Waiting for the Dust to Settle
Abstract and Keywords
This conclusion looks at the landscape of photojournalism today. What happens to image brokering and photojournalism in the age of social media and increased digitalization? While there has been an increasing demand for imagery, the work of photojournalists and professional image brokers has been significantly devalued. The conclusion then examines visual worldmaking practices through four recent news events—the 2013 Gezi protests in Turkey, the January 2015 attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, World Press Photo's decision to revoke a prize in its 2015 Contemporary Issues category, and the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. Only one thing about the future of journalism is clear: it must be visual.
I have waited several years for the dust to settle so that I could provide an overview of where photojournalism has come and what its futures might be.1 Yet the world of visual journalism is as much in flux as when I began this project, if not more.2 The gap in time between my fieldwork and today not only allows us the opportunity to discuss two moments in history. It also provides the luxury of comparing the unfolding present with the way the present was imagined and anticipated as the futurepast a decade ago. Therefore, rather than offer a soon-to-be-out-of-date status of photojournalism today, I want to conclude by considering a paradox that I watched as it evolved.3 Despite an intense demand for images, visual journalists have been hard hit by layoffs, and freelancers find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to earn a living through editorial work. The increasing demand for and even appreciation of imagery has, rather than enhancing the value of photojournalists and the professionals who broker their work, significantly diminished it.
Much has changed in the world of journalism since Jackie, a photo editor at GVI, pushed aside an established photographer’s rolls of film because they were out of pace with a war that was to be covered digitally. Alex Levy and many of the other young photographers I met during fieldwork have produced a lot of stunning photography, garnered many awards, and been widely published. Many now work in multiple media; some have been very successful in documentary film production. As the first editors, all of them now spend several hours editing on a (p.282) computer screen at the end of already long working days. In this way all photojournalists have also become brokers of their own work. Most of the photographers are no longer represented by the agencies they were with when I met them. Some of them, and other photographers I did not get a chance to interview, have been kidnapped or killed while working. Many tell me there’s never been as dangerous a time to be a photojournalist.
Nonetheless, the competition is fiercer than ever, and many insist there has never been a richer time for photojournalism. Already in 2004, Pierre Martin, director of photo at AFP, had told me, “There is no single eye behind the camera today. There is not an AFP eye. It is a multicultural eye, and there are more photographers than ever working for us.” This is true not only of wire services but of documentary photography at large today: it is being done by more people in more places than ever. When I returned to Visa Pour l’Image in 2015, I found a far more diverse group of photographers than had been there a decade earlier. Many were willing to wait in line four or five hours for the opportunity to have their portfolio reviewed. Jean-François Leroy, the director of Visa Pour l’Image, frequently insists that it is not photography but rather the press that is in crisis, and the crowds of young photographers at Perpignan seem to validate his point. At least, if there is a crisis, it has not resulted in a lack of passion or enthusiasm. Alan Fare, a founder of a photo agency that has so far survived the turbulence of the last several decades, enthusiastically points out, “You don’t send people to China anymore because there are excellent photographers in Shanghai and Guangzhou. … There are very qualified people in many places—Bangladesh, Turkey, China, Australia, Brazil, Mexico.” But, he cautions, “[t]he financial side of things is an impossible equation.” It seems that the industry’s budgets ran dry just when the dream for the democratization of vision with which digitalization had arrived might have been realized.
Compared to a decade ago, much more news is consumed online, where news stories are frequently updated throughout the day, often with changing photographs. Many of the publications mentioned in this book are either exclusively or predominantly digital—or have ceased to exist all together. Online there is a lot more “real estate,” to recall the term used by Newsworld editors for space in the magazine, and many articles are linked to multiple images in the form of online galleries or slide shows. The rise and spread of social media means that many readers’ initial encounter with a news story is through an image—often (p.283) quite small and on a mobile screen. Photography blogs have flourished and present stellar work from around the world.4 In some parts of the world, such as India, print newspapers are flourishing. Elsewhere, new kinds of entities such as the home- and apartment-renting startup Airbnb are publishing print magazines. The status of journalism is not uniform worldwide.
Global pundits regularly tell us that we live in an age of images. Regardless of whether the end product is digital or print, decisions need to be made and images posted at ever-greater speeds. Almost none of the image brokers I’ve written about in this book have the jobs they once did, and in many cases their position has been eliminated. In many parts of the world, journalism has seen drastic losses in revenue, and photojournalist’s positions and certainly those of other image brokers have become increasingly precarious. There are so few researchers and editors that photographers have had to take on many new roles on ever-shorter assignments and sometimes transmit their photographs directly to designers in art departments. As for those archives that everyone was feverishly buying up, digitizing, and filling for the future, very few professionals have the time to search through them and take advantage of their richness, let alone dream up innovative uses for this visual history. Their financial value has plummeted. Visual content providers have radically cut image-licensing prices. In 2014, Getty Images made thirty-five million images free for noncommercial usage.5
I began this investigation at the beginning of the War on Terror by noting that the work of image brokers was mostly invisible. The digital environment has given rise to news kinds of image brokers. We’ve seen many more governments, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and terrorists, among others, circulate their own images, bypassing the traditional press. Moreover, the networked world of social media has made image brokering a common practice for many. The widespread nature of everyday image brokering has devalued the already invisible work of professionals. The perception is that anyone can move images. This chapter will show how news images continue to be critical to visual worldmaking. Four recent news events—the 2013 Gezi protests in Turkey, the January 2015 attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, World Press Photo’s decision to revoke a prize in its 2015 Contemporary Issues category, and the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015—illustrate how formative fictions operate in visual worldmaking practices today despite ongoing shifts in infrastructures of representation. I have stayed in touch with many informants throughout (p.284) the years, and this conclusion draws heavily on conversations with them. The horizon of my writing has changed because I have spent most of the last decade teaching and my students have taught me much about a born-digital generation’s news consumption and their relationship to different genres of photography.6 There is only one thing of which I am absolutely certain which is that the future of journalism is visual. Which is not to say that it is only visual, but that it is impossible to discuss the future of news without explicitly addressing news images, whether moving or still. News in the twenty-first century cannot move without images.
Not everything has changed: Think back to the discussion about how AFP should cover absenteeism for the 2004 European Parliamentary elections in which ten new European Union member states had elected representatives to the European Parliament for the first time. At the time, Marie, the director of AFP’s international photo desk in Paris, had noted with chagrin that the most popular photograph used to illustrate the elections was a Reuters image of “little Hungarians with their little skirts.”7 Marie lamented that, despite the availability of many alternative photographs, publications around the world had chosen to circulate a frame she considered a visual stereotype as a news image. The dominant that day was that many voters in countries formerly considered Eastern Europe had now joined the European Union. The particular frame was not representative of the electorate but was a powerful formative fiction: the indexed Hungarian women in their colorful traditional outfits represented the bodies politic of newly Europeanizing nations on the brink of joining their modern Western partners.
