Photojournalism at 100: Mature or Just Old?

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After a century of looking at the world, it’s time for press photography to take a look in the mirror

By Dennis Dimick and Jim Richardson

Photographer and scholar Lewis Bush has written a must-read and timely article for Witness from World Press Photo on the first century of photojournalism, and whether it can survive a second.

Estimates vary on when photojournalism began, but Bush uses 1919 as proximate start, citing the concurrent rise of European press after World War I, the arrival of 35mm Kodak panchromatic film, and the development of Leica cameras and soon-to-arrive wireless transmission systems.

His focus, and ours, is not so much on what has happened, but what happens now.

Bush discusses how photojournalism has “changed the world” in the past century, but not in ways we might think, or in ways its promoters hope. It is hard to claim, for example, that photojournalistic images have ended wars. This despite endless claims by aspiring young (always young) conflict photographers that somehow “their” photographs will finally reveal war’s insanity and that “my important work” will stop the perpetual cycle of self-destruction. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Appropriately Bush argues that the primary effect of photojournalism has been to “incrementally, bit by bit develop an audience’s perception of the world, its complexities and contradictions,” that this work can by accumulation and over time subtly shift people’s attitudes and perceptions on issues like child labor, HIV/AIDS, and migration.

But we live in a changed world from a time when a person began standing in front of a scene with a film-loaded camera photographing frame-by-frame what transpires.

This simple concept now seems quaint, as billions of people can now stand in front of anything they desire, capture digital images of the scene before them, and of themselves, and transmit un-distilled or toned impressions immediately, if not live, across the planet via a web of cellular and social networks. This seismic shift occurred in just the past decade when the iPhone and other smartphones arrived, essentially giving us camera-enabled network-connected pocket supercomputers.

Darkrooms for developing film and making prints have almost vanished with the rise of digital, yet photojournalism is still ruled by ideas that came from film photography: one frame, no panoramas, for example. “What is a darkroom?” is best left to history of photography discussions, yet darkroom rituals and rules still dominate the field.

Bush says that after a century of observing others, it’s time for photojournalism to perform some self-assessment. He asks three questions about photojournalism now: Who are we photographing and why? How are we photographing these things, and why? And, who are we photographing for?

This prompted conversations at EyesOn.Earth, since both of us have spent our working lives as photojournalists. Jim as a newspaper and magazine photographer, and Dennis as a photo editor focused on environmental issues, who also was newspaper photojournalist.

Jim prompted our conversation with a series of Twitter responses quoting from Bush’s questions, which follow here. Dennis has added comments, and thus this conversation evolved.

Who are we photographing, and why?
— Lewis Bush

“First, who are we photographing and why. "Photojournalism abounds with images of the ‘victims’ of late capitalism. Where, though, are the corresponding images of the perpetrators of our era?"

Dennis: A more relevant question for me now is “what are we photographing and why?” as I assume the who is embedded in the what.

Jim: Agreed. Here I think Bush is mistaken in the framing of the question. He’s accepting the unquestioned assumption that photojournalism is about photographing people. Actually I think photojournalism is wrong to define the field of photographic vision so narrowly on social justice and the plight of victims. Without looking for root causes (which are often much more difficult to find and photograph) photojournalism tends to make everything everywhere look the same.

Young cigar makers in Englahardt & Co., Tampa 1909 By Lewis W. Hine.

Young cigar makers in Englahardt & Co., Tampa 1909 By Lewis W. Hine.

Dennis: Indeed, revealing cause can offer insight otherwise lacking. My own inspirations were photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis W. Hine who documented poverty and child labor, and Farm Security Administration photographers who documented lifeways and poverty in rural America, and ecological and social impact of long-term drought on the U.S. Great Plains.

Riis photographed impoverished people, immigrants mostly, stuffed in New York tenements. Hine focused on children working in hazardous coal operations, and children who labored in textile mills. FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange photographed people after they lost their crops and their soil blew away during the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Pictures of victims, yes, but it’s a photography rooted in social issues, seeking to point out issues of inequality and social concern, and their causes where possible, like the rampant plow down of perennial grasslands for wheat, that set the stage for wind-blown soil erosion.

