Will a billion ‘selfies’ cause us to miss history?

December 18, 2013

This week, Ron Haviv described to me the first time one of his photographs changed history.

The acclaimed war photographer was surrounded by his life’s work, which is now on exhibit in New York’s Anastasia Photo gallery. At age 23, Haviv took a photograph of supporters of Panamanian dictator, General Manuel Noriega, beating the country’s recently elected opposition vice president.

What is striking about the image is not just the crimson blood covering the man’s shirt. It is the Panamanian soldier standing a few feet away — doing nothing to protect him. The photograph appeared on the cover of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. Months later, President George H.W. Bush cited the riveting image in his speech justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama.

“All of the sudden,” said Haviv, a longtime colleague and friend, “I had this understanding that the work I was doing was going out into the world and creating and causing a reaction. It helped cement my desire to do this for a living.”

A quarter century later, photography is our predominant means of communication. Dizzying technological advances allow a mind-boggling number of images — half-a-billion a day — to be shot and posted online. Yet the emergence of the Web and smartphones has made it harder than ever for photographers to earn a living.

Haviv, a founding member of the photo agency VII, says only a handful of magazines and newspapers now send photographers to cover overseas stories. Haviv fears that iconic images that could trigger the public’s conscience are being missed.

“There are eyes missing on major stories,” said Haviv, who has covered most major conflicts over the last 30 years.

Like so many other industries, the Web has had a disorienting and double-edged impact on photography. It has made photography more popular and accessible. It has also, however, undermined photography’s traditional source of funding — print advertising. Some news operations are gradually increasing their online revenues but they have been unable to make up for unprecedented losses in print.

This spring, the Chicago Sun-Times eliminated its entire 28-person photography department. (Last month, under union pressure, it hired back four of them.) As they shifted to Web-only publications, U.S. News and World Report fired its photography staff and Newsweek released its contract photographers. Other magazines, newspapers and news agencies, including Reuters, have reduced their photography staffs and rates.

Last month, the Pew Research Center found that more news photographers, artists and videographers have been laid off than any other type of journalist. Nationwide, their numbers decreased by 43 percent, from 6,171 in 2000 to 3,493 in 2012.

Donald R. Winslow, a veteran photographer and editor of News Photographer magazine, the trade publication of the National Press Photographers Association, called those cutbacks a strategic mistake.

“We now live in the most visual, literate society America has ever had,” Winslow told me. “As newspapers took their product to the Web, they failed to realize that they needed to add photographs, not reduce them.”

Posting smartphone self-portraits online has become so ubiquitous that the Oxford English Dictionary declared “selfie” the 2013 word of the year. The buzz — and debate — surrounding the practice reached a crescendo when President Barack Obama posed for Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s iPhone self-portrait with British Prime Minister David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

At the same time, the Obama White House, using social media and an in house- photographer, has created an Orwellian system for distributing sanitized images of the president that excludes photojournalists. The administration prohibits the White House press corps from photographing Obama at work in the Oval Office — a long-accepted practice.

“By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism,” Santiago Lyon, director of photography at the Associated Press, wrote in a scathing op-ed piece in the New York Times last week. “Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Others argue that technological change has irreversibly changed photojournalism. Professional photographers, they insist, will inevitably join the ranks of toll collectors, telephone switchboard operators and other jobs rendered obsolete.

Yet photographers are embracing the new realities and — through their images — proving their relevance.

Despite the billions of cell phone images posted on Facebook and Flickr, the vast majority of iconic photographs capturing major events are still taken by professional photographers. The most widely circulated image from protests in Istanbul’s Taksim square – a woman in a red dress being doused with pepper spray –  was taken by my Reuters colleague Osman Orsal. And a team of Reuters photographers that included veteran photojournalist Goran Tomasevic produced some of the most striking images from Syria.

Nine of the 10 images in Time magazine’s “Top 10 Photos of 2013”  were taken by professional photographers.

“Yes, there are a million images out there,” Time’s director of photography, Kira Pollack, told me in an interview. “But these journalists’ images are the ones that are the most compelling.”

Judge for yourself. Here are Time’s top 10.

Blogs featuring the work of professional photographers at Reuters, The AtlanticTime magazine, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Denver Post continue to draw high online traffic.