Ten years later, many publications used very similar photographs to illustrate the 2014 European parliamentary elections. In fact, one news image published widely was taken by the same photographer who had taken the 2004 image referred to by Marie. Figure 8 shows how the image was used as the online image of the day for Paris Match, a popular French newsmagazine. What is surprising is not that the same photographer—Laszlo Balogh, a Hungarian who has long been working for Reuters—took similar images to represent European elections in Hungary ten years apart but that similar photographs that reify comically stereotypical portrayals of Hungarians circulated as news images in the pages and on the cover of reputable newspapers and journals. (p.285)
Why, when so many talented photographers, Mr. Balogh included, are taking sophisticated photographs around the world do such stereotypical frames keep getting published? One reason is in what Igor Vobič and Iliya Tomanić Trivundža calls “the Tyranny of the Empty Frame.” The transition to online journalism has meant that much news is now assembled using content management systems (CMS), “computer interfaces used for assembling, editing and publishing online which require a minimum of one still or moving image per news item.” The result is “the tyranny of the empty frame,” defined as “a hard-coded technological requirement that ‘news must be visual.’”8 As more publications have cut photo editors from their staff, the work of attaching an image to a story falls increasingly to an already harried writer or to online journalists sometimes referred to as new kinds of news workers or a (p.286) “special breed of journalist.”9 Vobič and Tomanić Trivundža studied online journalists at two leading Slovenian newspapers and found that many were frustrated by the mandate to find images that they perceived as slowing down news production, and in desperation would often fill the frame with “‘a symbolic photograph’—a generic image that is not directly linked to the specific reported event—from their archives or from agency feeds.” For the moment, the tyranny of the empty frame might not be dictating the selection of images in every newsroom using CMS, but it is nonetheless very widespread. The logics of increased productivity mandate that everything happen faster with fewer people. Image brokering has become something many news workers do as part of their job, with very few professionals dedicated to it. Replaying familiar images takes much less work and time than innovating or researching the best way to visualize a particular story.
Many journalistically important stories, especially those about legal, economic, or complex political issues, are on some level abstract and hard to visualize, especially if an image has to be shot the day of the story. Such stories produce a crisis in visualization: a moment when routine visualization itself is challenged or disturbed. Hence, although elections and economic sanctions certainly have substantial concrete effects, we end up seeing lots of photographs of ballot boxes “with Hungarians in their little skirts” and officials giving press briefings. These news images illustrate the time of the news story as dominant rather than visualize the forces influencing the vote or the effects of trade barriers being addressed at the press briefing—issues that unfold over time. In the past, part of the work of image brokers was anticipating the futurepast and helping photographers conceive of ways to best visualize world news. Today there is much less time for visual journalism in news publications. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg noted in his analysis of convergence in news production in 2005, news cycles have spun into news cyclones.10 The cyclones have only grown stronger since.
Reflecting back on the old differentiation between fast and good photographs, one photo editor told me that the greatest changes in photojournalism over the last decade were in fact not changes in photography: “Workflows at publications have changed. We’ve seen the rise of content-management systems in all big groups of newspapers. … The journalist has to put in the image with the story, and the wires are what get used [since publications usually pay an annual subscription rate rather than per image] or whatever imagery they can get for free.” The image is necessary to the story, obligatory for it to be filed, but merely (p.287) an afterthought to the actual journalism in the absence of resources in terms of time, talent, and skill to visualize news meaningfully. Ironically, the technical and aesthetic quality of photography worldwide is much higher overall than it has ever been. All of my informants agree that wire services are producing excellent photography. Therefore, the tyranny of the empty frame has not necessarily produced “bad” photography. However, we are back to “fast photos” in the news not because they are the only ones that can move in time but because they are often the only ones that can be easily searched online and embedded into the story in the time available to the journalist. Very few publications have the luxury to ask which images will best visually express this news and engage the imagination of the reader rather than which will illustrate this topic that I can I find immediately and will cost as little as possible. The result is a lot of “good” photographs moving fast, but little time for good visual journalism.
The Disappearing News Photographer in the Digital Age
Digitalization—not merely digitization but the institutional changes such as the rise of visual content providers with their new business models—disrupted photojournalism a few years before the full force of journalism’s migration online was felt. The year 2006 marked the first time that print advertisement revenue began to fall at American newspapers and resulted in the closure of many metro dailies and magazines.11 In the years leading up to this, while I was doing fieldwork, I watched photo editors pay for physical space according to the size an image was run on a page, or pay day rates (which had not changed in over twenty years), but the amounts negotiated for online use of images were negligible. Even at digital giant GVI, the news and editorial team often didn’t bother making the sales for online usage and saw those as crumbs they could leave for the sales team. The industry complained of a revenue squeeze, but the common belief was that it came from monopolization and the rise of the visual content providers. In other words, for a few brief years it seemed that photojournalism could move from analog to digital without massive losses in revenue because photojournalism was digitalized before most news publications migrated online. People paid less attention to the incredibly low cost of licensing images for online use while there was still some physical real estate in the form of actual pages. Slowly, advertising began going online and then, during the financial crisis of 2008, seemed to disappear from print entirely.
(p.288) As a senior executive at a visual content provider told me, “The whole news industry went through a major shift. When it happened in photojournalism, no one was thinking about what was going to happen. Once you put up your information for free, there is no going back. We can’t change that. Those models are gone.” When news images were being put online for free or for negligible sums, few were making the argument that information or journalism was being given away for free. Chroniclers of the rise of digital journalism almost always discuss the popularity of online photo galleries, and the role of visuals in bringing readers online.12 It may be that photography departments, long used to the rule of text, were too flattered by the visibility they got online to demand that their work be financially valued. Photographers and other image brokers represent the category of newsroom staffers hit hardest by the constant layoffs over the last decade in the United States.
In May 2013 the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography department, including Pulitzer Prize winner John White, a regular speaker at the Eddie Adams workshop, who had inspired many in the 2003 audience with his speech about his camera making him a visual servant. Subscription numbers at the newspaper had fallen 23 percent since 2006.13 The decision was explained as an effort to “evolve with [their] digitally savvy customers,” who were “consistently seeking more video content with their news.” The newspaper would still use images but would source them from freelancers and text journalists equipped with iPhones. Other publications have seen similar layoffs. Even Sports Illustrated, despite its name, laid off all of its remaining staff photographers while reiterating its commitment to creating original content.14 The wording of the Sun-Times statement is telling: the news audience no longer comprises readers but customers, and allegedly not only prefers video but also does not perceive visuals as part of the news. Rather, the customers are reported to want “more video content with their news,” the way I might ask for fries with a hamburger.15
Though photojournalism prides itself on having brought visibility to many issues, the work behind producing and circulating news images has remained mostly invisible. Most narratives about photojournalism, including reports on the Chicago Sun-Times layoff, focus exclusively on photographers, whereas photographers are only part of a network of image brokers who make complex decisions about how to visualize the world. Keeping the focus narrowly on the critical moment when a shutter button is pressed effectively renders invisible all the other framing that goes into the production and circulation of a news image. Yet (p.289) photojournalists as well as the relatively few scholars writing about photojournalism rarely discuss the research and complex decision making that take place both before and after a photograph is “taken.” This much less glamorous work is often collaborative and the site where much of the knowledge that then frames the photograph happens. The myth of the intrepid and committed photographer single-handedly shining light on world affairs has cost the profession at large. With the work behind news images reduced to a mere moment of button pressing, it is much easier to argue that the work can be performed readily by drones or reporters equipped with iPhones. In fact, in fall 2013 Apple’s iPhone5 promised “a better photographer built in.”16 “Instead of teaching people to take better photos, why not teach the camera?” Apple asked.
Supporters of visual journalism respond by highlighting the “craft” of professional photojournalists. Yet often what is lamented is a loss of aesthetic rather than journalistic excellence. Typical statements conclude that employers are not willing to pay for excellence in photography. Others bemoan that photographs will be less artfully framed or that those not trained in photography won’t know how to handle challenging lighting. All this is true, but these arguments also obscure much of the labor behind insightful investigative visual journalism. Good reporting by photojournalists, like such reporting by all journalists, takes time. A narrow focus on aesthetics makes it seem as if audiences are merely being offered less artfully shot video with their news, as if the news simply happens or exists in the world waiting for the next iPhone camera to cross its path.
