Photojournalism Has Nine Lives

Photojournalism was declared dead in 1972 — people also decided it was dead in 1982, 1989, 1996, 1999, 2009 and again, most recently, in 2010.

I found these proclamations while researching for a paper in my History of Mass Media class on the rise of USA Today and how it impacted newspaper layout and content in photographs (if you’re interested, read it here). In my research I kept stumbling across more and more people in the news industry lamenting the death of photojournalism, with some even going so far as to say the future held no hope for long-term documentary projects. (I wish I could post links to this stuff, but all of the documents can only be accessed through my university’s library system. Regardless, if you have time, look through stuff from Columbia Journalism Review and Journalism Quarterly during the 1980s and 90s.)

Why do so many people want photojournalism to die? And how many times can we keep declaring photojournalism’s death before we realize that it’s still alive, but just in different forms?

The biggest problem I have with such a cynical view (and photojournalists are indeed cynical people), is that no one seems to look at photojournalism in a historical context before making the assumption that it can no longer survive. Photojournalism has jumped from different media platforms since it’s modern beginnings in the 1930s — so why do we think the decline of newspapers and other print media will drag photojournalism down with it?

The other issue is photographers’ nostalgia surrounding the decades while Life Magazine was published. For some reason the period of about 1930 to the mid-1960s is termed the “Golden Age of Photojournalism,” where photojournalists were thought to have endless resources, time and mediums to show their work. Frankly, that’s just not true. In fact, while a select few did enjoy success and appreciation for their work, the vast majority of photojournalists expressed the same complaints we hear today: the hours are long, the subjects are emotionally draining, too much is asked of them and they aren’t paid enough. If we get rid of the sentimental attitudes we have toward the “good ol’ days,” we’ll probably be a lot happier, because all these “problems” with the industry are more likely just the side-effects of doing our job.

I would also argue that more photojournalism is produced today than 40 years ago. Sure, very little of it is in mass media and print, but the internet allows photojournalism to abandon these dying mediums and find new platforms to disseminate work.

Photojournalism is a lot more resilient than many people believe. So, can we stop declaring its death just because the pulse doesn’t feel the same anymore? Perhaps the pulse just beats a little differently these days.

2 thoughts on “Photojournalism Has Nine Lives

  1. People have also been declaring the death of fiction — about as often as the death of photojournalism. And books. And just about everything else that is simply changing and evolving to look different that what it has “always been.”

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