Taking a cue from the succesful microstock model, here is where photojournalism is heading. It is happening under our eyes, right now and in four steps.
The decline of traditional photojournalism:
Nothing really new here. Rising cost of living (travel, lodging, food) has made it almost impossible for current print and web publishers to send top talents on stories anymore. The profit margins are not there anymore. Although there is a bucket full of very talented photojournalists available, there is just no funds to make them do what they do best. Furthermore, with the death of traditional photo agencies who used to pay for half of the costs, there is just not enough financial support to keep it going. It’s not photojournalism that is dying, it’s the funding that is going dry. Furthermore, photo editors that championed the great stories have long gone, either retired or pushed out due to corporate restructuring or cost saving measures.
The rise in volume of the me-too photojournalism:
Here again, nothing we haven’t heard or seen before. Automated cameras that can nail an image in the even poorest conditions has helped introduced a new wave of photographers that can, and will, snap at anything and everything and force distribute it via every channel possible. Force distribute because we really do not want to see it but thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social media, we get to see them anyway. The poor state of our economy has not helped, obviously, making this forced free lance job even more appealing to many. It also has become easier to get published, at least once, giving everyone the false impression that this is easy. Anybody can become a photojournalist these days : you just need to be where the media attention is focused upon.
The death of the photo agency:
Photo agencies used to be the gateway to the media. With trained professionals, they filtered out the bad from the good and edited the work of the talented to make it even more compelling. They would also seek out news stories and send the best photographers to cover them, not only creating the news, but partly covering for the costs. It was a gamble, where talented journalists would scout newspapers worlwide for that snippet of information that could be turned into the major news of the week thanks to the talent of brilliant photographers. Those editors are gone now. Gambling on stories is just not an acceptable business model in the corporate world. Photo agencies are not agencies anymore, they are image distributors.
Speed vs quality:
Thanks to digital, the key decision element for an image to be published is how fast they get to a desktop. Thus a bad photographer can very well become successful if he is the fastest. More and more, this is what we, viewers, are being served with : the first images rather than the best. Thus the key to becoming a published photojournalist is how fast you are and not who you are. Photographers and photo agencies do not bother editing their material, preferring to dump as many images as possible as quickly as possible, leaving the poor photo editor on the other side the miserable job of digging into masses of images in search for the elusive perl. Crunch for time, they usually resort to taking the first acceptable one they see, letting the best ones die in an ocean of digital files.
Where does it lead us to:
Where everyone can be a shooter, with no money to be spend on travel, no editors acting as gatekeepers and speed as the key factor, the decision is simple:
Forget the photo agency as an agent of talented photojournalists. The key now is to have a lot of contributors worldwide and hope that one will be at the right place at the right time. With photographers everywhere, chances you will get the right image at the right time will increase, like buying a lot of lottery tickets.
In the film age, the cost of film, processing, shipment was too prohibitive. Now, you can receive and store million of images for a buck or two.
One well known photo agency recently proudly claimed representing 40 photographers in Gaza only. For a territory 140 square mile ( 360 Km2), that is one photographer per 3.5 square mile.
Thus, taking a queue from the microstock model, photojournalism is now switching to the volume based model. While profitable for a photo agency ( think long tail model), it is devastating for photojournalism and photographers.