Photojournalism is Dead? Yeah, yeah.

Business is apparently grim for NB Pictures, the agency that represent Sebastiao Salgado, Simon Norfolk, and 8 other photographers. Owner Neil Burgess, who was previously head of Network Photographers in London and the New York and London offices of Magnum Photos, has jumped onto the "photojournalism is dead" bandwagon in a dispatch to the EPUK blog. "I’m stepping forward and calling it," he wrote. “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010. Amen."

The gist of his argument is that (news flash!) print publishers don't support photojournalism anymore. Burgess allows how "there are some things which look very like photojournalism," and then goes on to say, "but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition."

And what, pray tell, is wrong with that? At best, it's an argument for calling photojournalism by a different name (suggestions, anyone?). In the meantime, photojournalists are simply facing reality, and finding new ways to make it work. Witness the efforts of Magnum, VII, Noor, and other NB Pictures competitors, not to mention the explosion of documentary stories all over the web. (See also our story about alternative funding for photo-j in the August issue of PDN.) Burgess is correct that photojournalism is a terrible way by itself to make a living, and we owe it to every aspiring photojournalist to make that clear. But photojournalism isn't static, and until the passion for it dies, it certainly isn't dead. By the looks of things, that passion is as robust as ever.

12 Responses to “Photojournalism is Dead? Yeah, yeah.”

  1. Mikko Takkunen Says:

    VII Network photographer Tomas van Houtryve just blogged about testing new funding models for his own work.
    The post can be found here

  2. Fredrik Naumann Says:

    Photojournalism funded by others than media organisations themselves already has a name. It is called “PR”.

  3. Clark Patrick Says:

    Yeah, it’s called Faux-to Journalism. Of course there are more photojournalist than ever before finding news ways to tell their stories and maybe that is a better thing for content seekers, but that’s not his point – his point is that it’s really no longer a viable way to make a living. And that means something – especially if you use to make a living in this way. People will need to be able to make a living again as photojournalist in order for the best content to continue to surface. The problem needs to be seriously addressed from all sides. It’s not something to gloss over.

  4. FU Says:

    Why is PDN so clueless?

  5. anderson schneider Says:

    Yes, photojournalism is dead.
    As dead as literature that is not commissioned anymore by magazines. Yeah, magazines used to commission literature – Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood on assignment for The New Yorker and it was firstly published in four parts inside the magazine’s pages in 65.
    As dead as painting and sculpture that are not commissioned anymore by the Medici Family in Firenze. Picasso’s Guernica, painted under assignment for the Spanish Republican Government? Bah, just PR…
    As dead as music that is not commissioned anymore by huge recording labels…
    The obituary goes forever…

  6. Ambrose Pierce Says:

    I concur with Mr. Naumann. Why do we insist on re-inventing the wheel and playing games with semantics. Call the “new business model” what it is: PR. There is no shame in that–it is, what it is. But don’t try to pass it off as journalism. PR has never been about the truth, it’s always been about manipulation and more often than not, outright lies. Imagine trying to do an honest and meaningful photographic essay on the recent oil spill in the Gulf and asking BP to underwrite it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the pictures will amount to nothing more than lies. So if in fact PR is the future of photojournalism, then I think it’s safe to say that photojournalism is dead.

  7. David Walker Says:

    sure, a BP-funded documentary of the oil spill would be PR. But is that the ONLY alternative to funding from a news organization? My point was that those who are saying photojournalism is dead are saying that because the archetype for photojournalism (Life magazine hiring
    Gene Smith) no longer exists. But just because a narrow, traditional conception of photojournalism is dead doesn’t mean that documentary photography or visual story telling or whatever else you want to call it is dead. That said, I certainly understand the anger and frustration that it is no longer a viable living.

  8. Michael Fox Says:

    David Walker points out that there is an “explosion” of documentary stories all over the web. So what? The one question that almost always seems to be forgotten in these repetitive discussions and statements about the abysmal state of pj is, what is its purpose?
    Different people take on a pj role for different reasons but, ultimately, the purpose must be to share a subject, story, whatever, with an audience that would otherwise be unaware of that subject, story etc. in an effort to motivate them to take action and make a difference. The long suffering and embarrassingly cliched phrase that is too often used is “to give voice to the voiceless.” There is another one, equally embarrassing, equally cliched – “I was witness to these events and these photographs are my testimony.” Spare me.
    The issue we face today is that no matter how big the “explosion” of content on the web, there is a significant decrease in interest of those topics. The only people who seem to notice that a new black and white photo essay of starving babies in Africa has been posted to the Noor web site, is other photojournalists.
    Unless there is a cohesive, intelligent, and compelling method of effectively distributing high-impact content to its intended, action-empowered audience, then pj really has lost it ability to make a difference, and, thus, its purpose.

  9. David Walker Says:

    I agree with all you say, Michael Fox, and against long, hard odds I do see photographers working to find effective ways to reach audiences, affect change, and get compensated for it. So far the success is limited. I’m among those hoping against hope that a workable distribution model emerges from the wreckage of traditional publishing. FU can call me clueless if he wants to, but until photographers stop trying, I can’t bring myself to join the “photojournalism is dead” choir. But I appreciate all the response I’ve received to this post. Thanks to all who engaged. DW

  10. Jagdish Agarwal Says:

    In India, photography exhibitions are not covered by most newspapers and magazines, because photographers are not able to pay the amount asked by these publications to cover the photography shows. So what happens. A wealthy person has a birthday party and it becomes an event for the press, because this person, to get published, is able to pay the newspapers and magazines. Think what may happen in the future.

  11. josh c. Says:

    Thanks David, well put

  12. Jon Says:

    Neil Burgess’ perspective is correct in every way.
    Mr Walker’s point of view sounds good, but the reality is that it’s the funding for independent photojournalism that is a corpse still trying to breath.