Jim: The two cases you mention are really relevant here. In the case of Hines’ child workers, the problem was embodied in the subject: The problem was children working and the pictures show just that. The problem and the victims are one and the same. In the case of the FSA I would argue that while we, today, focus on the images showing the victims of the Dust Bowl and Depression, that’s not all that the FSA photographers were shooting. They were also documenting basic conditions of rural life and how farming was done so that it could be improved. We neglect those pictures of farm methods (and to be fair, many of them are rather pedestrian) while focusing almost entirely on the human anguish. But Roy Stryker, who directed the FSA effort, was under no illusion that photos of the anguish itself could bring about change. He knew they had to show Congress pictures of what could be done.

Dennis: For me now, photojournalism as practiced today - and I mean photography produced and presented in the news – generally has insufficient context. As Bush points out, pictures of victims, but little or nothing of the perpetrators. Pictures of the war and its victims but little or nothing of the causes, the decadal droughts, for example, in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, that drive social disruption and migration. Pictures of flood victims in eastern North Carolina after a hurricane, but little that addresses the economic drivers that put people in vulnerable floodplains in the first place, or allowed siting of nearby industrial-scale hog waste ponds that rupture from heavy rain rendering water undrinkable and land uninhabitable. You would never see these industrial operations located where society’s decision makers and well-heeled live.

As you say Jim in a recent posting here, too much of “the rapids,” and too little of “the river.”

Jim: Thanks for remembering! Yeah, by that I mean we spend too much time photographing the really exciting stuff (rapids) and too little time photographing the fundamentally important conditions that drive the great trends of human life. (The river.)

And yes, Dennis, your comment about flood plains is right on target. While covering the Mississippi River flood of ‘93 I could see that much of the personal property damage was the result of just plain old bad zoning. Why were people allowed to build houses on a flood plain? Mostly because weak or corrupt zoning commissions didn’t stop it. But heroic people sandbagging almost always makes good news pictures.

Dennis: I loved Bush’s line: “More than ever, photojournalists have a responsibility to expose power, to lend visual weight to Honoré de Balzac’s observation that behind every great fortune there lies a great crime.”

Jim: And by the way, I’m no innocent here. My career as a newspaper photographer followed these familiar paths and I was a master at rationalizing what I photographed. For instance, I spent hours listening to the police radio in our offices, sprinting into action when a “10-48” (an injury auto accident) came over the airwaves. I took it as my duty to photograph the carnage, arguing that powerful images of the horror would persuade drivers to slow down -- and save lives. Nothing of the sort actually happened. Pictures of car accidents don’t save lives. (Seatbelts and airbags do save lives.) I felt very righteous about it at the time. (And I won some contests doing it.) But I was wrong. Very, very wrong. I’m sorry I did it.

How are we photographing these things, and why?
— Lewis Bush

“How are we photographing these things, and why. "How does photojournalism meaningfully address rampant ecological collapse, cyber warfare, the rise of populism or networks of offshore wealth?"

Dennis: Photojournalism by my mind, has been seen as a practice where an individual goes to a place or event, takes a picture, or series of pictures, to render or record what was seen or witnessed - typically seen as some “newsworthy” event, or orchestrated moment - in order to then publish this work somewhere, a newspaper, a magazine, more recently online. The goal being to show the public – or at least a publication’s readers – someone or something that is interesting or they need to know about. What is deemed worthy of publication is another matter, as the agenda of the publisher determines what gets commissioned and eventually seen.

Cost considerations, political and economic agendas, and increasingly audience response determine what gets published. In the new digital world of likes and shares on social media, page views on websites, and “trending” searches on Google, all provide metrics of “success” and immediate feedback. This so publishers can produce less unpopular content and more popular content – surrounded by profit-generating ads – that people want to see. This places a premium on what people want and not what they might need to know. Yet a key role for journalism is to shine a light on what people aren’t aware of and to enlighten them on issues of societal concern. Otherwise it’s just publicity.

