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This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.
You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.
It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”
So what makes now so great?
To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.
We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.
But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.
Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.
In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.
My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.
And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.
In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.
The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.
Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.
But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.
Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.
Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.
Like for Reznor, the Internet’s reach is a valuable tool for photographers to sell their work. Once forced to use agents and portfolio reps to market themselves, we now have — for better and for worse — the unfiltered channel of the Internet to find new buyers, collectors and clients. It is a crowded market out there to be sure. Everyone wields a camera, thinks they are brilliant and shares their images for free with everyone. But competition forces us to think harder, work harder and be better image makers to rise above all that noise. And this is not a new phenomenon.
When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”
So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.
This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.
Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.
This is a cross-post with my additional new blog “Transmedia Journalism.” There I’ll be describing my research of the last year and continuing to flesh out the ideas behind it. Here’s what it’s about:
If you are here, reading this, you know that journalism is having some trouble. Not only is the economic model that used to pay for it sinking fast, but journalists are having a harder time reaching the public with their work in a very diverse and dispersed mediascape. This new blog and my ongoing research is mostly about the latter problem, though all of journalism’s woes are inextricably linked. Rather than waiting for the public to come to us for the news, we need to send our work down every conceivable avenue to find the public — new publics too — and win their engagement and loyalty. We need to improve the way we tell stories.
That is where the title of this new blog comes in. “Transmedia” is one of the top buzzwords of the past two years in the entertainment and advertising industries. It is proving to be extremely effective in reaching and engaging the public in those two realms, and there is much about it that we can put to use in telling the informative and factual stories journalists want to tell. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are using transmedia techniques to win more fans and engage them more deeply. That’s something we should want too.
Transmedia storytelling is not just convergence or multimedia by a new name. It’s also not an entity solely of the digital age. The Web is an excellent tool for much of it, but a transmedia story doesn’t unfold there or in any other single medium alone. It can, however, use any aspect of any media from the cave painting to the latest killer app.
Transmedia storytelling and the transmedia journalism I propose tells stories across an array of media — analog, digital and even brick-and-mortar — in an expansive rather than repetitive way. That would mean telling a complex story not only across the usual print, Web and broadcast media, but possibly through books, games, immersive experiences, graphic nonfiction (comics), gallery walls, museum installations, public lectures, public interaction and authorship, or any other medium appropriate to the story. It also means not simply re-editing a story for repetition among those media.
In entertainment it looks (briefly) like this:
Star Wars did it largely by accident. Starting with one film in 1977, the story proved so compelling and engaging that it exploded across the mediascape from films to comics, books, games, toys, fan fiction and video, and any other medium you can think of. Inspired by this, creators of The Matrix franchise in the late 90s designed a similar experience from the start, planning how their story would unfold not only on the screen, but continue through all those other media and more. Since the Matrix tale began more than a decade ago, other entertainment franchises, like the hugely successful Lost TV series, have successfully used transmedia storytelling design to rivet fans and put them to work finding, sharing and shaping stories.
As the new blog unfurls I will describe what transmedia storytelling is, where it comes from and how we can use it within the goals and ethics of journalism. It will come in both appetizer- and entree-sized chunks, but if you’re a big eater you can download the full academic paper. You’ll also see links there to all the pieces of important context and background on transmedia storytelling and transmedia journalism as they are published. Subscribe to the feed or the related tweets to know when there’s something new.
That blog will also be a hub for my ongoing research on the subject, and a place to air my and your related discoveries about it. Post links to interesting examples of transmedia stories from any industry, and send observations and suggestions my way. I’d love to hear them. And what does it have to do with photojournalism? I believe we visual reporters are very used to the idea of telling stories by alternative means.
This post is the barest scratch of the surface of what will come. Look ahead for deeper explanations of what transmedia storytelling looks like in the entertainment media — with many linked examples — places where journalism has gone before, and what transmedia journalism might look like — also with many linked examples. To start a deeper exploration go to the Contexts page there, and stay tuned to it is as the background and examples are posted.
The journalism profession is not short on experimentation with new ideas, new technologies and new storytelling methods. But they seem more like attempts to keep the publics they used to have than to find and engage new ones. I believe by adopting the techniques of transmedia storytelling, we can reach out to new readers, viewers, listeners and interactors in the media spaces where they already are, and engage them more deeply in complex real-world stories. It could certainly be easier than reviving our old model of expecting them to come to us.
