Photojournalism 3.0: Beyond commoditisation

Painting for centuries was the only medium by which a person’s portrait, a beautiful landscape, or a pictorial idea could be captured. The art form moved slowly but discernibly from a poor two-dimensional representation of the subject where the artist did not have the capability to capture reality to high-quality, three dimensional, hyper-realistic representations – the preserve of the Masters. The Master-painters communed with royalty; high prices were paid, they were very sought after people. The competition was scarce, the skill was for the few, the ideas and concepts born from the minds of the diligent practitioners.

The advent of the camera heralded the demise of the popular portrait painter. Although clumsy the early cameras started the democratisation of imaging. Painters had to reinvent themselves, and develop a form of art that could not be achieved with a camera – Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract etc – it took their creativity in different directions. Over time the traditional painter found that business, and their paints, started to dry up.

Cameras became smaller , portable and more available. The processing of films eventually became industrialised to allow the masses to avoid the need to be an amateur chemist. The barriers to entry collapsed, and the ubiquitous “instamatics” recorded the holidays and daily life of millions throughout the world, secured on paper, or transparencies, in the drawers and cupboards in every house. Sharing those moments with friends was an event, a personal affair; just a few at a time.

Some of the early photographers recognised that cameras could be used to record life in the pursuit of journalism – some took them to war. And so there was photojournalism. They broke the barriers of ingenuity and bravery, had the skill with the equipment, to make best use of the limited frame capacity of film. The newspapers had evolved efficient but lengthy logistics routes to get the films back to base for processing and printing. They needed quality pictures promptly – the supply routes were restricted, and the availability constrained.

As digital cameras became cheaper and the quality improved ,certain aspects of the job of the photojournalist eased, and the computerisation of some of the skill allowed more to enter the market. The supply routes to the news agencies continued to be restrictive.

In the last 10 years, computing hardware, web capability, and communication speeds have opened up the supply routes from a few , to millions of people throughout the world. Routes to publication have never been easier and the supply of images has exploded exponentially to the point where the inevitable basic laws of economics takes hold. When supply exceeds demand then the market price drops; when it dwarfs it, it almost becomes free.

The crowds of photographers at news events flood the market place with images which can be snapped up easily. And just like the metaphorical “millions of monkeys on millions of typewriters” one will eventually write a Shakespeare play. So one of the photographers will catch a newsworthy moment more by luck, than judgement. We are now in the generation of the so-called “citizen journalist”, or more precisely, the “citizen photographer” who can distribute their images throughout the world within minutes of them being taken, to be used / sold / published immediately. All but a few will be uninteresting, uninspired and lack any form of skilled input, but they “do the job” – this is the age of the commoditised photograph.

In the same way that the camera forced painters to take a different direction to preserve the outlets for their skill and creativity, so has the digital/web/”citizen photographer” age to the true photojournalist. If this is to survive as a skilled profession, where that skill commands a fair reward, then they need to re-invent themselves and see beyond the commoditised photograph, into the new age where the end-product contains value over and above capturing a moment on a photograph – such is Photojournalism 3.0.



Since this was first published the article below was in the British Journal of Photography


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