A quote attributed to George Orwell and others says approximately that news is what somebody doesn’t want you to print, and all the rest is advertising or public relations.

Consequently reportage on subjects like ecological decline, climate disruption, and economic inequality fall away in favor of lighter fare that supports what people like to see, audience growth, and advertising revenue.

Jim: It’s not just lighter fare, it’s easier fare. Not that war photography is easy, but at least the photographer knows where the war is and knows what a war photograph looks like. But what does a photograph of ecological decline look like? How about cyber warfare? Where can you go to photograph “networks of offshore wealth?” That’s really tough. But does anyone doubt these are some of the really important issues of our day? These issues will influence life on earth for decades or centuries, long after the picture of one more street demonstration in this morning’s paper is forgotten.

Dennis: Well, ecological decline looks like air and water pollution and rampant deforestation, climatic disruption can mean droughts and heat waves that cause crop failures, famine and exodus. Beyond this, given that these issues are increasingly epic in scale, I have an issue with the original concept of a single frame photojournalism, especially now in the digital era, with strict adherence to single frame sanctity, inspired by the film era, even though our tools allow for more expanded and insightful perspective. While useful in the time of film, it’s an outmoded attitude.

Jim: I think you mean the photographer (probably with a Leica and a 35mm lens?) taking a supremely crafted compositions that captures a “decisive moment.” Yes?

Dennis: Exactly, but now we have digital cameras that lets us “break the frame” by shooting and assembling multi-image panoramas that offer a broader, more contextual view and perspective in time and space. We can create time-lapses from image sequences that can offer more insight than single images taken at 1/125th of a second, and we can merge several frames into large scale panoramic views of scenes.

Yet reward systems such as photojournalism contests do not recognize these applications. Multi-image stitched panoramas are not eligible in photojournalism contests, and as a result images like these will never be acknowledged within the photojournalism reward structure. So, photographers using these techniques to document massive landscape transformations such as urbanization, surface mining, dams and water projects, and industrial agriculture for example, are excluded from “photojournalism” as has been defined for a century, even though work like this is explanatory, insightful, and relevant for this era when human domination of the planet has become so profound.

Jim: These “rules” that define (and constrict) photojournalism have the effect of subverting the basic goal of photography: to give us a true picture of the world. Instead of the pictures being made to fit the problem, the reverse happens. Photographers go out looking for problems that fit their photographic genre. They sift and sort the world into categories that make good photographs – and those that don’t.

We all know what “documentary” photography looks like and what kind of subjects look good in documentary photographs. Those subjects get photographed over and over and seen ad infinitum in all the world’s major photo contests. At its most perverse this dynamic finds “street photographers” shopping for cities where the streets make good photographs, Havana, Cuba being the most notable. (Better buff out your portfolio there soon, who knows how long that is going to last.) The actual news or information value is secondary to the desire to create classic photographs within well-established heritage genres.

Dennis: Yet, visual reports that take an expansive definition of frame, or redefine what is a “moment,” by building time-lapses or merging images taken over a second or two into one panoramic image are able to offer greater context and insight. An example is the time-lapse sequences by James Balog at Extreme Ice Survey that cumulatively record glacial melt over months and years. These sequences provide more insight about change in the world than another set of still images just showing glaciers or another set of images from a moment of social convulsion.

Jim: Another issue is implied in Bush’s question: Who is the “we” he’s referring to when he writes “who we are photographing?” This question is rightfully getting a lot of attention, as critics raise the question of how a photographer’s background and identity affects the resulting coverage. For much of its history photojournalism has been about the outsider looking in. Is that still valid or justifiable? How much better can photojournalism become when we fully embrace differing backgrounds and viewpoints from photographers who have lived the experience? How much can photojournalism right the wrongs of its past which too often turned photographic subjects into cultural objects, and thus exploited the relationship? (And, yes, I’m certain that this collective “we” includes me.)