As I’ve pointed out, not all photographs are news images. News images are made with the help of image brokers. For all the criticism one can make about image brokers reproducing worldviews while brokering representations, repeatedly during fieldwork I saw how the best image brokers contribute to the production of richer knowledge about world events. They do this not merely by choosing the better photo but by working with photographers, helping them get into place, asking them questions, discussing their shoots, sharing information, fact-checking, and advocating for images to tell stories and not merely illustrate text. What is at stake is not merely better photos, but better journalism. Staged events such as splashy presidential moments will always get covered, whether by amateurs or by reporters who have iPhone photography basics training. What will suffer is investigative visual journalism: the production of news images that prompt audiences to ask better questions as citizens and enable different ways of understanding (p.290) a community. “Ordinary, everyday people, these are the treasures, that’s what’s important,” former Chicago Sun-Times photographer John White stressed in an NPR interview.
The Nar Photos News Hour
One person wrote that he’d figured out that we tended to post the day’s images in the wee hours of the morning and said he looked forward to the Nar Photo hour as if our daily slideshow were his nightly news.
—member of the Nar Photos Collective
The Nar Photos Collective is an independent agency with offices in Istanbul and Diyarbakır, Turkey. Many of the photographers who established the collective in 2003 met at the World Press Photo seminar organized for Turkish photographers described in chapter 7, and I have witnessed the evolution of the collective over the ensuing years, during which Turkey has received more attention from global media than anyone suspected a decade ago. They specialize in social documentary photography: most of their stories feature narratives about changing landscapes—both social and physical—in Turkey. One hot night in June 2013 I spoke with seven members of the Nar Photos Collective about their coverage of the protests in Gezi Park against the Turkish prime minister at the time, Tayyip Erdoğan, and the government-sanctioned use of excessive police force.17 The photographers were exhausted and relieved at having survived without major injury. They had inhaled a lot of tear gas and had a few encounters with rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters thrown by the police. After occupying the park for over two weeks, the protesters and their encampments had been forcibly cleared by police forces earlier in the day, and it was the first night the photographers were not working. There was a sense of political disappointment, yet remarkably absent was any sense of cynicism. Over the course of our discussions late into the night, I watched as they grew cautiously hopeful as individuals got tweets or saw Facebook updates on their cell phones about groups of citizens gathering in parks around the city to hold open forums.
Since the days when some of them had taken photographs following the 2003 terrorist bombings in Istanbul but hadn’t been able to get the images to GVI in New York all day, they had figured out the technicalities of digital image distribution. They now had agreements with several foreign agencies that occasionally sold their images to clients, (p.291) but they weren’t on any assignment to cover the protest. “As soon as we began posting daily photographic summaries of the protests via Facebook there was an explosion in visitor numbers,” one member of the collective told me. Another hadn’t been able to get to the office on the first day of the protests. When she called in to ask how she could help, she was told to approve friends on Facebook:
Don’t laugh! Prior to the Gezi protests, we used to get fifty or one hundred visitors a day and we didn’t even know about the five-thousand-friend limit, nor that there was a difference between a Facebook profile and a page. One other member logged on to our Facebook page and both of us spent the next two hours literally just hitting the return button over and over again, accepting new friends who wanted to be able to see our photographs. Then Amnesty International asked us for our photographs. So did a few environmental organizations and academics. We let people use the images for their personal blogs as well.
Mainstream Turkish media didn’t cover the protests at first, and there was backlash against this censorship during the protests. “Telling people we weren’t shooting for a Turkish mainstream media calmed people down,” thereby securing the photographers’ access. “Everyone was furious … it was a real shock for people to see their own media completely silent.” The protestors not only did not feel politically represented by their government but were also initially denied media representation. Eventually, the protests got extensive global coverage; there were many foreign and domestic photojournalists, both freelancers and wire service photographers, at the events. Many of the foreigners were well-equipped combat photographers—unlike the Nar photographers, who couldn’t afford a gas mask till several days into the protests.
We’d give the best mask to the person working up front, and the others would hang back and work in the crowd. We began to see that the story is not all on the front line. You really begin to see things farther back in the crowd. After a few hours of inhaling tear gas it’s hard to work, so we’d come back here and recover. Going out a second time was very difficult. You’d be completely worn out by the gas and the water cannons, but we’d encourage each other and go back out. We were also motivated by those looking at our images and leaving us supportive comments.
When I asked if they’d been able to sell their coverage, one of the photographers who had attended the World Press Photo seminars and been in the collective from the start replied, “I work for shares.” Confused, I asked what he meant. “He works for shares. You know ‘shares’ and ‘likes’,” another explained, teasing me for being so slow to catch on. That (p.292) September a selection of Nar Photos’ coverage of the Gezi protests was shown during the Saturday evening slide show at Visa Pour l’Image. None of them could afford going to Perpignan for the festival; a few years earlier they had sent a member of the group but had not found the investment worthwhile because it did not bring them many new assignments or sales and had been a heavy financial burden for the group. I wondered if they thought the World Press Photo seminar had been a waste, getting them to think about the international market though they had found that there were many barriers to entry. Their quick response surprised me. “Not at all!” stressed one of the founders of Nar Photos with whom I’d gone to the Inside/Outsight exhibition. He insisted, “We learned how to tell stories visually, how to develop a story.”
In the two years since the protests they’ve collectively made less than two thousand dollars on their coverage of the Gezi protests, but the images have been widely used by civil society organizations. The collective has always struggled financially, it rarely covers its expenses, and all of the photographers work other jobs. Nonetheless, during a watershed political moment in Turkish history they had a diverse audience—around twenty thousand “friends” on Facebook—from those occupying the park to others all around Turkey and on the other side of the world who were anticipating their nightly posting of images to help them make sense of the extraordinary events taking place. In 2014, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum mounted a ten-year retrospective of the collective’s work showing profound shifts in Turkey in the twenty-first century. At a time when there was tremendous disillusionment with mainstream media, the nightly Nar Photo Hour was producing highly valued visual journalism. They weren’t providing visual “content,” because it wasn’t filling space in any preexisting print or online news publications. Moreover, this was visual journalism, not just a slide show of images, since they were reporting on many different aspects of the protests.
They respected the coverage of some of the foreigners whose work they’d seen, and they also saw the value of their own work: “We’re personally implicated. We are not just witnesses here. As citizens, we are ourselves victims of this state violence.” They felt a great responsibility not to incriminate individuals and not to allow their cameras to be coopted by the government’s dramaturgy by producing images of violent protestors engaged in vandalism that could then be used to justify the police crackdown. Every night they discussed which images to post and argued about how not to reinforce nationalist framings of the (p.293) events, a visual challenge because of the hyperpresence of flags. Precisely because they were local photographers who had been documenting increasing social consciousness about urban issues for many years, they saw the political significance of the peaceful gathering of very diverse groups. While much of the foreign press framed the Gezi protests as violent clashes between protestors and police, the Nar Photos collective visualized the tremendous gathering of a wide spectrum of citizens. Nar Photos documented that ideologically very different groups in Turkey could gather as citizens in peaceful protest, and that the prime minister was not the only person who could draw large crowds. They were brokering their own photographs, undertaking investigative visual journalism, and becoming a trusted source of information.
