Is photojournalism dead or alive? This question troubles both aspiring photojournalists and seasoned veterans of the field. The answer to the question depends upon the people you ask and their estimation of what constitutes death.
Overall, historians agree that Mathew Brady (1823-1896) was the first father of photojournalism. Brady took extensive photographs of the Civil War and helped pave the way for the war photojournalists of the future. Another pioneering photojournalist was Dr. Erich Saloman (1866-1944) who often hid cameras inside briefcases or other objects and even brought concealed cameras into the U.S. Supreme Court. What these men had in common with each other and with future photojournalists was a passionate belief that capturing honest images as events unfold is the best way to document historical and socially relevant situations.
One Coin, Two Sides
Some call the people who believe that photojournalism is dying defeatists. On the other side, those who believe in the future of photojournalism are considered rationalists. Who is right and how do we answer that lingering question: Is photojournalism dead or alive? Perhaps a brief exploration of both viewpoints will shine light on the debate.
Dead or Dying
The notion that photojournalism faces an imminent death is easy to understand. Evidence of decline has accumulated for a decade or more. Some of the causes attributed to this slump are below.
- There are fewer traditional photojournalism jobs due to the decline of print media across the world.
- The increase in citizen journalism and free digital media has taken paying job opportunities away from professional photojournalists.
- Paparazzi and celebrity journalism have captured the attention of the public, making it hard for freelance photojournalists who want to do serious stories to compete.
- Clients such as newspaper publishers and magazines often attempt to redefine the terms of freelance photojournalism, resulting in less pay for increased rights.
Alive and Kicking
The people who think that photojournalism is alive also have good reasons for their belief. After all, the field of photojournalism has experienced crisis in the past. Why wouldn't it recover once more?Many modern photojournalists believe that what is needed is a shift in the perception. They think that instead of viewing digital media as competition, it is additional opportunities for publishing. Citizen journalism is indeed thriving, but that doesn't necessarily mean that professional photojournalists can't claim a space in that market and still make money from their work.
Economics are a factor for the survival of photojournalism as much as they are a factor for its death. The economy is a changeling; it waxes and wanes, and its nature shifts like the wind. It's reasonable to believe the field of photojournalism will remain viable in the future.
Probably the greatest reason to think that photojournalism will survive in the end is that there is always news in the making and there is always a need to capture that news visually. Alex Webb's photo essay, Crossings: Photographs from the U.S / Mexico Border is a visual testament to this theory.
Although the lines between dead and alive are sometimes blurred within the texts, the web publications listed below offer opinions on the future of photojournalism.
- Dennis Dunleavy, Associate Professor for the Department of Communication at Southern Oregon University gives insightful economic reasons for the decline of photojournalism.
- Citimedia's blog provides a comprehensive take on the demise of photojournalism from socio-economic factors to the increase of citizen journalism.
- The New York Times published an Internet article in 2009 that details the photojournalism market and includes quotes from the photo agency, Gamma.
Final Answer: Is Photojournalism Dead?
Unfortunately, there is no right way to answer the question. The best a visual journalist can do is look at the evidence, watch the market, and keep taking pictures. Even so, most photojournalists answer the question in a somewhat hopeful manner by simply saying, "Not yet."