Magazine article Nieman Reports

Photojournalism in the New Media Economy

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Photojournalism in the New Media Economy

Article excerpt

Few journalistic forms have had their death foretold more often than photojournalism. Ever since weekly pictorial magazines like Life and Look closed their doors in the 1970's, the demise of photojournalism has been declared at regular intervals. Recent upheavals in the media economy, signaled by the talk of the "death of newspapers," have given rise in some circles to a new round of lamentation positing a dismal future for visual storytellers.

At the same time, the billions of still photographs produced annually, circulated globally, and consumed eagerly suggest no shortage of producers and no end to the collective desire to see our experiences portrayed photographically. In this vein, the renowned photographer Ed Kashi told a December 2009 forum at the London College of Communication on the new ecology of photojournalism that he saw the makings of a new golden age for photojournalism. [Read Kashi's article on page 8.]

How can we understand this optimistic view of an uncertain future given all of the negative assessments of photojournalism in recent years?

Although the Internet is not responsible for all the problems of contemporary media, we need to appreciate how it has fundamentally reordered the media economy. After all, the Web did not, in Clay Shirky's terms, simply introduce a new competitor into the old media ecosystem but created a fundamentally different ecosystem by severing any automatic link between the creation of information and its distribution. The Web also collapsed the cost of publishing and eliminated barriers to the formation of distributed networks. Given this, we live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions and established practices.

In this context, the claim that photojournalism is dying is actually about the collapse of traditional systems of distribution and payment rather than the end of visual forms of information. Some see the demise of print distribution and direct editorial funding as delivering a fatal blow to the practice of photojournalism. This isn't the case, but at the same time no one should diminish the difficulties this change has produced.

Thinking about how photographers should proceed requires a realistic assessment of the past. In-depth photographic projects and challenging documentary work have always been difficult to fund directly. If there was a time when all the majority of photojournalists did was wait for well-paid commissions to produce important work for print outlets, that time is long past. And it won't be returning regardless of an upturn in advertising or new paid content models.

Even so, I share Kashi's reasoned optimism. The revolutions in the media economy driven by the Web's cutting of the link between information and distribution provide photojournalism with new opportunities. Photographers can't ignore other modes of distribution-print media, books, exhibitions, etc.--but the Web is the only platform that offers a growing audience for their stories and an efficient means of distribution. To be on the Web--and to be visual--now means multimedia storytelling, from photo galleries to stand-alone sites with stills, audio, video and text together. To tell stories to a Web audience requires finding compelling combinations of sound and image.

The Web Changes Everything

To say all of this is to state the blindingly obvious. Photographers have been using digital media for years in these ways. But what is at stake now is something more than having a shop window in which to display one's wares on the Web. It involves seeing oneself as a publisher of content and a participant in a distributed story, the form of which helps reshape the content of the story. Rather than producing a single image or small series of images to be sold into another person's story, multimedia provides numerous advantages for visual storytellers:

* It allows photographers to focus on a story and produce more content with greater control over how those pictures are presented. …

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