At the end of the interview, the youngest member of the collective told me: “You know there is a moment which I will never forget. Early on I was sitting at the computer, editing my images and loading them into the archive. Other people’s images were also up on the screen. Looking at them out of the corner of my eye, I found myself wondering: where in the world are these images of protest from? Where are people standing up for their rights? I simply couldn’t imagine that images of such mass protests were from my country. I would not have thought it possible just a few days ago.”
What surprised him was how many people had come together to take a stand. Even though he had produced some of them, the images on his screen were formative: they showed him that this could be what defending democracy looked like—not somewhere else in the world, but in his own country. Formative fictions can produce hope as well as reinforce stereotypes. Nar Photos’ images inspired him, and thousands of others, to imagine that their world could be different.
Circulation as News
Digital obliges us to think much more about the image in terms of production.
—Michèle Léridon, global news director, AFP
On January 8, 2015, the Kouachi brothers stormed into the weekly editorial meeting at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve people in retaliation for the magazine’s depictions of Muslims—specifically, the prophet Mohammed. The magazine had also run the controversial 2005 cartoons initially published in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. Across town another man killed five (p.294) people, and at the end of a three-day manhunt all three assassins were also killed. Cherif Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers, had served time in prison for ties to terrorism. In the transcript of his 2007 trial Kouachi states that he got the idea of joining a terror group when he saw images of the torture and humiliation of Muslims at the hands of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
What was true during my fieldwork—that images in the press, from photographs to cartoons, were not just illustrating current events but were often factors in causing events, thereby playing a critical and highly controversial part in political and military action—is even truer now. The war of images intensified because of the seismic changes in the infrastructures of representation. Elsewhere I’ve analyzed the complex military calculations around circulating photographs of corpses during the Iraq war, especially the larger-than-life framed close-up of Jordanian terrorist Zarqawi’s face after his death.18 When Osama bin Laden was finally killed in 2011, President Obama did not allow for any photographs to be released in fear that there might be a backlash. A few years later he announced a decision to increase air strikes against ISIS in Syria shortly after the circulation of a video showing photojournalist James Foley’s beheading. Images do not just matter politically; their circulation or censorship is a political act in and of itself.
The unity rally called for by French President François Holland following the Charlie Hebdo attacks was a spectacle staged by the state to produce images of unity after an act of terror allegedly caused by injurious visuals. The photograph that circulated worldwide and showed “[m]ore than a million people [surging] through the boulevards of Paris behind dozens of world leaders walking arm-in-arm Sunday”19 was a laboriously constructed and highly symbolic news image.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, new digital technologies promised instantaneous dissemination and global reach, but they regularly do not deliver on that promise. Paul Blec, a veteran photo editor at AFP, emphasized that a major challenge in AFP’s coverage of the unity rally had been the circulation of images: “I don’t even remember how many photographers we had working. We even managed to get a photographer who was working from an airplane who could provide aerial views. … There were lots of photographers who worked for an hour or two but then they left because it was impossible.” Given the extraordinary number of people on the streets, “they couldn’t really circulate,” Paul stressed, conflating the circulation of the photographer with the circulation of the image. “They could practically only photograph (p.295) what was right in front of them, so they found ways to leave or to transmit.”
Earlier Paul had described to me how photographers worked in tandem with an editor back at the desk in central Paris during big events such as the unity rally. Once the photographers transmitted their selected images, which they could do directly from their camera (either through a Wi-Ficonnection or over a 3G or 4G network), the editor at the desk in the AFP office could see the photographer’s output on a designated channel right on his or her computer monitor. In theory this could happen practically instantaneously once the photographer had released the shutter button. So why had transmission been a problem the morning of the rally? “There was practically no network because there were approximately a million people on the street and everyone was photographing themselves and sending selfies to their friends. And all those people were making calls from a single spot so there was absolutely no network functioning, making it impossible to transmit photographs [to the desk].”
The saturated networks meant the photographers were obliged to physically leave the event. Even once they could get to their motorcycles they had to negotiate blocked roadways due to traffic. In other words, the principal challenge in photographing the crowd amassed in Paris was the size of the networked crowd itself. Perhaps the actual democratization of photography is not just a matter of whose images get published or made available to publics, but rather one of network neutrality, a result of using the same networks to circulate images. The sheer volume of new media production—photographs taken on cell phones circulated over wireless telephone networks—and bodies in the streets forced the professional photographers not shooting aerial views back onto their motorcycles as in the days prior to on-site digital transmission. They had physically to take their memory cards to the AFP office or at least find a spot far enough from the crowds that they could connect to the Internet and transmit their images. This time it was the selfies that grounded the circulation of professional photographs. Whether or not the professional photographs had to compete with amateur images for real estate or payments, they were competing with them for the means of circulation, the infrastructures of representation.
Referring to the widespread use by news outlets of the video of the Kouachi brothers gunning down Ahmed Merabet, the French policeman they encountered outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices, Paul explained, “If a video like that is circulating online you have to decide whether or not to circulate it on the wire. This decision depends not only on (p.296) whether or not the video itself is journalistically important but whether its circulation itself is news. So the news might not be what’s in the video but that this video is in wide circulation. … There is a distinction between using the video or image as a document itself and saying that this photo or video is circulating on social networks.”
Paul reminded me that he had in fact not spent the whole day on coverage of the rally: “There were sports and wars elsewhere.” Specifically, reports had emerged of a massacre in Baga, Nigeria, on the border with Chad. Terrorist group Boko Haram had allegedly killed up to two thousand civilians. Paul had to validate aerial shots showing the regions of destruction, but neither AFP nor any of its competitors had anyone in northern Nigeria. “It was simply too dangerous,” Paul explained. The 2014 AFP annual report stated that AFP not only would not send any of its own reporters to parts of Syria, Iraq, and northern Nigeria, but also that they would not use work produced by freelancers who went to these regions on their own. Global news director Michèle Léridon observed that AFP was confronted with “the unprecedented use of images intended to terrorise.” AFP’s decision not to send reporters into such risky areas “means that propaganda photos and videos released by IS are often our only sources of information about what is happening inside the self-declared ‘caliphate.’”20 Which is to say, there are now procedures in place to verify and find the source of images released by terrorist groups, but AFP and news organizations have decided that the circulation of images that terrorists produce is news that needs to be covered. So AFP brokers their images—adding captions and pushing the images out to news clients.
“ISIS doesn’t need anybody to tell its side of the story. They should be holding workshops on social media use for us,” one veteran photographer explained when I asked why he was so much more wary now than in prior conflicts. “Photojournalists are no longer viewed as neutral players … but rather as protagonists. There is less a sense that certain players, particularly in the Islamic world, need us.” Digital technologies transformed the infrastructures of representation that enabled terrorist organizations, militaries, governments, and NGOs to all broker images in new ways. As I had already begun to see during my fieldwork at AFP, they could now produce and circulate photographs independently and had many more online publications of their own. Meanwhile, the increasing demand for visual content and the tyranny of the empty frame meant that their production was circulating ever more widely in the mainstream media.
(p.297) AFP now has a social media editor, who was responsible for, among other things, launching AFP’s Instagram account in 2014. AFP also continues to supply news directly to online news portals. Its relationship to the French state might be changing, though it is too early to tell to what extent, but the annual report gives a picture of an organization that is overtly more client and profit focused than the AFP of my fieldwork. This is revealed in such comments in the report as “[S]trategically, video and sport will continue to be our absolute priorities in order to guarantee the internationalisation of revenue.” Last year AFP took advantage of its global reach by putting together “lifestyle packages.” At the time of my fieldwork, a Getty Images senior executive explained the strength of a visual content provider as the ability to address the diverse picture needs of the newspaper world: “We can supply travel pictures, lifestyle pictures, celebrity, sports, and news pictures. I don’t think the traditional wires offer anything close to that.”21 A decade later, they are certainly making an effort to catch up.