James Estrin, a New York Times photographer who co-edits the paper’s photography blog “Lens” with columnist David Gonzalez, said that the explosion in social media imagery is impacting photography in two ways. First, it is creating a vast new audience that appreciates great photography. Second, it is changing the nature of photographs. The vast majority of the imagery we share online is about ourselves, our families and our friends — not others.

“The photograph is almost always — 98 percent — a piece of currency in a social interaction,” he said. “The function of a photograph is different.”

Estrin said he does not yet know if the changes, on balance, are positive. He worries that today’s torrent of images makes it impossible for an iconic photo to emerge – for example, Nick Ut’s harrowing photograph of a young Vietnamese girl, who had stripped off her burning clothes, screaming after a napalm attack. He is concerned that photos today may not have the same impact.

“Are there so many photographs that it’s difficult to for one to stick out?” Estrin asked. “Even when a photo goes viral, it’s only for 24 hours.”

Stephen Mayes, the former chief executive officer of VII and a longtime executive at other photo agencies, says photographers must reinvent themselves.

“It’s up to the professionals to prove that we have value,” he said. “The world doesn’t owe us a living because we make great pictures.”

Haviv and others are doing just that. They are developing large social media followings, shooting documentary films and accepting grants from foundations, non-profits and the United Nations to support their work. Photo editors say that images taken by amateurs can be powerful, but professional photographers are still needed to compose the deeply-layered images that haunt viewers.

Professional photographers are vital. Without them, the world’s conscience will wither. They bear witness for all of us.


PHOTO (TOP): Supporters of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega attack elected vice president Guillermo (Billy) Ford in Panama City. The image was used by President George H.W. Bush as one reason for the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. RON HAVIV/VII Courtesy of Anastasia Gallery

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Rwandan Hutu refugees at a camp in Zaire, in 1994. Thousands of Hutus died of a cholera epidemic after escaping Rwanda after the country’s Hutu-led regime killed almost one million Tutsis. RON HAVIV/VII Courtesy of Anastasia Gallery

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Senad Medanovic, sole survivor of a massacre, finds his home in ruins after the Bosnian army recaptured his village from Serb forces in Bosnia, in 1995. He is standing on what is believed to be a mass grave holding the bodies of 69 people, including his family. RON HAVIV/VII Courtesy of Anastasia Gallery

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Arkan’s Tigers, a Serbian paramilitary unit, with dying Bosnian Muslim civilian victims in the town of Bijeljina,Bosnia, in 1992. The images of the executions were used as evidence by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. RON HAVIV/VII Courtesy of Anastasia Gallery

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Protesters and police in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in June, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

This post was updated at 11:00pm on December 18, 2013.


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Photographers are artists. Our present (western) culture of cheaper/better/faster makes art surplus to requirements. When the future looks back on our time they will see a dark cultural period of no artistic contribution to mankind.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Dear Friends,
I think this is still a romantic vision of photojournalism. Nick Ut’s photo will never exist again as iconic image because the geopolitical warfare is changed and there are more and more players on the stock market, changing the behaviors and the economy of entires countries.
The players are not even human:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/1 7/us-usa-treasury-trading-idUSBRE9BG0ZX2 0131217

So think that the “selfie” is the problem: is a lack of vision, and in a visual culture is a huge error. The price of food cause famine in Africa, it’s because of a selfie? Please consider the opportunity of a reportage on the connection between a software driven economy against the human culture driven by humans.
And if you should need a photographer: contact me.
Best regards.


P.s. We will always need persons with a sharp vision.

Posted by FabianoAvancini | Report as abusive

In a click photographers are seeing that they are being dumped by world famous agencies . In technological changeover that has been cashed by the agencies world over to earn more for them. Involve all with their gadgetry to click and post for them, reliving many of their jobs. This is aberration of worst kind as the visual medium will be hungry for more professional touch and we will nurture shutter speeds that will be beyond the control of the agencies presenting a blur for the future times.

Posted by kabliyawar | Report as abusive

The notion of a single photo changing the direction of national policy is laughable. However images that show an unknown situation can have an effect in public sentiment. The problem with the current generation is the fact that they have little interest in anything but themselves. Unless an image causes a financial loss to an individual, they could care less. That’s why you photogs are losing your jobs. The notion of ‘we’ or ‘us’ no longer exists, it’s just billions of me’s, more connected than ever but lacking meaningful interactions.