From  Signs of Your Identity , ©Daniella Zalcman   Mike Pinay    Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School, 1953-1963    “It was the worst ten years of my life. I was away from my family from the age of 6 to 16. How do you learn about relationships, how do you learn about family? I didn’t know what love was. We weren’t even known by names back then; I was a number … 73.”

From Signs of Your Identity, ©Daniella Zalcman

Mike Pinay

Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School, 1953-1963

“It was the worst ten years of my life. I was away from my family from the age of 6 to 16. How do you learn about relationships, how do you learn about family? I didn’t know what love was. We weren’t even known by names back then; I was a number … 73.”

Since we started talking about this last week I’ve been thinking about a couple of remarkable (and heartening) examples of photographers breaking the mold. One is the the remarkable work of Daniella Zalcman in her series Signs of Your Identity, wherein she has created these beautifully moving portraits of Indigenous people that get at their profound social and psychic trauma suffered at the hands of governments that took children away from families to send them to government schools.

Daniella explains her technique this way: "Signs of Your Identity consists of double exposure portraits of Indian Boarding School survivors, superimposed with the sites and memories of their childhood experiences. The technique is an attempt to explore the ideas of intergenerational trauma and cultural genocide." She uses a mobile phone camera combined with the Hipstamatic app to create nuanced images that, for me, are revelations.

The other is Nigerian photographer Etinosa Osayimwen who did those wonderful images for her project It’s All In My Head of the survivors of terrorism and violent conflict in her country. She also does layered portraits. Working in real time she engages with her subjects, does a portrait of them, then goes out and does a double exposure of something in the landscape. When seen the images have the quality of revealing the inner landscape of fear and sadness that trauma has brought to their lives. Rather amazing, really. Etinosa described to me thus: "So the major work is in interpreting their feelings. What is sadness? How can you convey the emotion? So it takes time to interpret each individuals emotion visually." No "decisive moment." Just the decent hard work of understanding someone else and trying to tell their story honestly – and fully.

For many this doesn’t sound like photojournalism. Daniella put it thus: “I have often been told that my work is not journalism, and that's the prerogative of others, but I maintain that as long as I'm being fully transparent around my process, I'm still telling stories in effective and innovative and, most importantly, honest ways.” I have to agree. If this doesn’t fit into the definition of photojournalism today then I think photojournalism needs to reconsider what it is and what it stands for.

For the subjects that Daniela and Entinosa are addressing, these images reach a level of understanding that straight documentary never could have attained. The active cooperation of the subjects is crucial. The concerned interpretation of the photographer is clear and evident. The result is striking.

Who are we photographing for?
— Lewis Bush

"What we have seldom asked is whether we are reaching the right audiences, and whether in a time of democratic crisis, large audiences still even make sense."

Dennis: As a photographer you better be photographing for yourself first. Of course this calls into question the economics of photojournalism, which theoretically pays the bills for the photojournalist. But most of the newspaper business is collapsing, as are circulations of most print magazines, and the financial formula for the digital news world is no panacea. Layoffs are rampant, budgets are continually slashed.

Jim: Yeah, a lot of my fellow old fogey photographer friends spend a lot of time bitching and moaning about the world that was and is no more.

But that was an era in which the basic model (alluded to by Bush) was publishing to the masses. (LIFE Magazine had 12 million subscribers at one point.) The hope was that somewhere among that great teeming mass audience was someone who would get the message and make a difference. That model is dead – or close to dead. Now photographers are their own publishers through online platforms and their intended audience can be precisely targeted. Sometimes audience numbers are just a few hundred people or maybe just a handful, but people who can make something happen.

Dennis: What would that look like in today’s world?

Church forest in Ethiopia, ©Kieran Dodds

Church forest in Ethiopia, ©Kieran Dodds

Jim: Well, just last week I was talking with Kieran Dodds, the Scottish photographer who has been photographing the sacred church forests of Ethiopia, telling the story of how faith and religion intersect with nature to save biodiversity. It’s out in the current issue of Nature.