What is the greatest change at AFP Photo? Paul chuckled when I ask this question: “It’s quiet. If you walk in to the editing room now you’d think you were at a bank. The desks resemble a bank: there’s a lot less movement in the room, and there is little noise other than the tapping of fingers on keyboards.” The number of meetings has been reduced, the little café is gone, everything in the office is electronic, and there are many more processes in place to handle the significantly increased volume of images—three thousand new photos a day. “There is no Desk France, there is no Desk Inter anymore. They’ve been fused.” Now there’s one desk. Fifteen editors in Paris all do the same job, and all supposedly do it in English. All images must now be captioned in English despite the fact that AFP still has a significant percentage of Francophone clients, because it was decided that translating the caption was slowing down circulation of the images and creating a disadvantage for AFP in comparison to its competition. The stakes are also higher since many of the editors at the publications, who would have fact-checked the wire caption, have been laid off.22
“If I edit four hundred images a day now, one hundred of them are of football,” Paul told me. When photographers shoot at soccer matches, they have assigned spots and plug their cameras right into the network of the agency. The images then appear instantly as a channel on the editor’s desk. To maximize the number of images they can work on and to keep track of photographers’ channels, editors now work on two or three screens before them at once. The cost of such coverage is, (p.298) however, high, since event organizers in sports and in cultural events increasingly try to control their public image by charging high fees for credentials, thereby framing the photographs to be taken long before the photographer arrives on site.
Meanwhile, Maggie, a photo editor at Newsworld, told me about receiving a breaking news story text notifying her of the Charlie Hebdo attack. “Cost concerns determine everything now,” she said. Her first thought was not who to assign to cover the story, though a decade ago she may have had three or four photographers covering multiple aspects of the story. She assumed she’d have to rely instead on the wire services for the images. Given that the event was still in flux, “you can’t have a photographer on assignment,” she explained. “You don’t know where to put him.” The photographer must be put somewhere, for there is no time for investigation. As the event grew in magnitude, she decided to assign a photographer to the story: “So I went online and spent hours on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram looking at who was sending pictures out. … It’s not like before where there was a person at the agency feeding me ideas and pitching me their photographers”
The photographer she reached out to covered the rally. She also asked him to photograph the mosque the Kouachi brothers had attended. The news publication’s reporter had interviewed the chief imam of the mosque earlier. The photographer sent Maggie the first photos by WeTransfer, an online file-transferring platform, within two hours of their initial conversation. He ended up working an additional day or two in order to cover stories about the suburbs of Paris, anti-Semitism, and Muslims in Paris. Maggie explained to me, “You need someone who can edit, who is fast and who has an eye. So you’re watching on Facebook to see who is posting pictures soon after an event. Are they moving in the digital realm? His images stood out to me on the agency’s website, but you always take a chance and have to assume that he can not just shoot but transmit really, really fast. … Speed and reach have replaced exclusivity as the key value of news images.”
Image Ethics: A Sign of the Times
Every February news publications around the world run the story of the World Press Photo contest awards being announced. At the 2015 awards, Mads Nissen, a staff photographer for the Danish paper Politiken, received first prize for an intimate photograph of a gay couple in St Petersburg, Russia, and there was much celebration of the photograph’s (p.299) not being one of conflict—a subject that has been perceived to dominate World Press Photo winners in the past.23 However, the attention paid to the winners in the press report was somewhat overshadowed by the announcement by Lars Boering, World Press Photo’s new managing director, that 22 percent of the entries that made it to the final round had been disqualified for postprocessing deemed inappropriate for journalism. The message being sent by the new leader of World Press Photo was that the 2015 winners had not only impressed the international jury of experts but also passed the scrutiny of two technicians—working separately—checking the original files (RAW files) for significant alterations to the content of the image.24
A few weeks later the organization revoked the award for the winner in the Contemporary Issues category. Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo had won with a gritty ten-image series titled The Dark Heart of Europe, about Charleroi, Belgium, a city he claimed symbolized the whole of Europe: “the collapse of industrial manufacturing, rising unemployment, increasing immigration and outbreak of micro-criminality.”25 The series included ominous scenes of nudity, from a shirtless tattooed man with a gun to a naked woman in a cage. Intentionally or not, the images suggest a connection between sexual deviance and postindustrial blight. The mayor of Charleroi wrote a complaint letter addressing not only the negative light cast on his community but also the allegations that some of the photographs had been staged, including one showing the photographer’s cousin having sex in the back of a car. The lighting of the photograph—apparently the photographer had placed a flashlight inside the car to light the couple from below—drew criticism from many photographers. At issue was whether there was any place in photojournalism for staging—defined by the contest’s rules as something that would not have happened without the photographer’s presence. Jean-François Leroy, director of Visa Pour l’Image, announced that it was canceling World Press Photo’s exhibit for the 2015 festival.
In the end, Troilo’s award was revoked—not because of any allegations of staging, but because one particular image had been captioned by the photographer as taken in Charleroi but in fact had been taken in Molenbeek, some sixty kilometers away. The particular image is as bizarre as it is visually striking, showing a powdered male body stretched out on a table surrounded by several nude female bodies and men (clothed) who seem to be at a lascivious feast. The image apparently showed the re-enacting of a painting in the studio of the well-known Belgian artist Vadim Vosters. This proved to be the crucial detail. At (p.300) issue was not the ambiguous relationship between this restaging of a painting and postindustrial urban Europe, but rather the actual postal code of Vosters’s studio, since that had been given as the location of the shot. The managing editor of World Press photo could now claim, “We now have a clear case of misleading information, and this changes the way the story is perceived. A rule has now been broken, and a line has been crossed.” In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, photographer Nina Berman described this as “an Al Capone–style solution: if we can’t get him on murder let’s get him for tax evasion.”26
Boering concluded that the whole matter had been a sign of the times, in which photojournalism and documentary photography are changing rapidly. The issue was simply that The Dark Heart of Europe belonged to a category of personal storytelling that was somewhere in between art and photojournalism. Would this change photojournalism in the digital age? one interviewer asked him. He answered, “I think photojournalism will become more and more part of the visual industry, the creative visual industry, and the communication through images is going to be massive. It already is. I think we should talk about visual communication in the future, and photojournalism will be a part of that.”27 As this book has shown, photojournalism has been a part of the creative visual industry at least since the rise of visual content providers. What is unclear is how this might contribute to better journalism.
These debates are not new. Think back to Alex Levy’s comments to his peers during the 2004 Masterclass insisting that he was “not changing reality … just bringing up the colors” to move the reader.28 Boering notes, “We always know it will be processed. There is no such thing as a negative these days. It’s a file that’s been processed.”29 Of course photography historians have rightly underscored that the potential to enhance images long predates pixels, but the question has shifted from “Has this image been manipulated?” to “In what specific ways has this image been manipulated?” One of the roles of the World Press Photo jury these days is apparently to judge postprocessing by applicable industry standards.
