Friday, May 18, 2007

Does Photojournalism Matter?

In his recent post Elegy for the Photojournalist, Nick Carr writes:

I would agree with Gillmor that this trend [citizen photojournalism] seems inevitable, but I'm not so sanguine about its effects. It's not that I have anything against amateur photographers (being one myself); it's that I think we'll find - are finding already, in fact - that while amateur work may be an adequate economic substitute for professional work, there are things that pros can accomplish that amateurs cannot. We see in the decline of professional photojournalism how the Internet's "abundance" can end up constricting our choices as well as expanding them.

My initial reaction was that Nick had overstated the case. His familiar "Does IT Matter?" has always struck me as a similarly (and, I suspect, somewhat deliberately) overstated argument. The underlying trends are quite real. But the logical extrapolations are a fair bit exaggerated.

Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired, has an extensive and thought-provoking comment in which he makes at least a partial counterargument. Among other things, he notes that:

However, while much of what pro photographers once did can be done as well by the greater collective of amateurs, not everything can. Very specific assignments -- a portrait of a famous singer, or the inside of a new designer's home, or a story on elephant trackers -- simply are not going to show up on Flickr. It takes too much coordination, money, and expertise to pull these off.

But the implications of "crowdsourcing" and the changing nature of the news business on photojournalism are, at a minimum, complicated. Kevin goes on to note, among other things, that Flickr (and presumably iStockphoto and the like as well) will become more common for most uses. To a large degree, it will increasingly only be situations where access is controlled for some reason or another (you can't give everyone a photo pass to the Superbowl)--or where a very specific set of images is needed--you need to hire someone, which is to say you need a pro photographer. And, of course, some photographers will through talent or whatever be able to create images consistently recognized as superior--even if the "masses" have similar access to a scene.

Kevin also notes that "The truth is that there were never very many professional make-their-living photographers." In a sense, we've been having this argument for a long time. Life Magazine died recently. But it died before in 1972, prior to which it had essentially defined the category of photojournalism. The competition that time wasn't crowdsourcing. Rather it was the more immediate impact of television news taking the place of a weekly magazine of photographic journalism.

At the end of the day, I'm not (yet) convinced of Nick's argument. There always has been and always will be a tendency for for-profit businesses (especially if those profits are being squeezed) to substitute free, even if it brings the quality down just a bit. And both businesses and individuals have long had to compete with all sorts of free content and with people whose hobby skirts very close to another's profession.

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