We’ve all heard pitches like this before: If you value the media, buy it.
Columns and reports around the new and old media lately have espoused a pay-for-access model on the net that reflects how the media has functioned for a few centuries. I agree, but I’m not going to repeat that sentiment.
But how many of you — students in particular — actually buy the products for which you aspire to work?
If you’re like I was as a student, your daydreams drift to National Geographic contracts, Time covers, regular newspaper paychecks, magazine spreads, museum collections (and now) online galleries shown by major URLs. We want this work. We want recognition for seeing the world intensely and making compelling images that touch our readers. And we most certainly want to get paid for it.
We lament that budgets are tight, outlets for work are small or underpaid, and jobs are disappearing. And not that our subscriptions would make even the slightest dent in the problems of the media, but I see a hypocrisy in our actions. Wish as we might to earn money from the media for doing good work, do we actually buy those products?
I looked down at coffee-slopped, crumb-scattered pages of the papers this morning and smirked.
While we lament, we don’t subscribe. It’s expensive to have the New York Times land on my doorstep each morning, but it’s nothing compared to the money I’ve earned from them in the last 20 years. I am one of those people who saves National Geographics and grabs Time, Newsweek and US News off the grocery store rack to browse over lunch and toss in the recycle bin a half hour later.
I even pick up the local free “shopper” rag in any town I find myself because you can learn a lot about a community from what they’re selling.
Why do that when I can get most of that stuff on the Web for free?
Because I can slop breakfast or lunch all over them without having to send hardware in for repair. I can flip through copies as the Thousand Island drips from my reuben, smearing all over the latest Nachtwey essay. I scribble notes in the margins on stories I’d like to chase. I cut out and tack up images that inspire me. I roll them up and stuff them in my back pocket while I stroll. I relish that the ads don’t pop up, flash, scroll, or shout at me. And if still I had a birdcage…
But the reasons for you should be deeper than old-fashioned practicality. We need to be steeped in images to produce good work. We need to know what is being done out there. We need to have our mental libraries filled with ideas to use, alter or steal outright.
You can do that well on the Web too. It’s a magnificent at-your-fingertips resource with better volume of material presented in more interesting forms. There you have instant and unprecedented access to the entire world’s media. It’s a beautiful thing. But I know that many of you don’t really even look there, and fewer pay for content.
Spend time with the media no matter the form. Proudly pay what you can for the great work being done out there. Browse, explore, slop, spill, clip, print, pay a little. Consume what you hope to produce for yourself — from the scrappy local paper to Newsweek. And by doing so, your ideas and understanding of our craft grow. And you do your tiny part to help the media recover.
I did have a bird many years ago, and we would play “Birdcage Bingo” with my clips. I’d slip them into his cage and let him tell me what of my work he liked and what he didn’t in a game that was a simple variation on cow pasture bingo. Maybe someday I’ll try that with the Web…
When I first started my freelance career in Brazil 15 years ago, a wizened, only-slightly-older-than-me freelance magazine writer named Mac Margolis — now a Cabot-Prize-winning Newsweek correspondent — gave me his formula.
He said his method was to report a story once and sell it as many times as he could. He would write a version for Time, another for The Economist and a third version for an airline in-flight magazine. He would focus the same story on the specific area of interest of each magazine. He’d sell the stories to publications around the world where multiple languages opened a new non-competing market for each story.
To smart fingers on a computer keyboard, this model could work well for Internet journalism where pay per story may be quite low, but the market is huge.
In the changing landscape of journalism economics, I can promise one thing: In the short term my students who are indefatigable journalists will be freelancers. Jobs are few, far between and disappearing. Though that may turn around at some point, it’s hard to know when.
However, hunger for content should not disappear. There is now an infinite amount of space available to publish meaningful work. Some pays, some does not. But for a committed journalist of any flavor, the stories are out there and the means of publishing have never been more open or easy.
Building a freelance business is not much different than building any other business. It takes an impressive investment in time and money to really get a good start. I know a few photojournalists who have evolved into freelancers over a lengthy amount of time, but the majority did it the way I did: With sweat and credit-card equity.
