Causes and effects of the 'death of photojournalism'

The Past: A brief history of photojournalism

"From this day, the painting is dead", Paul Delaroche exclaimed when he saw the first Daguerreotype in 1839. He turned out to be wrong about the bit about the art of painting being dead, but photography certainly had a profound impact on our way of life. (Goldberg 1991) As a matter of fact, as early as in 1900, it was said that "the daily press, advertisements, posters, scientific literature, the popular lecture, decoration, and now the kinetograph, not to speak of the coming colored photography, have all contributed what is probably slowly coming to be a new mode of pictorial thought" (Goldberg 1991, p16)

Since the turn of the last century (1899 has been pointed out as the year photography really gained foothold in print media), pictures have become one of the sources of information newspaper readers have grown to rely on. (Lebeck & Von Dewitz 2001) As technology improved and the introduction of graphical images and photographs into newsprint became possible, editors realised that photographs were important additions to their journalistic textual input. Fred Barnard, a writer for Printer's Ink, nailed the place of photojournalists firmly into history in 1921, by coining the phrase "A picture is worth a thousand words". (Stevenson 1948)

Technology continued improving and photojournalism slowly became more significant. In terms of layout, photographs were more often than not the first thing people noticed about an article – even before headlines. (Hodgson 1998) The newfound love of graphical input on news pages spawned the first wave of photojournalists, some of whom became world famous. Mathew Brady (1823-1896), Jacob Riis (1849-1914), Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) and Robert Capa (1913-1954) are but of a few of the pioneers who shaped the field of documentary photography and photojournalism in its early days.

After the initial impact of photographs in print subsided, new publications appeared, focussing specifically on photojournalism as a form of journalism. Magazines such as Life, Picture Post and Look raised important issues in society almost exclusively through the art of stills images and image captions.

The images come to life

With the introduction of moving images, photojournalism took quite a punch: The newsreels being played in cinemas in the 1920s and 30s were seen as a dangerous competitor to stills photographers, but its threat was eventually brushed off, as people realised it could take weeks – in some case even months – before news stories made it to the cinemas, whereas photographs could appear in the newspaper within the same week. (Goldberg 1991)

All of this changed drastically with the invention of the tape-based (as opposed to film-based) cameras in the early 1950s (Bellis 2003), when news could be edited down and transmitted the same evening. Still, the news photograph as a medium of art and communication kept growing: "During the 1960s, still photography and television news played off one another, boosting the power of images yet another notch" (Goldberg 1991, p217). In 1980, CNN was started, increasing the ever-growing tempo of news publishing, simultaneously hammering in the first nail in the coffin of photojournalism. The CNN, transmitting 2,592,000 news pictures a day (30 frames a second, 24 hours a day), has saturated the market for pictures. Whatever people want to see, they can see 24 hours a day. Despite the fact that although "television news has produced many memorable moments, photographs are more fully and easily remembered" (Goldberg 1991, p218). Simultaneously, investigative photojournalism has a possibility of being more in-depth than television. This, however, costs money. And money is scarce in the world of hardnosed competition within the media.

The Present

Things have changed since the early days of photojournalism. The media in general have undergone some significant changes. From being sources of reasonably unbiased public information, the current media climate – at least for the largest media organisations – is that of a world where profits are the key priority. For smaller publications such as local and small regional papers, the question becomes less one of profitability and more one of survival.

Perhaps because of this, The art of photography as a journalistic media "has been consigned to history because it is no longer regarded as an important medium of information for mass readership" (Lebeck & Dewitz 2001, p7) The pictures themselves, however, are still as important as ever. As Harold Evans puts it: "Everest is undeniably climbed, but we want to see the photograph of the man standing on top." (Evans 1978 p5)

We still find pictures – a great number of them – in newspapers every day. The difference lies in who takes the pictures. Many publications, in particular smaller regional papers and the locals, have done away with staff photographers completely, or have kept considerable fewer than the size of the publication would dictate. Consequently, these publications rely heavily on news photo agencies, public relations material and (to a lesser degree) freelance work. A fourth option that is becoming more and more common is the journalist going out on an assignment being equipped with a digital camera, taking some snaps during or after the interview.

A journalist who takes pictures vs. a photojournalist

Photography and journalism, while often being seen as the pair of horses pulling the chariot that is newspaper production, are completely different on many different levels. Photography as a profession is often placed in the same bin as painting, illustrating and other visual arts (Evans 1978), while journalism is more closely related to linguistics and academic work.

This difference is significant, as it ties in with the theories on usage of the brain. The left brain is linear, logical, sequential and verbal – containing all the points an editor would look for in a journalist. The right side of the brain, on the other hand, is holistic, nonverbal, intuitive and creative – also good characteristics of a journalist, but arguably far more important to a photographer. We all use both sides of the brain, but most people have a dominant side (MTSU 2002). A corollary of this is that most people will be better at taking pictures or researching and writing up stories. Practical experience has shown that – more often than not – brilliant journalists make appalling photographers and that the best photographers are nigh on illiterate . This means that editors have three choices: hire a good photographer who can write, hire a good writer who can take pictures, or hire somebody who is mediocre at both. The obvious choice is to choose somebody who can string some decent sentences together. The result? Photography suffers.

