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Michael Kamber on photojournalism today

Phil Coomes | 09:18 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010

Conflict in Monrovia

Michael Kamber is an award winning photographer who currently works for the New York Times, here he outlines his view of the state of photojournalism today.

This is the first in a series of articles to be published this week, each one by a different author looking at the world of photojournalism from a number of angles.

"I remember arriving in New York in 1985 only to find that I'd arrived too late: photojournalism was dead. This was common knowledge - everybody said so. Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post were gone and photojournalists were struggling to find new markets and new ways to finance their work and reach the public. The murderer was television. The evil box had reduced attention spans and created a hunger for constant movement - something we photographers could never match.
 
"I scratched my way into the profession with a generation of men and women now approaching the age of 50. We shot demonstrations on spec, souped our film in the bathroom, sold photos to AP or Reuters for $25, slept in groups on hotel room floors in Port-au-Prince and Mexico City.
 
"And lo and behold, we scratched out a living as photojournalists. Some of us did quite well. True, the grand picture magazines were gone, but Time, Newsweek, US News and most of the big papers in the US had photographers on assignment all over the world. Gamma, Sipa, Sygma and other photo agencies thrived.”
Port-au-Prince, 1990
"Now, 25-years later, I'm the one saying that photojournalism is dead. And it is dead, as Neil Burgess has famously pointed out; at least as we have know it.
 
"I was in Baghdad covering the election this past winter - a historic election marking a supposed turning point in conflict of the decade. Ten years ago there would have been 20 photojournalists there. I was there with one other Western photographer that I'm aware of - Andrea Bruce, who had come largely on her own.
 
"I have the luxury to work on contract for The New York Times, probably the only remaining paper in the world with the budget and commitment to finance photojournalism on a large scale. And I'm proud of my paper - we've covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from top to bottom, start to finish. Three hundred people were recently laid off, but the NYT's foreign bureaux remain open.
 
"Yet we are the last stalwarts; my photojournalist friends at other mainstream newspapers say their travel budgets are gone. The LA Times, US News and Newsweek appear to be sliding towards bankruptcy; The Washington Post closed nearly all its foreign bureaux; Time is a shadow of its former self.
 
"But is photojournalism really dead? When my mentors in 1985 lamented the passing of photojournalism, what they were really marking was the passing of their system, their model. And it was a great model. And the model that we reinvented in the 1980s and 1990s was pretty damn good too. Now it's my generation's turn to lament the passing. But once again, what is dead is not photojournalism - what is dead is the particular culture of photojournalism that supported us for the past 30 years.
 
"Today there is a new way, a new system. I meet young photographers constantly: idealistic, excited, naïve, creative. They may have missed out on the magic of baryta paper in a tray of Dektol, but they love image-making nonetheless. And as has been said ad-nauseum, they are focusing on new models for raising cash to do projects - the grants, agency workshops, Emphasis, the partnerships with NGOs (which I find troubling for reasons I won't detail here), and others. I myself am using Emphasis to raise money for a book project.
 
"And of course, a photojournalist today has to be much more of an overall journalist - video, written pieces, and multi-media are crucial to stitching together a living.
 
"Do I like this new developing model? Not much. Does it allow for a photographer to have job security, raise a family with health insurance, know that someone will evacuate him or her if injured in a warzone? Absolutely not.
 
"But this developing model is what we've got and we have to work with it, there is no other option. What troubles me is that we are becoming ghettoised. As the mainstream press dies a slow and ugly death, we increasingly work for each other - for the cultish community of photo festivals and workshops, awards and grants, boutique print collectors. And this new model will surely exacerbate something I deplore about photojournalism: it is increasingly a community of privileged white people. I was astonished a few years ago to sit at an awards ceremony in Amsterdam with about 300 other photographers and editors. There was exactly one African and possibly one or two Latinos in the room, though probably 75% of the ‘subjects’ were people of colour.
 
"It is up to the photo community to break out of this new model, democratise it and reach new audiences. I can see it happening already. And though I may not like the business model, the bottom line is this: there is a new generation out there shooting pictures in the corners of the world every day.
 
"No doubt, 35 years from now, there will be yet another new model. This will allow the youth of today their deserved turn to lament the death of photojournalism."

You can see more of Michael's work on his website. [Warning: The site contains photographs of warfare and graphic violence.]

Tomorrow, David Campbell, photographic consultant, writer and producer, talks about photography in the age of mass media and image abundance.

Niger Delta, 2005
Related posts:
David Campbell on photojournalism in the age of image abundance
Adrian Evans on future funding of photojournalism
Coming at photojournalism from a different angle

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