Defining “News photographer” for the future

May 22, 2013

London, England

By Russell Boyce

During recent photography workshops we have been running, many of those attending described themselves as “a professional photographer working in the news business” while others described themselves as “photojournalists”. The title “Photojournalist” is an occasionally abused title but for those professionals who are attending our courses who communicate their picture stories to a sophisticated audience I think it’s quite fair for them to describe themselves as a photojournalist.

I began to wonder, is there a difference? Is it just about self-perception or merely a name tag? Does a news photographer see themselves as a working professional who is given assignments and their job is to produce a picture to match that assignment? And is a photojournalist someone who actively chases stories or looks for new ways to illustrate recurring themes through photography and doesn’t just wait for assignments? Both, and a mixture of both, at the present are valid roles. Or is it maybe time to find a new definition? But I am wrestling with the question “what future for photography in a news environment in the next five years and onward?” What status and role, will these photographers have? Before I could examine this further, first I thought it was important to research the actual definition of the roles.

A quick look in the Concise Oxford Dictionary for “news photographer” comes up blank as does a search online. A search for the word “photojournalist”, the noun derived from photojournalism reveals a definition “1. The art or practice of relating news by photographs, with or without an accompanying text, esp in magazines”.

Words defined, I could continue with my train of thought and picked one of the latest breaking and ongoing news stories, the Boston Marathon bombing, to use as a test bed for my thinking. Pictures from the bomb blast moved to the wires quickly. Firstly, it was video grabs of the explosion and then still images of the aftermath. Reuters had two photographers covering the race. Even more quickly pictures moved on social media. In fact, most of the pictures you will remember were probably either shot by amateurs attending the race, citizen journalists or are police handouts intended to stem the flow of misinformation about numbers, names and pictures of those being hunted and their arrest status.

There are, of course, one or two notable exceptions of great pictures shot by local professional photographers who were at the scene when the bombs went off. Rarely are amateur pictures, shot at the same time as a professional pictures, better – it’s not only about the technology professionals use but the well-practiced skills of reacting quickly, composition, focus, thinking about context, drama, shape and form and exposing well when shocking scenes are unfolding all around you. But it’s rare that professional photographers are on the spot – hence the unstoppable charge of citizen journalists and social media. The expectation now is that news consumers will see it all, the actual moment of news – from explosions at the Boston marathon, an adulterous kiss, the nude royal to the last dying breath of fallen dictators such as Gadaffi, – and, of course, all available free.

So where does the rise and charge of citizen journalist place the professional news photographer? I suspect somewhere between the white rhinoceros and the Dodo in terms of long term survival. But it affords a true “photojournalist” a great opportunity. If you look again at the definition of photojournalist “The art or practice of relating news by photographs, with or without an accompanying text, esp in magazines” three words jump out, art, text and magazine. As a start, replace magazine with tablet (I think the Oxford dictionary might need a quick update) and add two more defining words; sequence and in-depth. On this basis of art (good photography), text, in-depth and sequence of images you have the foundations of long-form story telling – at Reuters we call them The Wider Image, a phrase we use to brand our in-depth story-telling photography.

For sure, people expect to see breaking news pictures immediately; they want to be “in the know” and they want to demonstrate that ”knowledge” by sharing it. The power of this phenomenon was the driving force behind the Arab Spring affording everyone, with internet access, a voice. Pictures from social media, whether they are accurate/unbiased/representative or not (another blog another time) are here to stay – just have a look at the background of Matt Mills McKnight pictures from the May Day demonstrations. One person chatting on their phone, two others film as they amble by an arrest scene no doubt the images posted to social media within minutes.

So, why my optimism, why is this an opportunity? Simple; news consumers are re-discovering that they want to have the breaking news explained and looked at in-depth in a way that is unbiased, factual, beautifully shot and sequenced to draw them into the story. They also want the source of the story to have credibility and principles of trust and accuracy. This gives rise to a market for thoughtful, intelligent news gathering and sophisticated photography – something that cannot be carried out by amateurs or on smart phones. Take for example the Tsarnaev brothers accused of the bomb attack whose ethnic homeland is the mainly Muslim province of Chechnya – readers want to understand the thinking behind the attack. What is Chechnya like? What impact life in Chechnya might have had, if any, on the decision of the brothers to bomb Boston? Photographer Maxim Shemetov answers some of these questions with his picture story “Inside Modern Chechnya”.

Another example – India is publicly examining the way women are treated after the high profile gang rape and murder of a woman and the more recent rape of a child. Photographer Mansi Thapilyal documented the families who suffered their children going missing children. The piece was backed up with facts and statics – a moving insight.

A third example is the global gun culture package; stories from Australia, Switzerland, Philippines, Germany, Russia, Brazil and the U.S. – a visual attempt to try to explore the nations’ relationships with guns. An attempt to look into why there have been proportionally so many more mass shootings in the U.S, including the shooting of 26 people in Sandy Hook Elementary school and following the political twists and turns in the lobbying for gun control, when in other countries where guns are almost equally available, these shooting are rare or non-existent.

Coming back to my original point of “what future is there for news photography in the next five years and onward?” I believe it’s all about integrity, high quality, intelligent photography but backed up with sophisticated news planning, being prepared to cover breaking news, identifying developing news themes before they break, communicating your plans with your colleagues and background reading and research.

It’s also an opportunity to differentiate yourself and raise your profile as a photographer. If a photographer thinks all these additional points are bureaucratic and old-fashioned and have nothing to do with “proper” news photography and all they need to do is wait for an assignment or a story to break as they have always done in the past, I doubt they’d have read this far down my blog. If you think these points are an essential element to your photography whether you are working on an assignment you have been given, (even one as simple as company results press conference, a political change or even a major sporting event) or you are beginning to visually examine a developing news theme you have spotted locally, you are probably a journalist who uses a camera professionally. The future for you as a photojournalist, in my opinion, is bright.

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