Which Way Photojournalism?

BY Chris Niedenthal

Publishers, in their race to make more money for themselves, are trying to push photography reproduction rates down, seemingly forgetting how much a photographer must invest to get started in the business

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Take away a wild animal's territory, or feeding grounds, and that animal may well die. That's not to say that all photojournalists are wild (though some people may beg to differ), but for some years now, their habitat has been steadily eroded. Finding a magazine to print real reportage photography is getting harder and harder. Getting a magazine to actually assign a photographer to do such work, is harder still.

When the real, original weekly LIFE magazine died in the 1970s we could feel the wind changing. It's all because of television, people said. They were probably right then, because television news was indeed beginning to blossom. Now of course, almost 40 years later, the culprit is more the internet. The only problem with that though, is that nobody has yet found the ideal formula to make internet journalism financially viable, or at least as viable as the printed variety may sometimes be.

The press in Poland is beginning to feel the pinch, though I suspect the pinch has been much harder in, say, the United States (where in 2009, 105 newspapers closed their doors) or England in recent years. Photography departments in those countries are being closed, photographers laid off. Time Inc., has reportedly started an ingenious payment scheme for freelance photographers, whereby if they want to be paid within 25 days, they would have to pay Time Inc. 0.5% of their invoice; if they wanted to be paid in a hurry, i.e. within 3 days – then they would have to pay 4% of the invoice, just for the privilege. Simply put, photographers would have to pay to get paid. Wow! In Poland, publishers, in their race to make more money for themselves, are trying to push photography reproduction rates down, seemingly forgetting how much a photographer must invest to get started in the business, quite apart from feeding himself and his family. Recently a well-known Polish photographer with 40 years experience received a sales statement from one of Poland’s leading newspaper publishers. One of his photos they held in their archives had been published, probably somewhere on the internet. The statement clearly stated the amount he was to be paid: 4 złoty. He was probably lucky to get paid at all, but was perhaps saved by the fact that non-payment is illegal, so by paying even such a small amount, the publisher cannot be accused of not paying at all. All very sad, as photography – and especially photojournalism – is inhabited by men and women who love their work, and are usually prepared to undergo any hardships in order to be able to produce amazing photographs. Because magazines and newspapers are now run mainly by the bean counters, or accountants, that is no longer possible. Good, experienced, father-figure editors, producing first-rate work, may well be frowned upon by the bean counters, for whom the only sign of success is that the money is rolling in, not that the paper or magazine produces excellent work. Quality and relevance, once deemed to be most important, appear to be a thing of the past. When a bean counter looks at the cost of a photography department, sees the large amounts needed to equip a good photographer and to keep him/her on the road, he says “Cut!” But a great newspaper or magazine is not selling boxes of chocolates or cans of soup, it is trying to sell its vision. And that, for an accountant, is incomprehensible.

The typical bean counter will say: long live citizen journalism! Why bother paying big money to professionals, when we can usually get much cheaper, if not free work from passers-by with cellphone cameras. No matter that the quality is often poor, the images only just acceptable. If we can pay little or nothing – we love those pictures. Admittedly, there is a certain amount of urgency in a photograph taken by a passing taxi driver, but I would prefer not to make a habit of it. However, let's admit that times are changing. We cannot forbid people taking photographs with their cellphones, so I guess we'll have to live with the fact. Now that the World Press Photo competition has started to accept cellphone images (yes, let's call them images, not photographs) from amateurs – the deed is done. Wild animals can become extinct. Will first-class professional photojournalists follow in their footsteps?

Beside the Point

This is one of my favourite photographs from way back when: I took it in 1976, when I was still a young, budding photographer. The slogan reads: “We're with you, Comrade Gierek.” Emptiness all around. I shot it during the aftermath of the Ursus/Radom riots in 1976, when Poland's leaders decided to hold a pro-Party rally to shore up their image. Thousands of people had to come to the Tenth Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw (now being re-built as the National Stadium) to pretend they supported the Party line. As soon as it was all over, they left their slogans and crownless eagles, and went home as quickly as possible. And the resulting emptiness was far more meaningful than the rally itself.