Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Thanks for the memories - the state of photography today

I have just read this fascinating article about the use of Citizen Journalists (CJs - essentially untrained, voluntary contributors) particularly in the field of photography. The piece reports the decision of a regional UK newspaper to reduce its photography staff, while setting up platforms for the public (the CJs in question) to submit photos. The argument cited is that it will encourage “news and pictures they wouldn’t otherwise get.” The comments section below the article is, unsurprisingly, filled with the howlings and gnashing of professionals who are feeling the icy hand of death.

The noble profession of photography has taken a beating in recent years. First it has witnessed the rise of the digital camera (and, latterly, the ‘phone cam), which has opened up the art to the masses. Hand in hand with this has come the ability for anyone with an internet connection and few scruples to steal and re-use photos ad infenitum. There was then the death of Diana which demonised the press photographer. Finally (and this is perhaps local to the UK) the new terror laws have put restrictions on taking photographs in public. All in all, things aren’t looking great for image-makers the world over.

I do agree that copyright infringement is a bad thing, particularly when self-employed small business men and women are the targets. I also think the Stalinist terror laws should be relaxed and happily there seems to be progress on this front. However, I approve of putting the tools of the trade into the hands of the masses and curbing the behaviour of the papparazzi. The first of these is something I believe in passionately. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that it might strengthen the profession. Photographers will have to ‘up their game’ in the years to come if they want to make any money. We should ignore the bleatings because a business model no longer functionioning is not a good argument to regress to the old status quo. I think everyone should be able to enjoy photography and, if the amateur takes a great photo then it should only serve to riase the bar for those who want to get paid for it.


  1. Interesting post on a complex issue: the cynical part of me can't shrug the feeling that the use of CJs is an extension of the exploitation of free labour typical of internships rather than any kind of editorial decision or democratisation of news reporting, though. I do also wonder what, post-Diana and post-Leveson, upping the game for photographers could feasibly consist of - particularly for populist-reportage photojournalism, for example.

    Plenty of food for thought in there. Thanks, TamTam.

  2. It's great to see someone working in the creative industry take a stand against draconian IP laws & (unjustified) professional monopolies, when it would have been easy to side with the greater powers that pretend to protect your business.

  3. I think there are two issues here which should not be confused – should amateurs be paid if they contribute, and should the dying business model of the traditional photographer be propped-up at the expense of excluding amateurs from the market? I think unpaid labour is wrong and of course anyone who contributes should be paid. However, the market for photography has been blown open in recent years. I don’t approve of artificially perpetuating business models to benefit a minority and so I think it’s right and proper that professional photographers are going to have to adapt to survive.

  4. Yes, I think I agree with you: I can understand why professional photographers would feel vexed having spent however much money to train, though. That being said, there's been a massive democratisation in image-making (of all kinds) since digital technology became more affordable, and of exceptional quality, and professional photographers do have to try to deal with that in whichever way they can.

    As for artificially perpetuating (unsuccessful) business models to benefit a minority, though, one has to look at the crisis in print (and to a lesser extent online) media and the collapse in revenue, which hasn't been mirrored in a collapse in executive pay, but has been mirrored by a marked increase in unpaid labour through internships, and now citizen journalism (the best outcome for the photographers mentioned in the article above appears to be 'social gaming points' or the remote possibility of a prize). I also wonder if citizen journalists have to forego their rights to their images as they upload these images to the site.

    I'm concerned that rather than encouraging amateurs into the industry, it'll simply be an exploitative process (at the expense of both amateur and professional photographers) as professionals are pushed out of the industry whilst necessarily wealthy and enthusiastic amateurs take their place in a vain hope at one day being paid for the privilege (which is largely how the art, design and fashion industries have been operating for the last few decades).

    It's certainly a complicated issue.