If we compare Troilo’s transgression with Michael Finkel’s, described in the introduction, there are some similarities: Finkel misidentified a particular individual; Troilo misidentified a specific location. However, there are also differences. Finkel argued that he had extrapolated facts “from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys,” and the newspaper issued a second editor’s note some months later claiming that, with a couple of minor corrections, Finkel’s reporting had held up (p.301) to scrutiny.30 Troilo told the Guardian that “some of his images were staged to recreate issues or scenes he says typify Charleroi, but he argues this does not affect the journalistic integrity of his work.” His defense partly rests on the fact that he was, he says, “telling a story based on things that happened in Charleroi and during that year I always checked these in the press.”31 Whose journalistic integrity was Troilo relying on? In other words, Troilo seems to have taken his task as precisely what some of the text editors I encountered thought appropriate for photography: illustrating the news that was constructed in words, providing cutting-edge photography or avant-garde visual content for those who might want it “with their news.” That Troilo always checked events in the press implies that he does not see himself as part of the press itself. On his webpage Troilo diligently provides links to several articles about Charleroi on which he based his images.
Moreover, as was evident in the number of stories Maggie needed the freelance photographer to cover in just a few days, budgets prevent even those within the press from doing more in-depth coverage. Nina Berman, an experienced documentary photographer, sums up the complexity and interconnection of the changes well:
Before the great media disruption, photographers were sent out on a story for weeks, sometimes months. The purpose was for the photographer to watch. Quietly, patiently, carefully observing subtle changes in mood, emotion, light, shadow, and through framing and positioning, and trusted relationships with subjects, we were to bring back images that reflected an uncompromised, closely seen reality.
Then budgets shrank, three months turned into three weeks, three weeks into three days, three days into three hours and what’s left to shoot? A portrait where posing, lighting, sometimes propping, is now the norm.
Digital cameras, and the ease of moving pictures from laptops and phones, created a wave of overnight photographers from diverse backgrounds—art, journalism, fashion—all vying for the same publications. Major media players like the New York Times and Time now routinely publish a variety of photographic styles from staged portraits, some of them heavily post-processed, to traditional reportage to app-laced iPhone images, making it difficult to know what constitutes photojournalism today.32
World Press Photo’s new managing director, Lars Boering—in great contrast to many voices who over the years have declared photojournalism to be under threat, ailing, or dead—declared, “People are always surprised when I say that I’m very optimistic when I look at the (p.302) opportunities and chances photographers and visual storytellers have these days.”33 I want to argue that Boering’s optimism makes perfect sense for photographers and visual storytellers. We need to be asking about the future of journalism as well. Perhaps the director of Visa Pour l’Image, Jean-François Leroy, is right; maybe it is the press and not photography that is in crisis. But if the news must be accompanied by obligatory images due to content-management systems, a press in crisis nonetheless shapes public perceptions of the possibilities for photography. What is lost if photojournalists are merely visual storytellers? I ask this question not to reify an outdated and never attainable ideal of truth, but rather to suggest that we are losing some anchoring of the value of images to knowledge about the world. This anchoring is central to the political power of news images.
I heard similar optimism from a senior executive responsible for editorial assignments at a prominent visual content provider: “Imagery has never been as important as it is now. This is a time of opportunity.” Part of his enthusiasm came from a conviction that today’s youth have a different relationship to imagery and that everyone’s being a photographer in a digital age of social media platforms is a positive development for professional photography because more people appreciate images. When I inquired about the shrinking budgets for editorial work and archival sales, he replied:
There is a new church. It is no longer [established media outlets]. They don’t have those budgets anymore. But Merrill Lynch [the investment banking division of Bank of America] does. There are lots of foundations that are being set up by blue-chip companies such as the Hewlett Foundation, and they do good things. Nothing to do with the corporation. We’re doing good things like empowering women around the world through microcredit.
For the photographer this is a great opportunity because they get to do ethical work and tell stories they would have told anyway but they just have to go to a different church. My job is to help them find different outlets.
You need to think about it as the church paying for it. As noblemen used to pay for art, this is about artists finding revenue. Personal vision is of course still important. If you look hard enough and are smart enough you can survive. You need to be looking at different ways of making money.
The executive repeatedly referred to photographers as artists in search of revenue. In his telling, news is just another art form for which one can find a wealthy donor. What the analogy to papal patronage runs counter to is the very ideal of a free press that serves public interests. Who will have access to these images? At the fiftieth-anniversary events for World Press Photo in 2005, when most of the attendees were bemoaning citizen (p.303) journalism, Drik Picture Library founder Shahidul Alam had underscored the importance of independent websites, especially for “stories mainstream media is afraid to publish”: stories critical of advertisers and sponsors, of the media itself, or, in developing countries like Bangladesh, of nongovernmental aid organizations. “No one likes to bite the hands that feeds you,” says Alam.34 Moreover, a patronage model is hardly democratic in terms of who will get support. Which church will support those whom Alam calls “photographers in the majority world”? When I asked about this uneven playing field, the executive mentioned a young Latin American photographer who had applied for the visual content provider’s grant for a photographic project: “That’s how we discovered him. Now he will be shown at Perpignan.”
Contests are perhaps more important than ever because not only do they get a photographer recognized in the journalism world, but an agent can then approach a corporation and suggest using a Pulitzer Prize–winning or World Press Photo Award–winning photographer for their commercial work. “The public is far more discerning, and they are looking for reality,” the executive told me. “Journalistic content is what marketing wants. That’s the kind of marketing people believe.” The executive’s optimism stems from his belief in a claim, made by many in marketing, that the public is moved by journalistic imagery. My question is how this might translate into better institutional support for visual journalism, not just commercial work for prize-winning photojournalists. So if one is thinking of photographers, there do seem to be many opportunities, most of which revolve around corporations, either directly through commercial work or indirectly through work for corporate-sponsored philanthropic foundations. The question remains, however, of what happens to journalism itself when what photographers can get paid for is producing “journalistic content” for marketing. If the public are looking for reality, can we not find ways to get them to pay for quality visual journalism rather than paying for goods marketed with journalistic imagery?
Visibility, not Money
As the chapters of this book have demonstrated, the pressure for photographers to earn their living partly through commercial work or through celebrity photographs is not new—the financial equation has always been a difficult one—nor is the sense among photojournalists that there is something dirty about profits. Yet because both the volume (p.304) of and budgets for editorial work have dropped drastically, photographers have to do more commercial work to stay afloat. In this context, the enthusiasm about work for foundations and nongovernmental organizations becomes even more comprehensible. For example, a veteran photographer explained that, compared with commercial work, editorial work for NGOs “is closer to my heart—still what I want to do.” Moreover, the work was often fulfilling because he knew photographers could not affect change on their own but could have an impact by “working with the change makers.” And, once produced, journalistic content, or what Boering calls “genuine images,” might then appear in traditional news publications, whether digital or print. The above photographer told me that every now and then he might still get a project commissioned by National Geographic or the New Yorker, but “more often I get the work supported through alternative means and then go to more traditional outlets so that they can publish the work once I have created it through other means.”
The critical question is, Where does journalism happen? Does a photograph become a news image just by appearing in a news publication, or do the processes of production matter as well? Is there actually anything being lost if photographers find creative ways of producing work that is important to them by working for foundations and NGOs? For starters, the potential depth of reporting generated by writers and photographers collaborating on a story together is lost. Might we not see this as creative adaptation at a time of great transition and uncertainty? After all, photographers are then able to accept the low payments offered by news publications or their blogs that want to show their work or can even agree to let it be used for free because the bulk of their income is not generated through editorial sales. If you recall the news and editorial division at GVI, they made first sales to news publications; then the sales team could sell the image for commercial purposes or to other kinds of publications. Here it has been reversed: an NGO assumes the cost of production; the second sale is to the press, which is offered a finished product to whose production it did not have to contribute resources.
