In the Age of Celebrity Journalism, Newspapers No Longer Want Pictures of Disaster and Starvation; but Some People Will Buy Them for the Living Room

By Jobey, Liz | New Statesman (1996), May 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

In the Age of Celebrity Journalism, Newspapers No Longer Want Pictures of Disaster and Starvation; but Some People Will Buy Them for the Living Room


Jobey, Liz, New Statesman (1996)


Photojournalism often brings bad news. In the last two decades this has made it something of a pariah in a newspaper market increasingly dependent on celebrity-based entertainment journalism to boost sales figures. Until the late 1970s the magazines of the quality broadsheets, following the great American and British picture magazines, Life and Picture Post, had been the natural home of the black-and-white picture story. Then, just at the point when photojournalism was becoming a popular career option, when colleges and universities were starting up degree courses and photographic history was becoming a legitimate area of academic study, the traditional outlets for black-and-white picture stories began to close down.

Television took the brunt of the blame: readers didn't want pictures that told them little more than they had learnt from the Nine O'Clock News. But the 1980s also played a part, upsetting the balance the supplements had maintained between serious journalism, culture and consumerism, and tipping them ever frothwards.

So photojournalists have been the victims of a minor revolution. They have had to discard old skills and tribal practices and adapt to technological' advances; alter their ways of thinking about a story; find new outlets and new sponsors. They have had to subsidise their reportage with commercial work company reports and advertising - or take part-time jobs to make ends meet. And some have had to abandon photography altogether.

The changes were no different in degree from those that many other labour markets - print journalism included - have had to cope with. But what made them harder to bear in this case was that, in its purest sense, photojournalism was connected to the belief that it could improve the world. This moral imperative, combined with the thrill of individual effort in the field, was what made photojournalism attractive and addictive, and it was painful to relinquish it to serve a market that wanted "impactful" pictures fast and cheap - if at all. To find a story rejected in fay our of "easy-living" features undermined the sense of purpose that validated a photographer's decision to put his or her life on the line.

The glamorous image of photojournalism brought its own problems. (When students say they want to be photojournalists, they don't mean the next jobbing news photographer, they mean "the next Don McCullin".) There were too many people out there trying to make a break, and the sight of photographers rushing off en masse to a crisis area, and rushing back to make money out of other people's misery, did little to bolster the public's confidence. But then the public's senses have in any case been blunted by over-exposure.

All styles of art have an in-built obsolescence that often makes itself felt in the form of parody. Increasingly photographers find themselves fighting against their own tradition. Originality, spontaneity, surprise, become ever harder to achieve. Most stories are running simultaneously on television; any idea of an exclusive died long ago. Photographers are more likely to find themselves shoulder to shoulder taking a picture of the same starving child in a refugee camp in Goma. For an audience that is more sophisticated and more jaded, the photojournalist has to explore more ingenious avenues to get beneath the reader's thickening skin: the tiny details, the residue of an event, the close description of one person's experience, the abstraction of a story into symbolism.

At this difficult time for photojournalism, Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times in its glory days, has reissued his handbook Pictures on a Page (Pimlico, [pounds]20). First published in 1978, it achieved "bible" status among photographers and picture editors. But this new edition is an uncomfortable hybrid, somewhere between a period piece and a manual that still claims application to today's newspapers and magazines.

Because Evans was one of those rare newspaper editors for whom words and pictures held equal importance, and who loved the practical putting together of a paper, the text and the photographs more than stand up to time and scrutiny. …

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