Posted by boon2247 | Report as abusive

It’s not just photos. Blogging has replaced writing. Journalism is being democratized for better or for worse.

So far, it looks like worse. A lot of rolling commentary and tweets posing as finished reporting. Reuters had been good, but now changes its stories 6 times a day, and you never know which version is the right one, etc. Erase the old ones if you over-write them. Don’t keep 6 versions of the same article in your archives, each with different minor edits. Keep the good one, throw out the trash. Very sloppy and undisciplined. I wouldn’t even call it journalism so much as ‘repository web pages.’

Maybe the future will have something more structured and reliable.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The future may suffer a nervous breakdown of far too much information? Literacy is of dubious value if the literate stuff themselves with “junk food” and have a harder time getting to the meat, or can even remember what it looks like? N. Korea is a totalitarian state where most of the inhabitants are not permitted to know the outside world of information full force with all its contradictions. They are being kept retarded by people who allow them the privilege of global awareness. But that could also be the world of the future where only a very insulated elite has access to the “raw” data, and who control it’s distribution in works of art that pass for history or information. Some would even say it’s now because wealth allows access to the broader world and the finer things. Vastly unequal income distribution may be the dream of the successful in the modern American economy but it also brings its own curses. But I’m not arguing for a return of communism and think socialized capital is here to stay. It’s too horrible to consider capital gone feral.

Here is a story that turns my stomach every time I think about it. At the time of the writing of the “Historia Augusta” (I use quotes only because I can’t underline in your box – elsewhere I use it to say “so called “or not the best term but the common term) the Roman Senate had become so venal and polarized – the historians would compete in creating false sources and forged documents. One author had used three forged documents and another used over 60. It has been a few years since I read this online and would advise anyone to look into this him or herself. The Senate was more interested in finding arguments to support the factional bias than in finding “the truth” and tend to prefer rumor and fairy tales to flatter their own points of view. It may be fine for discussion to misrepresent a point of view for the sake of argument – it is a debating trick – and is done on the presidential debates all the time and in numerous talk shows and radio shows, but if one side wins the arguments and doesn’t clarify – one could say that “history” is subject to brute force and even drift. History is more of a work of art than many people are comfortable thinking about. So people who know a subject read everything they can on the subject and add their own book to the pile, if they can. That’s what footnotes are about and modern news sources seldom give references. Cable news never does. Reuters, especially the comments, sometimes add more information than appear in the articles. But no one really has to stand behind any of it.

History could become impossible to document accurately. It never seems to be perfectly accurate and any major figure or subject an historian regards ever seems to be something one book alone is seen as sufficient to cover. The whole pile may lean. Or are all the subsequent books, reports and analysis a way of keeping the pile from falling over? I am not an expert on almost any subject I think about.

That is why people tend to cling to books like the Bible or claim they know the Constitution – in spite of the fact that few ever really know either document thoroughly (and I’m not claiming I do) nor can they really ignore the inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and departures in practice or interpretation. I always wonder if even Supreme Court Justices ever succeed in reading and understanding all 2000 plus pages (only an estimate on my part from a link I followed) of the actual Constitution and important subsequent decisions based on it and having to do with modifying or clarifying its meaning? I know there are many more decisions than are mentioned in that link.

Can you imagine what the future will be when the Constitution and modifying decisions (and I’m not sure SC justices and attorneys really see it this way) are ten thousand or more pages long and always growing? How many hundreds of feet of shelf space will they require to keep bound copies alone?

@AlkalineState- I’ve also noticed they can remove articles linked to bookmarks and can also change titles. I’ve also had bookmarks disappear but only once so far. I’ve even lost a whole raft of comment bookmarks recently and had to go to my name to find them again through that list of recent comments. But that may be due to something in my computer? I try to maintain my own archive.

But without them these comments wouldn’t appear at all except somewhere in a big pile of books or, probably, nowhere at all.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

…themselves the privilege of global awareness…

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Actually, my memory is a bit refreshed and bookmarks have led to “disappeared” articles and comments several times in the past few years.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive