The Future of Documentary Photography

This past Wednesday a panel of analysts involved in different aspects of photojournalism and documentary photography gathered in New York to discuss the future of documentary photography. Finally Photoshelter put up the video of the discussion so I could watch it (albeit, a lengthy discussion).

Basically I took away two huge things from the panelists’ ideas on the future of documentary photography.

  1. “There was never a Golden age of photojournalism…I don’t really know anyone when I started out who was making a living.” This quote really stood out to me for numerous reasons. To begin with, this is always the scapegoat argument photojournalists (myself included) use when describing why our industry appears to be tanking. We complain about the death of Life magazine and we drop numerous names of famous photographers who are rich beyond their wildest dreams and leave it at that. While his (Jim’s) experience is rather anecdotal, it does remind me of why I’m a photojournalist in the first place: communication. I love photographs for their ability to communicate to others; not for their ability to make me X amount of dollars. While this point of view can be seen as altruistic and idealized, it’s fairly true. I don’t necessarily worry that documentary photography or photojournalism will never find a means to monetize itself, I just worry that it won’t figure that part out soon enough for me to have a chance at a career.
  2. “Any opportunity you can, specialize what you do — say, this is what I’m good at, this is what I’m passionate about — and hone in on that. We have the technology, but ultimately the thing we want to get at is what we’re individually passionate about.” This is probably one of the few times I’ve heard someone articulate precisely what I think about the current demand on journalists (especially photojournalists) to do four things at once. Sure, newspapers/magazines don’t have the money to pay three people to do separate jobs anymore, but the answer to that problem isn’t forcing a singular person to do all three.
    For one thing, their reporting/pictures/video/audio is subpar when compared to someone who focuses on one or maybe two of those aspects. Using a local example, The Cap Times here in Madison sent one reporter to cover the opening of the Discovery Institute (here’s the story). Considering the reporter had to do two things at once (report, take pictures) it’s apparent that both suffered. The reporting was singularly focused on the protests when that made up about 10% of the event (I was there taking photos) and the picture is a blurry mess taken from a cell phone (At least that’s what I’m guessing). The reporting would have been better if he didn’t have to focus on capturing images of the protestors; and the photo would have been much better had The Cap Times sent someone or just paid $50 to a freelancer for their image.
    The important thing to think about with these new mediums and multimedia capabilities isn’t to try to do it for sake of doing it, it’s to do multimedia well to communicate better. Personally, I think I’m terrible at shooting video. In fact, I’d use the words awful and amateur to describe myself shooting video. But stills? That’s what I love. That is what I’m good at. And that is what I want people to hire me for. Perhaps that mentality is short-sighted, but why would I want to get hired somewhere that requires me to do three things terribly instead of doing one awesomely? Specialization within a certain medium appears to be more valuable than being a jack-of-all-trades journalist — and the reporting/video/images/audio become much more valuable to the consumer when they are quality products.


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