them. Sure, it's wonderful that demotic media are giving us a better chance at having events recorded somehow—it's great that there are now millions of Zapruders. But any journalist worth his or her salt knows that primary source material can distort truth as well as reveal it. We still need investigation, editing, appraisal, objectivity—and much else that the concerted, intentional, attentive professional perspective provides.



Blogger Svein-Frode said...

We most certainly need professional communicators! The question is, who in the end are going to pay for their professionalism? Amateurs communicate more today than before. Technology has enabled everyone to have a voice. The cost of creating "art" is lower than ever before, and technology is available and fairly simple to use.

We are bombarded with crap created by amateurs every day, but most professionals these days seem to be creating crap as well. Art must co-exist with a market, which tends to favor bad journalism and kitsch. But how much better was things before? In the end I think the scale of things is what have changed the most.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Will said...

There is an interesting article over at which talks about why the DC punditry class and the traditional news media are so up in arms about blogs and youtube. They have always been a filter/censor on the news and have manipulated us through their ability to control the national discourse. Does this censorship occur at the level of the photojournalist? Maybe, but my gut feeling is that photojournalists have always been concerned with protraying truth, and that it is the editors and publishers that have been the censors. There is a campaign by the right going on right now against the presentation of truth via photography and film precisely because the mainstream media no longer controls the content to the degree that they once did. The foam-jowled howlings of the right wing blogs over the real (some extra smoke in Lebanon) and imagined (Bush in a burka) photoshopping of war pictures is these right-wing extremists attempting to completely destroy the legitimacy of all photographic reporting. The facts are not on their side, so they must attack the veracity of the facts. Photojournalists need to be worried about these attacks (which I'm sure they are) because photojournalists are the only ones that can stand up and say "I was there, I took the picture, it is real" and not be subject to the dismissal of their work as amateurish, altered, or contrived.

9:41 AM  
Blogger fizzy said...

Photojournalists are being treated less and less like photographers or journalists. Daily newspapers are handing cameras to writers, while photographers shoot six assignments a day, mostly inconsequential fluff or staged media events. A veteran PJ might have enough goodwill at his paper to allow him time to shoot a long-term photo essay personal project, as long as the paper could submit it for an award, and he'd be lucky if it got a couple pages in the features section next to the comics.

Even at the top ranks, the photogs who follow the president or go to war are herded into little pens or taken on tours to get the approved shot. The ones who go off on their own to get real news can't sell their work, since editors are too afraid of offending the subject by running an "unofficial" shot, or of shocking viewers by having different pictures from the other three papers or magazines. In any case it's easier just to use the wire picture, and nobody ever lost their job running the AP stuff.

We should be so lucky if we have a hundred Zapruders at every media event, people who may not be trained journalists but have been watching CNN all their lives. People with cameras who haven't been checked and approved by the media staff for the candidate, or who aren't following the pack of cameramen to make sure that they don't miss the shot that everyone else got too. A hundred cameras with a hundred attitudes and viewpoints.

Sure, editing is an issue, but we're only thinking about it because for the first time, we get to see the raw footage of history. If we're a little uneasy, it's because we're not used to making up our own minds about who we believe. We've only had one story with a couple of variations of tone all these years, and believed it by default. I'd love to see someone come up with a true business model for news blogs, so that professional journalists could go "gonzo" and really cover things outside the big media channels. Then we'd have the ubiquity of the amateur and the skills of the professional, in a thousand outlets.

11:59 AM  
Blogger bjorke said...

No one should mistake Photojournalism as a whole with spot news. There is a lot of other territory to cover than the sorts of events covered by celphone cameras.

However, Mr Gilmore is writing on a site dedicated to 'citizen media' -- what were you expecting?

2:04 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...


How eloquent. Thank you.

6:23 AM  
Blogger bjorke said...

A ittle add-on comment: Check out
which describes a system that allows people (say, the police -- or Angelina Jolie's agent) to turn OFF cameraphone functions remotely -- a system that has ALREADY BEEN SOLD to major phone services.

If news agencies depend on folks with cameraphones, and people who want to suppress news gathering by cameraphone can do so... well, you add it up.

9:57 AM  

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