The Power of Photos

Not sure of the power of photography in nonfiction storytelling?

The French newspaper Libération removed all images from its Nov. 14 issue to demonstrate the importance of visuals -- in a year that has been beset by layoffs of professional photographers from news organizations.

Empty boxes were left in the layout to emphasize where photos should have gone.

Brigitte Ollier, a journalist on Libération's Culture desk, was quoted as saying in the British Journal of Photography that it was "as if we had become a mute newspaper. [A newspaper] without sound..."

Editors of the newspaper explained: "It's not a wake, we're not burying the photographic art [...] Instead we give photography the homage it deserves."

An annual newsroom census from the American Society of Newspaper Editors revealed that photographers and other visual journalists have been hardest hit in the last dozen years of newspaper layoffs.

From 2000 to 2012, the newsroom staffs of photographers, artists and videographers were trimmed by 43 percent—from 6,171 to 3,493, ASNE and the Pew Research Center reported. In the same period, the number of full-time newspaper reporters and writers dropped by 32 percent—from 25,593 to 17,422, ASNE reported.

The Chicago Sun-Times in May laid off its entire photojournalism staff, the Chicago Tribune reported. Thomson Reuters let go its sports contract photographers in North America in August, the National Press Photographers Association noted. Cuts to photojournalists at Cox newspapers were announced in October.

Shrinking newsroom budgets and the explosion of citizen-generated visuals on social media have been blamed for many of the photojournalists' layoffs. (See memo from CNN's Senior Vice President Jack Womack about 2011 cuts.)

What do you think this trend portends for the business?

--Chris Harvey


Fatimah Waseem said...

These cuts are expansive, suggesting they aren't isolated incidents. Photographers may downgrade to freelancers, placing emphasis on user-generated photos and signaling a shift from traditional photojournalists to freelancers organized in pools based on location.

Traditional reporters will have to pick up where photographers left off, increasing their role as backpack journalists and making photography a required skill, not merely a recommendation.

I think the distinction is that photography isn't disappearing - the work title of a photographer is. It illustrates an important trend in journalism at large: 'multiplatform journalism' may be a redundant phrase. If all journalism is multiplatform, isn't it just journalism?

Jared Wasserman said...

It is a shame to see this trend of cuts to photojournalists on news staffs, but I believe it is inevitable within a declining market where consumers can just as easily snap a passable picture from their smart phones as pay to see a professional's photographs in the morning paper. Quantity and accessibility have superseded quality photojournalism in recent years, which as you stated, I believe is a direct result of the explosion of social media.

In terms of the ramifications of this trend on the journalism business, I would like to think that this puts more of an onus on the truly talented photojournalists. Those who dedicate themselves solely to the depiction of moments and storytelling through visual means are becoming more and more rare, thus those who produce outstanding professional work through this medium should be recognized as the unique breed that they are in the social media age.

However, the realist in me says that as a single journalist is generally responsible for both photographing and reporting for a given story, they are less likely to produce exceptional work as a result. Efficiency, timeliness, and budget restrictions make the "one-man-band" a necessity in today's journalism climate, and I personally think that diminishes the quality of the news stories and photography that is disseminated to the public.

I agree with Fatimah that the title of photographer is disappearing. It is being instilled in our generation to be able to balance numerous tasks at once and be as multi-faceted as possible, but at what cost does that balancing act have on the final product? I think it is a tremendous one.