David Campbell draws a distinction between modes of information, photojournalism being his principal concern, and modes of distribution, such as the traditional press. He argues that photojournalism can not only survive but thrive if it moves beyond the fortunes of newspapers and magazines.35 Approached not from the perspective of how photographers can make a living, but how publics can be served by (p.305) quality visual journalism, the question again is, Where does journalism happen? While I do not believe that the solution lies only in existing magazines and newspapers, I believe that photographs are shaped by the institutional contexts in which they are produced and brokered. When photographers are willing to let their images be put online for free or paltry sums, they at least get visibility. The real cost may be the invisibility of the work of professional image brokers and their disappearance altogether.
“Visibility is in the 2000s what money was in the 1990s,” Daphne, the industry veteran, explained to me. The photo blogs of traditional media are important because no one will hire you if you’re not visible.36 It is easy to see why all kinds of photographers—from the young, naive idealists to the war-weary veterans—might jump at the opportunity to work with organizations perceived as change makers: this is a way to skip over all the self-doubt confessed to me over the years about whether news images actually have impact. And yet what is also short-circuited is a core function of journalism in democracy: the contribution to a vibrant public sphere. If a photo essay is appearing in a news publication only after it has been produced by an NGO, can it possibly offer information that might challenge the solutions proposed or pursued by that organization? Who will produce the work about issues that foundations might not yet have tackled? What about work that isn’t necessarily geared to highlight a problem or offer a solution?37 How do these image brokers and those at traditional news outlets share information when a project is chosen for publication in the latter? It is imperative for us to investigate how philanthropic foundations and NGOs are funding the production of news images and to better understand whether this is a new form of journalism or the production of journalistic content as marketing.
Looking at the World Picture after Another Earthquake
In the beginning of this book about the seismic changes in the landscape of the photojournalism industry, I analyzed a photograph of a villager looking through the window of a helicopter as he was being evacuated following the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, resulting in almost nine thousand deaths—one of the largest and most tragic news stories of the year. Yet there was no influx of cosmopolitan photojournalists.38 Perhaps (p.306) we should celebrate this. Daphne told me that she always reminded those looking back to the glory days of news photography that it was a time when practically all of the photographers came from the Western world and worked for Western media: “It was a small profession, mostly of foreign observers, for a relatively small audience. … Information is now created locally. This is a big change. It’s not just about not sending people [because there aren’t any travel budgets anymore]; this is a change in perspective. A local photographer is talking about his or her own country. They are interested in development and growth, and people in photojournalism have not traditionally been interested in growth.”39 Presumably there have been many people, not just the mayor of Charleroi, Belgium, who have felt misrepresented by photojournalism. And some of the most respected work in photojournalism certainly ired the officials in the part of the world being represented. Which is to say, image brokering is always a situated and political activity. Daphne assured me that, thanks to online journalism, blogs, and social media, “[t]he world population who saw quality photojournalism before was small. Now a very big part of the world sees quality photojournalism.”
Just a few hours after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake, Nepalese professional photographer Sumit Dayal and New Delhi–based freelance writer Tara Bedi—along with several others who ran Photo.Circle, a platform for emerging photographers in Kathmandu—launched an Instagram feed titled “Nepal Photo Project.” Instagram, owned by Facebook, is an online mobile photo- and video-sharing service that enables users to share visual material through social-networking sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr. The Nepal Photo Project, set out “to collectively put out useful and credible information from people that we know and trust on the ground, all under one banner,” Bedi explained to Time magazine’s Lightbox blog.40 They gathered images from thirty-five photographers from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. “The group chose Instagram and Facebook because “it is becoming evident that people tend to consume news and information through images,” wrote Dayal for the Lightbox blog. “Nepal Photo Project is our way of attempting to make sure that the visuals become more functional and personal in nature as opposed to just devastation porn.” In addition to the images shared on Instagram, all of which have extensive captions, the group’s Facebook page has links to fund-raising campaigns, photographs of missing people, volunteer opportunities, and other pertinent resources. Bedi added, “We’ve been thinking a lot about what Nepal (p.307) Photo Project is doing and if it’s making a significant contribution—or any contribution at all—and what we’re beginning to realize is that it is not the strength of the images that get responses, it is the stories they communicate and the captions. It sets us apart from regular reportage and our followers have really appreciated the photographers’ putting such a personal face on this tragedy.”
Bedi is voicing what many other image brokers in the preceding chapters have also emphasized: that news images are a way to put a human face on a map. Ironically, what she is describing—stories that communicate, with excellent captions—is what my informants described as good reportage. It is not the kind of reportage that can be done quickly while searching for a photo to illustrate a story so it can be filed. I found out about the Nepal Photo Project because as soon as the group began to establish themselves, Sumit Dayal invited several key image brokers at various news publications and blogs to a private group that the photographers involved had formed. This allowed photo editors at news publications to see exactly how these photographers were being instructed to write captions or guided in terms of how to post their photography. For example, Dayal encouraged everyone to link their Instagram account to Facebook and Twitter and then post everything to Instagram so that it could immediately find three outlets. Moreover, he reassured photographers stranded in places with little or no Internet connectivity that an advantage of Instagram was that you could post even with very slow connections. Dayal’s tips were directly about the infrastructures of representation. Watching their production as she searched for ways to visualize the earthquake story for Newsworld, photo editor Maggie was impressed: “They were taking control of the story. Local photographers were being their own news service.”
In November 2015, the Nepal Photo Project had sixty thousand followers. Like the Nar Photo Collective’s Facebook page, it appealed to diverse audiences. The Nepal Photo Project’s images are accompanied by extensive comments and detailed information. Figure 9, a photograph taken by Indian photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani, shows a boy and his father aboard an Indian Air Force rescue helicopter. Or rather, it shows the photograph as it appeared on the Nepal Photo Project’s Instagram feed. There is no pretense of seeing through anyone’s eyes. The photographer tells us the context of his encounter with nine-year-old Suresh Tamang, and the boy stares at us. It is a photograph about being looked at. The frame is almost that of a selfie. Next to the image one can see comments by viewers, a certain audience’s (p.308)
(p.309) reception becoming part of one’s view of the image. Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012. The time is ripe for more research on what kinds of journalism are possible on commercial social media platforms as new infrastructures of representation.
Visual Worldmaking Tomorrow
By the time this book is published it is likely that former Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder will have a million followers on Instagram. Photographers emphasize to me that the potential readership on social media is far beyond that of traditional news outlets. Michael Strong, who no longer works at GVI, couldn’t be more excited about the future of photojournalism: “I think it’s an epic moment. Everybody’s taking pictures, consuming pictures. Pictures have become absolutely critical. Look at Instagram. People are browsing other people’s photographs. It is a beautiful moment in terms of engagement. … People love pictures. Now when they see truly great photographs they appreciate the craft in a new way.” He admits that “[t]he business side is a mess.” But when I ask about the future of visual journalism he’s exuberant: “The new currency is Instagram followers. Right now social media creates a lift, but we haven’t monetized it. … But you know that’s coming. … Right now if you are an independent storyteller you can communicate directly with your audience. If you have something to say, you can say it and find your audience.” Strong believes we will soon be asked to pay to see certain Instagram feeds or other venues for visual journalism.