What I love
I can imagine no other profession, and many of you may feel the same way. As both a staff photojournalist and a freelancer I have seen the world the way few can. I’ve been to the very last polar spits of North and South America, to Europe, South Asia, and Africa. And I’ve not just visited those places. I’ve lived them through the generous subjects who let me deeply into their lives. My days are as different as there are people and jobs in the world.
I have taken this positive risk in my career: I have lived thoroughly now, figuring I would probably sacrifice later. That’s the reverse of the typical “wise” American formula. I would not trade this life for anything.
What I would change
Having freshly paid off my student loans and with a paltry $2,000 in the bank, I quit my fair-paying job and ran off to Brazil to be a freelancer. My scheme was to live cheaply in Brazil’s struggling economy while I covered a fascinating continent. But right as I arrived they fixed that economy and suddenly Rio was as expensive as New York. I quickly built up credit card debt to communicate with editors, ship film, fund the travel to cover stories on spec, and even pay the high local rents.
I was successful in building a business that still runs. But paying that debt has limited many things for me over the years.
For those of you starting a business I have these “do as I say, not as I do” recommendations:
• Borrow as little money as possible. With stagnant freelance journalism rates you would have a more difficult time growing your way out of startup debt. If you do need to borrow, look for alternatives to credit cards to finance your work. Ask about other non-revolving loans from banks if you must. Those loans have a closed end. Borrow from family and friends only after deep reflection on what that debt may do to a valuable relationship. Nothing gets in the way of personal relationships like money.
• Analyze every expense. Photographers tend to be gadget heads. We want the latest and coolest stuff, from killer cameras to cool phones and fast, sleek laptops. They are exciting! But you need quite little to do the job — one small camera body, a couple lenses and a flash. A modest laptop will generally do the job too.
Editors very rarely care how the job is accomplished. They only want it to be done to their liking. There are many ways to light a room, shoot in the dark and tone a photo with a very polished look. As a young freelancer you’ll have more time than money, so use that time to figure out cheap working methods.
You don’t need 25 megapixels. Even the ambitious standards of high-end photo agencies can be met with 10. Newspaper and most magazine gigs can be happily met with 6 megapixels from a five-year-old digital camera. Film can easily meet all of those. There are bargains in used gear.
Though software like Adobe’s Creative Suite is the industry standard, there are more good image editing software solutions out there than I can count, and many of them are free.
Buy equipment only when you have repeated need for it and it will with certainty pay for itself with new work. You can always rent it for that odd job, and can probably be reimbursed for the rental by your client.
As you travel, find stories along the way to report and sell. Cartier-Bresson street photography will add to your portfolio but not give an immediate return on the investment. Do that and cover a story you could sell at the same time. Small stories are good. Ambitious big-idea stories are better done near home.
Think of this business the same way you would if you were opening a store, starting a consulting business or building another kind of Internet startup.
• Invest (actual money) in your future. You may be 22. You may feel 22. It may be four decades until you think you might retire on your vast laurels as a great photojournalist or documentary photographer. But take it from me, age advances faster than you think it will. Offset some of that risk you are itching to make by covering your old age with IRAs and other retirement plans now. Peel off ten percent of your earnings (that’s so little) to an untouchable account.
Running a business is more than a full-time job. You’ll have big tax bills to pay, health and life insurance to cover, equipment to maintain, marketing plans to build, archives to backup, and research to do — all over and above the maintenance of your creativity and attention on crafting valuable work. One thing often forgotten in that mix of things-I-should-have-done-yesterday is to plan a future.
Our friends and loved ones who follow a more traditional life plan — one in which you sacrifice and save now to fund travel and leisure in old age — would never be able to handle the risk we tend to take. But we need to learn from them too. Be smug about the places you’ll go while you’re young, and how deeply you may interact with the world. But while you do it, keep your debts as low as you can and squirrel away some money starting now so you can smile from your Paris apartment when you’re old.
I and my fellow inmates will applaud you.
Late last week a story from the U.K. revealed a point where photojournalism balances between public service, free speech, national security and intense journalism competition.
Robert Quick, the U.K.’s most powerful counter-terrorism officer, resigned after being photographed as he stepped from a car at 10 Downing Street, holding secret documents in plain sight.
Quick was holding plans for a major anti-terrorism operation. With high-resolution digital cameras, good lenses and quick shutters it was possible to zoom into the tiny print and read the document. Britain’s tabloids ran with the information.