Dodds told me, “I am wanting to raise $234,000 to protect the most diverse forests this year (plus pay my rent). Not easy but a good aim and achievable if I can find the right people. The scientist is on the ground and the local people are motivated to conserve, when the money comes it will happen”

Kieran doesn’t need twelve million viewers. He needs to find the precious few who can fund this work. He’s not seeking photographic validation, he’s seeking to preserve botany and landscapes.

Dennis: So if you seek validation for your work by the whims of a financially straitened news business, look elsewhere. Find other ways if possible to support yourself, and do work that you care about first even if it takes longer and is slower. Be true to yourself, stay whole, photograph subjects and ideas that you find important.

Jim: I would truncate that last statement even further: If you want to make important photographs, photograph important stuff.

Dennis: Right. If you are able to generate revenue from photography, don’t let only publishers or clients determine what is worth pursuing. While it’s important to pay the bills, it is also essential for your creative life to do work that rewards you personally. Pursue a long-term personal project that you control, that can be your haven of photographic sanity.

In a world awash with images and photographers, find ways to be distinctive. Become an expert in something, someone who knows more than anyone else on a subject or topic. For example, become the world’s foremost forest ecology photographer, or range and grassland photographer, or native corn photographer. I’ve never met anyone who’s become the leading mathematics photographer. (Imagine images that make vivid and visible the golden mean, as seen in the natural and man-made world for example.)

Develop a visual style, an approach, or point of view in how you see the world. Study the history of art, and of photography, study the work of those who have come before you. To photograph without learning the language of photography is like trying to speak French without studying it.

Tools are overrated, simplify. Photographers like David Guttenfelder shoot great work with a phone. Zoom lenses, while allowing flexibility, also produce pictures that look the same as everyone else’s because everyone else uses zooms. Prime lenses, underused, can create a distinctive look, and allow lower light work. Once upon a time cameras came with a 50mm lens, the 50 is a neglected gem. Get a 50, learn to manage depth of field at low apertures. Zoom with your feet. Your photography will improve.

At heart you must enjoy the act of photographing, taking pictures. A photographer is who you are, not what you do. To survive in this crushing business climate you must be obsessed, pursuing this work as a calling. If you just see photojournalism as a lifestyle or business opportunity so you can travel or profit, don’t bother.

Jim: Dennis, all of this leads me to a more fundamental question: Does photojournalism still work? I’d suggest we should explore that further, perhaps in the next installment of this ongoing discussion.

Dennis Dimick served as National Geographic’s environment editor for more than a decade, and was an NGS picture editor for more than 35 years. He is a 21-time Missouri Photo Workshop faculty member, and received the Charles M. Sprague Memorial Award in 2013 from the National Press Photographers Association for service to photojournalism.

Jim Richardson has been a National Geographic photographer for 35 years where his colleagues named him their Photographer’s Photographer. His documentary photography received three Special Recognition awards from the World Understanding contest. He was named a Dark Sky Defender for his work on light pollution, named Kansan of the Year for his coverage of the Tallgrass Prairie, and received an honorary doctorate for his work in environmental and cultural photography. He lectures internationally on Feeding the Planet.


Dennis Dimick

Dennis Dimick served as executive environment editor at National Geographic magazine and was a picture editor at the National Geographic Society for more than 35 years until his retirement in December 2015. He guided a variety of major magazine projects including a special issue on global freshwater in April 2010, a 2011 series on global population, and the 2014 Future of Food series on global food security. Dimick co-organized the Aspen Environment Forum from 2008-2012, and continues to regularly present slide show lectures on global environmental issues. For 19 years he has been a faculty member of the Missouri Photo Workshop, and in 2013 received the Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association for outstanding service to photojournalism. He currently serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists. He grew up on an Oregon farm, and Dimick holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.