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David Campbell on photojournalism in the age of image abundance

Phil Coomes | 09:30 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Fans take pictures at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival

In the second of a series of articles on photojournalism, David Campbell, a photographic consultant, writer and producer, and member of the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies, presents his view of the industry at a time when almost everyone carries a camera.

"Photography is more ubiquitous than ever. In politics, fashion, design, news media, advertising, personal relationships and family rituals - indeed, in all aspects of individual and collective life - pictures proliferate and mediate.

"The 500-billion photographs taken globally this year are testament to our collective desire to photograph and to see photographs. With digital camera sales rising by ten percent each year despite the recession, the world market for digital photography is expected to be worth $230 billion in 2013. Add in the ever-present, camera-enabled mobile phone and the number of images in circulation is only going to grow.

"These developments both drive and respond to what Kiku Adatto calls our 'photo-op' culture, where much of everyday life seems picture driven and played out in front of the camera.

"Think, for example, of the photographs showing crowds of people with compact cameras and cell phones raised snapping a scene. This 'photo-op' culture contains two competing impulses that shape the way photography is regarded. We take pictures because we retain an implicit faith in the camera's documentary function. As much as anyone wants to look his or her best in a photograph we want the resultant picture to be a reasonable facsimile of the subject, preserving it for the future.

"However, because the digital revolution means more of us are directly involved in the production of photographs, we understand how pictures can be fabricated, manipulated and differently interpreted.

"Photojournalism is located at these cultural crossroads, under pressure from the way digital technology has democratised the tools for making high quality images and undercut by the financial strictures of its traditional media outlets.

"As a professional practice, photojournalism has historically relied on two forms of scarcity. The first involved the scarcity of skills to make good images, and the second the scarcity of popular access to the dominant forms of print distribution, the newspapers and magazines. Both of these limits have now been fundamentally challenged.

"Amateurs are able to purchase and use the best camera technology to make striking photographs, and - although it is not solely responsible for the decline of newspapers - the transformative power of the Internet has reduced the cost of publication to near zero, thereby opening up new channels for the circulation of imagery. Together these transformations have produced a new era of abundant pictures.

"When Time magazine used a $30 stock photograph for its 27 April 2009 cover (to illustrate The New Frugality) the victory of abundance over scarcity, to the demise of photojournalism, seemed to have been confirmed.

"With few staff photographers full time on major newspapers and magazines, and few print publishers regularly commissioning new work, those who define photojournalism in terms of its traditional business model have now pronounced its death. Of course, such declarations have been commonplace for decades, going back as far as the 1950s and reaching their apogee when the most famous of the picture magazines, Life, closed its doors in 1972.

"Given that a newspaper might publish 1,500 pictures a week in its print edition, supplemented by many more on the web, in online galleries and through various apps, it is clear that the industry's demand for news pictures is strong.

"Popular consumption is equally vibrant, as reflected in the 750,000 unique visitors each month to The New York Times Lens blog and the 2.4 million people that attended the international showings of the 2009 World Press Photo exhibition."

A young woman n a cafe, Ukraine

"The appetite for longer, documentary projects is evident in the success of major gallery shows and the sales of expensive photo books. While much of this work has to be funded from a wide range of often-indirect sources, the commitment of creative practitioners to its production is far from waning.
"Photojournalism is alive and well, being produced, and in demand, even if economically challenged. The task is to find ways to leverage the new possibilities enabled by the Internet to sustain production and enhance circulation, while presenting the work in a variety of formats across a range of platforms to reach as many people as possible.
"Although photojournalism is no longer the sole source for pictures that are used simply for illustration and graphic design, it can still offer something that is scarce - in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, our familiarity and fondness for single images in the 'photo-op' culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.
"Perhaps the mass audience remains elusive, but a large and engaged community is certainly looking for this kind of work."

David Campbell is a photographic consultant, writer and producer, and member of the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies. He writes a blog on documentary photography, photojournalism and multimedia at

Tomorrow Adrian Evans, the Director of Panos Pictures, looks at what skills photojournalists of the 21st Century require.

Related posts:
Michael Kamber on photojournalism today
Adrian Evans on future funding of photojournalism
Coming at photojournalism from a different angle
Photojournalism on a wider platform


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