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.