Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram Era?
Renowned photography theorist Fred Ritchin has a simple message for those behind the camera: Innovate or die.
In late May, the Chicago Sun-Times took the unprecedented move of gutting its photography department by laying off 28 full-time employees, including John H. White, a 35-year veteran who had won the paper a Pulitzer. The nation's 8th largest newspaper figured it could cut costs by hiring freelancers and training reporters to shoot iPhone photos, to which Chicago Tribune photographer Alex Garcia responded: "I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else's job and also do yours well. Even when I shoot video and stills on an assignment, with the same camera, both tend to suffer. They require different ways of thinking."
Experimenting with iPhone photography is nothing new for journalism outlets. During Hurricane Sandy, Time turned over its Instagram feed to five photographers who delivered an eerie, often radiant record of the storm and its aftermath. (One of Benjamin Lowy's iPhone images graced the print magazine's cover on November 12, 2012.) Time deemed the experiment a success: Its Lightbox photo blog garnered 13 percent of its overall web traffic during the week of Sandy, and its Instagram racked up 12,000 new followers in 48 hours.
In his new book Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, photographer Fred Ritchin tackles these developments and more as he explores what the digital revolution means for his trade.
His own résumé includes stints as a photo editor for the New York Times magazine and the executive editor of Camera Arts, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his work on the 1996 website Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace. Ritchin also cofounded PixelPress, a website devoted to helping humanitarian groups develop innovative media projects. He now codirects the Photography and Human Rights program at New York University.
Bending the Frame is a vigorous wake-up call to photojournalists to innovate or die. Photographers, Ritchen writes, should continually be asking how they can create more meaningful imagery rather than just chase the "trail of the incendiary." I asked Ritchin to fill me in on the details. Interspersed throughout the interview are examples of photographic projects that he considers particularly innovative or audacious.
Mother Jones: What do the Chicago Sun-Times’ recent layoffs mean for photojournalists?
Fred Ritchin: The layoffs ask: What does a professional photojournalist do that others cannot? Depicting photo opportunities as if they are authentic, covering press conferences, or making subjects play their assigned roles (the poor as passive victims, celebrities as glamorous) are hardly adequate responses. In fact, these might be reasons to ask for the help of amateurs who do not know how to stylize their imagery and are not interested in making a publication seem more palatable to its potential consumers.
There is enormous need for professionals who know how to tell stories with narrative punch and nuance, who can work proactively and not just reactively, and whose approach is multi-faceted. We need more "useful photographers." Given today's budgets for journalism, my guess is that quite a few photographers will be fired in the near future. But I certainly hope that many visual journalists will be hired or funded along the way as well—we urgently need their perspectives.
MJ: The Chicago Sun-Times plans to train reporters in iPhone photojournalism. Will that change how reporters approach stories?
FR: There are very few instances where writers have also been effective image makers—different skill sets are required. I do not expect this experiment to be very successful unless these reporters can be trained to evolve into multimedia journalists; word, image, and sound all must have primacy in the development of the narrative.
MJ: Have the ethics of photojournalism changed in the age of the smartphone?
FR: Photojournalism has become a hybrid enterprise of amateurs and professionals, along with surveillance cameras, Google Street Views, and other sources. What is underrepresented are those "metaphotographers" who can make sense of the billions of images being made and can provide context and authenticate them. We need curators to filter this overabundance more than we need new legions of photographers.
The ethics, to answer your question, have certainly changed: Many who are making cellphone images are advocates with a stake in the outcome of what they are depicting. In some ways this makes their work more honest and easier to read—they can also manipulate, although the work of professionals can be quite manipulative as well.
MJ: Last year, Time got a lot of praise for its Instagram coverage of Sandy. Does this hunger for real-time documentation and sharing affect the quality of photojournalism?
FR: There is room for all kinds of points of view. Certainly everyone should be encouraged to weigh in on their own experiences of a massive storm or other such disruptions, but not everyone is qualified to explain how such storms fit into climate change, or what needs to be done to try and prevent or minimize future disasters on this scale.
MJ: You argue that we can appreciate the democratization of social media without having to consider every image successful. What defines a successful image on, say, Instagram?