My first reaction was dismay at their choice. Though it happened in public, and yes, Quick was a fool for not putting the papers back in their folder, revealing the plans could needlessly cost lives. Terrorists could escape to bomb a market or subway, all thanks to press freedom.
With every freedom comes responsibility. We in the press must understand what the results of revealing information may be.
But, like all stories, the complexities are thick.
First, in a competitive field, someone was bound to publish the information and perhaps the British press felt their hand was forced. Editors have always felt the need to be first and strongest with the news, even before circulations began to wane and competition for ad sales soared. And “citizen journalism” means photos and videos by people without training and without editors land immediately on the Web. The editors of these papers (some combative tabloids, some not) may have felt they had no choice.
The Evening Standard did inform the Metropolitan Police in advance that they would publish. The revelations forced British police to immediately undertake the operation, resulting in 12 arrests. The anti-terrorism plan was not completely thwarted.
Another complication is the relationship between the press and the Metropolitan Police Service in London, which is under fire for the apparent riot-police-clubbing of a 47-year-old newspaper vendor who died of a heart attack after his reported violent encounter with a riot cop. The department seems to be skirting a proper investigation of that death. They are also implicated in the shooting death of a turnstile-hopping Brazilian immigrant in the London subways in 2005.
The public and the press may have been gunning for Quick.
Relationships between journalists and the governments they hope to keep in check are always strained. Here this was with Bush and will be with Obama. But both sides could stand to watch themselves.
If the British media and their citizen counterparts were seizing an opportunity to take down an official they found to be in their way, they succeeded. But will it help their relations with the Metropolitan Police Service? Force better internal investigations? Check the behavior of trigger- and baton-happy cops?
Odds are low. My bet is that police tape and photo positions will move further back away from subjects, access will become more limited. And rather than officials seeing the truth that Quick was an idiot for stepping into public unprepared, they will simply blame the press for Quick’s quick end.
Rather than taking down Robert Quick by revealing a flub that was only possible because of the cameras present, he would have been better forced into resignation by revealing department wrongdoing. We are a better check on the system when we “gotcha” with meaningful material.
We need to pick our battles very carefully.
That question came from a friend and accomplished photojournalist who came to guest lecture last fall. Like everyone in the business she was staring down a lot of potential bad news — disappearing jobs (her own months later), an uncertain model for how to deliver the news and significantly changing technology.
Those of us who have spent a lot of time in the profession are at crossroads we don’t relish.
For many of my colleagues it is now unfathomable that I could or would teach a profession that seems to be disappearing faster each day. Where would students find jobs? How can the profession cope with even more competition?
These aren’t new sentiments. Even before the current economic crisis and financial fall of the newspaper industry I was regularly asked how I could stand to put more “competition” out into a tight workplace.
Teaching is an act of faith. To offer a set of skills to a younger person means you assume that person can succeed and benefit from those skills. Teachers who lack that faith don’t teach as well. Students smell it on them like a rabid dog is said to smell fear.
But my optimism is not fake. After spending 13 years in front of smart, capable and inspiring individuals who ache to throw themselves into the world with a natural sense of immortality, indestructibility, and eyes on the top of the profession.
I remember those days, and so should any other seasoned pro who may be reading this. When you’re in your early 20s you assume you can and will be a member of Magnum someday, or a book-publishing documentary photographer, accomplished war reporter, National Geographic contractor, or a local news institution.
And when you’re in your early 20s you have no preconceptions about how you will get there. No patterns of working nor ladder climbing exist yet. There are a hundred possible roads to the future.
Teaching is also a selfish act. I have to confess that I get as much from my students as they hopefully do from me. Hanging around with younger people keeps you young yourself. As they absorb your experience you get to absorb their optimism, their new ideas and their boundless energy.
As they take from my experience, I take from their innovative and unprejudiced ideas.
But still, from the perspective of my generation, it is murky at best to see a future in photojournalism. All the structures of our business are collapsing and the entire economic model is in question. How then can I teach this profession?
I am certain that the boundless energy and lack of preconception about anything will carry my students forward. Unlike me they have no entrenched image of what it is to be a journalist, what journalism should do nor how to get to a dependable and profitable career.
They will recreate everything about this business, possibly for the better. They will think of ways of operating, methods of story telling and options for delivery that previous generations of journalists could not imagine.
And hopefully I too can shake my own preconceptions enough to join them on this adventure.
With change there is always opportunity.