This never used to be a problem until the photographers were taken out of the equation. In the Norwegian local press this is particularly noticeable, but the same tendency can be found in the in the US regional press. The pictures used in the news sections of these publications are often rather uninspiring. The problems are normally not technical: modern digital cameras are as close to foolproof as we are going to get, especially because the results of the exposure are evident seconds after the picture is taken: If something is very wrong with the picture, it is always possible to retake it, and the majority of errors made in the process can be fixed in the digital darkroom.

The problem with using journalists as photographers is of a different character, which is far more difficult to define. The solution, here represented by the words of Margaret Bourke-White, is simpler: "While it is not necessary to return to the photography of 25 years ago, I think students of photography should work for a while with the view camera and do their own lab work" (Bourke-White 1958, p182). The point made here is important. A photographer is more likely to be familiar with the whole process, from the split second when the shutter goes 'click' to the hours a print hangs to dry after its baths of developer and fix.

Good photographers feel when something is wrong about an exposure, and change the settings on their cameras accordingly. The camera becomes an extension of the eye, in a similar way that experienced drivers don't have to think about when to change gears, and how an adept journalist doesn't have to think about how to write "skilled occupation" in shorthand. Or, back to the eloquence of the professional: "It is very easy to chase around with a little camera, shooting all over the map, and saying 'Oh, they can fix that in the darkroom.' But that's not the place for fixing. Photography is a creative medium, and the creating should be done on the spot" (Bourke-White 1958, p182).

Despite the fact that these words were written 45 years ago, they are still remarkably applicable: Digital technology has come far, but there are limitations to how much information that is viable to remove from or add to an image. In addition to this, there are all the ethical limitations: What can be done to an image that is to be passed off as 'the truth'?

Obviously, journalists are not stupid. Much like journalism, however, photography is a skill that cannot be fully taught in courses and instruction manuals: "Electronic transmission and manipulation are a boon, as is the compact disc is a boon for music, but the disc needs Mick Jagger or Mozart, and the page needs the Don McCullins and the Eddie Adamses of this world as much as ever." (Evans 1978, p6) It is when the instructions and photography-rulebooks run out and intuition begins that a true photojournalist is born. This is a process that cannot be demanded or expected of every journalist

Observations outside the Norwegian local press

Having seen the worst-case scenario in the newsrooms of the Norwegian local media, it is worth taking a wider look at some parts of the rest of the world. For example: During a recent work experience session at Your Move magazine, a local Liverpool property and lifestyle magazine, I experienced that the market for photography is still there. It is, however, outside the scope of news photography: Most of the photography work done was in the commercial genre; portraits, product photography, fashion and architectural shots.

Other publications I have worked for, such as Norwegian VG and VG Nett, still employ full-time photographers. The problem is that there are not enough of them, and (again in an effort to save money), no more are employed. The result of this is that, while being able to run the newspaper more efficiently, the photographers have to be prioritised. In my experience, the priority will more often than not be on sensationalist and / or celebrity news. The reason for this is probably that this is what sells the newspapers. There is little time and other resources for in-depth photo assignments.

In the UK, things are a little better than in Norway. The reason for this is probably that a bigger population causes a bigger audience. A bigger audience causes a larger budget, and with a larger budget, allowances can be made for photography features and a different approach to the photojournalistic side of the publication. Aside from the thriving paparazzi culture (which arguably is the most visible group and possibly contains some of the most skilled photographers), newspapers like the Observer and other major Sunday papers make space for special feature sections. These sections often contain significant photography work, proving that the genre of photojournalism may not be quite as dead as portrayed elsewhere in this essay.


This essay has focussed primarily on a dark future: While the technology has gotten better, the average photography quality on exhibit in the press is deteriorating. The essay has shown why giving journalists cameras is not a substitution for specialised photographers, but the question remains: What can be done?

24 hour television news is here to stay, which means that news snaps have lost all value: the television media runs circles around snapshots. The only area where news photography can compete is in the area of human affairs: Vivid portrayal of strong moments, events and charismatic people can be done better by a still frame than a television camera. The medium for seeing such pictures is newspapers or magazines. Because of this, perhaps the need for more news photographers than today is absent, but the media is gasping for better photographers. Men and women who still know the trade of telling a story through photographs.


(Harvard Referencing System)

Bellis, M (2003) The History of Video and Related Innovations.

Bourke-White (1958) Photojournalism Now and Tomorrow.
In Smith Schuneman, R (1972) Photographic Communication.
London: Focal Press

Evans, H (1978) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and picture editing.
London: Pimlico

Goldberg, V (1991) The power of photography: how photographs changed our life.
New York: Abbeville Press Publishers

Hodgson, FW (1998) New Subediting London: Focal Press

Lebeck, R & von Dewitz, B (2001) Kiosk: Eine geschichte der fotoreportage 1839-1973. Cologne: Steidl

MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) (2002) Left/Right Processing. (last verified May 18 2003)

Stevenson, B (1948) The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases.
New York: Macmillan

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