I have focused this book on image brokers and their invisible labor because I want to push back against the myth of the solo visual storyteller. David Guttenfelder’s Instagram feed might have many followers, but he also had Associated Press and National Geographic behind him, both institutions with considerable resources devoted to knowledge production. This is not to take anything away from his or any other photographer’s talent or identity as a journalist, but rather to argue that the visual knowledge a photojournalist shares with others, whether they are newspaper readers or Instagram followers, is not his or hers alone. Guttenfelder himself points to people who have contributed to his photography.41 News images are fundamentally shaped by the infrastructures of representation in which they are produced and circulated. Professional image brokers committed to journalism are key to ensuring that it is not merely commercial interests that shape the ways in which (p.310) world news is visualized. Visual journalism can be strong only if it is more than just a part of the visual content industry.
Even World Press Photo these days is more modest about its mission. Its website tells us that the world, press, and photography are all being interrogated at this moment.42 We cannot return to a predigital moment. Nor should we desire to do so. As Daphne repeatedly told me, “It was a time when practically all of the photographers came from the Western world and worked for Western media.” Yet I do share Michael Strong’s optimism. This is moment of great potential—a moment when a new kind of journalism could emerge. Michael Schudson claims, “Everything we thought we knew about journalism needs to be rethought in the digital age.”43 The time is now to harness the explosion of interest in photographic imagery and promote forms of journalism in which images are not merely illustrative but generate new kinds of investigations. Moreover, because of the ways in which photographs can potentially circulate, visual journalism can provide possibilities for more global collaborations and platforms, providing opportunities not only for infinitely mobile cosmopolitan photographers, but also for photographers worldwide who want to share their visions. From selfies to satellite images, photographs are integral parts of our daily practices of worldmaking on many scales. News images are central to our understandings of places in the world—both our own and that of others—and shape our ability to imagine the global political possibilities before us. The best news images are the ones that spark conversations and provoke questions. The best image brokers ask critical questions before, during, and after the shutter button has been released. Understanding the work of image brokers, and the ways that images and worldviews are jointly produced and circulated, is a first step to discovering new ways of seeing.
(1.) I have waited so long, in fact, that Michael Finkel, the freelance writer mentioned in the introduction and fired for using a composite character in his article on child slavery in Africa, in the meantime published a mea culpa book on his transgression. Brad Pitt optioned the book, True Story, and has since produced a movie of the same name. Finkel is played by Jonah Hill, whom we no longer talk about as a young actor. Finkel has returned to magazine writing. He wrote a story on malaria, photographed by John Stanmayer, that was published in National Geographic and won the 2008 Magazine Award for Photojournalism.
(3.) In September 2015 World Press Photo published a report, available on its website, that gives a detailed and data-rich overview of photojournalism worldwide: The State of News Photography: The Lives and Livelihoods of Photojournalists in the Digital Age.
(4.) Blogs are also online platforms for much debate about photojournalism. Some are attached to news publications, others are the work of individuals. A few such examples include: bjp-online.com, bagnewsnotes.com (now readingthepictures.org.) david-campbell.org, digitaljournalist.org, duckrabbit.info/blog, aphotoeditor.com, nocaptionneeded.com, politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.com, precise-moment.com.
(5.) Benton 2014, “Getty Images Blows the Web’s Mind” describes how this free gift to the world is a way of ensuring that the Getty brand is even more ubiquitous. It will allow Getty to collect data on all of the websites where its images are embedded, and potentially to advertise in those spaces. See also Laurent, “Getty Images Makes 35 Million Images Free to Use.”
(6.) An extremely sobering moment came in 2014, when my class studied the Abu Ghraib images of prisoner abuse by US soldiers ten years after their release. All through fieldwork and for years afterward, I had been told these were the defining images of the war in Iraq, these would be the iconic images that (p.366) endured. The majority of my American students were seeing the photos of prisoner abuse for the first time, and many did not know they existed. Even if they had encountered parodies of the images, they did not know the original referents. Most of my international students were aware of them and often visually familiar with them as well. Perhaps Hariman and Lucaites were right to declare, “In the United States, history lasts only one generation.” Hariman and Lucaites No Caption Needed, 186. Perhaps many governments are happy to have shorter history cycles to match faster news cycles. By itself this anecdote is not significant, but it compelled me to rethink the assumed political impact of these photographs. Moreover, the time is ripe for more-nuanced research on how allegedly iconic images operate in different parts of the world. See Ghosh, Global Icons. My students’ uneven historical recollection also suggests that more research is needed in how a particular media event is covered—not just initially, but as it unfolds over time or gains recognition as an important moment in a collective history. For how long is an image iconic? See “Global Iconic Events: How News Stories Travel through Time, Space and Media,” Julia Sonnevend’s analysis of the fall of the Berlin wall as a recurring media event.
(7.) See chapter 3 for a discussion of the visualization of the 2004 European Parliamentary elections and page 137 for an example of how the United Kingdom’s Guardian ran the image in both its online and print editions. In 2014, photographs of the Hungarian women in “traditional dress” taken by Mr. Balogh and distributed by Reuters appeared in Haaretz, El País, the New York Times, the Guardian, Die Welt, the BBC website, at least one Russian independent Internet news portal, and the journal Foreign Affairs, among others.
(11.) See the report by the Newspaper Association of America.
(13.) Associated Press, “Chicago Sun-Times Lays Off All Its Full-Time Photographers.” For my response to the layoffs, see Gürsel, “A Challenge for Visual Journalism.”
(14.) In November 2015, just before this book went to press, National Geographic laid off 9 percent of its workforce months after announcing a partnership with Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. Many staff photographers, photo editors, and designers were among those laid off. In his staff memo, CEO Gary Knell assured employees, “Looking ahead, I am confident National Geographic’s mission will be fulfilled in powerful, new and impactful ways, as we continue to change the world through science, exploration, education and storytelling.”
I chose not to do research at National Geographic because it is not a news publication. However, as Lutz and Collins have shown, it has produced extremely powerful formative fictions over the years. Many photojournalists publish some of their most important work in it, and as a publication in which images are not secondary, it has a very important place in documentary photography. However, had I done research at National Geographc, I could not generalize what I learned there to other news publications.
(19.) Several news sites ran the Associated Press dispatch written by Angela Charlton and Thomas Adamson. Yahoo News, Al Jazeera, and Fox News, among others, used this first sentence verbatim.
(20.) From the 2014 AFP annual report.
(30.) New York Times, April 14, 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/14/magazine/editors-note-461911.html.
(37.) These are questions my research will not allow me to answer, because what is called for is more research on the image brokers at philanthropic foundations and NGOs, as well as the evaluation processes behind grants for photographic projects.
(38.) Articles even appeared telling foreign photographers to stay away.
(p.368) (39.) This is addressed poignantly by Shahidul Alam, founder of Drik Picture Library in Bangladesh. Alam documented the demonstrations to drive out military dictatorship the 1980s. The Bangladeshi media was controlled by the state, so photographers tried to get their photographs published abroad. No one was interested. “In 1991 we had a massive cyclone. Suddenly members of the Western media were all over us, their appetites insatiable. The image of the starving Bangladeshi with outstretched arms with the white man as their savior was the image they craved. My battle had just begun.” Alam 2013, “Photography as My Guide,” 135. See also Clark, “Representing the Majority World”; and Clark, “The Production of a Contemporary Famine Image.”
(42.) Whereas just a few years ago their website expounded on the power of visual storytelling to “inform and shape” the world and declared their mission to be “to inspire understanding of the world,” nowadays they modestly claim, “We work to develop and promote quality visual journalism.”