After college, in the late 1980s, I toyed with the idea of becoming a photojournalist. I never really pursued it as a practical goal, though, because it seemed like an impossible fantasy, so impractical that it didn’t make sense to pursue it.
Certainly, there were photojournalists working then, as now, but to me the era of photojournalism was in the past. A heroic past, one that I was fascinated by and whose heroes I admired, but nonetheless the past. Not that one couldn’t pursue photography projects; but it seemed to me that the only option was to do it as an artist or independent documentary photographer, as a self-financed labor of love or grant-funded project.
Of course, I took the practice of photography itself seriously. I taught myself darkroom skills, studied the work of great photographers by visiting museums (I lived near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and its great photo collection), reading photo books and magazines, visiting photo exhibits in galleries like Camerawork.
I spent most of my free time photographing (street photography was my main interest), leaving my office job early to do so, and spending my weekends shooting and printing.
I got into a photography studio art program so that I could totally involve myself in the medium and be with like-minded people that I could have conversations with and learn from. The program I got into took me to New York where I had a second education visiting the many galleries and museums showing photography. It was affiliated with the International Center of Photography, and that affiliation bolstered my efforts.
As it happened, the faculty in my department discouraged the kind of street photography I’d been doing — This was actually good. It gave me an expanded understanding of the medium and (I hope) discouraged me from simply imitating the most obvious cliches of the approach to photography that had interested me so much.
Financial responsibilities led me to seek work outside of photography and I largely stopped taking pictures seriously right at the end of the film era and the beginning of the digital era in the late 1990s.
I didn’t buy a digital camera until around 2004 and didn’t use Flickr until 2006. I used to think of digital photography as not really photography at all, but rather as a sort of still video fake version, masquerading as film photography. But, about six months ago, I bought a slightly better digital camera and started to get back into taking pictures regularly again.
I’ve probably re-told this chronology to myself hundreds of time, but I started thinking about it again today after reading Alissa Quart’s essay “Flickring Out” in the August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. The essay raises concerns about the future of the profession of photojournalism in an era where amateurs are taking more photos than ever (sometimes of significant events such as the London bus bombings) and making them available online.
Predictably, the difficulties faced by photojournalists stem from news organizations cutting budgets and corners, not really from the greater availability of amateur photography online. Being a good photojournalist requires skills and a commitment that few people have. It takes a lot more to make an informative image of a developing news story, or create a photo essay, than merely a digital camera, cell phone camera, and Flickr account.
I think what’s missing in this very good article is the understanding that there are many more good photographers out there than can be supported financially in their efforts. That’s why they’re amateurs. Subtract all the photos of birthday parties and new cars and summer vacations on Flickr, and you’ll find the work of many people who have a real passion for (and a high degree of competence in) photography.
No, they’re not professional photojournalists, but then again they can bring fresh perspectives outside of the profession of photojournalism, which certainly isn’t immune from cliches itself (this point, btw, was driven home to me on a recent visit to a major museum that was showing a photo essay by a prominent photojournalist. Stock phrases and platitudes can surface just as easily in photos as in writing).
Maybe there should be a wider market for serious amateur photographers to publish their work in the same way that serious (non-journalist) writers publish their writing. Maybe there’s a need to recognize more than just two types of photographers: photojournalists and “everybody else.”
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When you do digital photography, you’re “connected.” Do film photography, on the other hand, and you’re living off-the-grid. It’s a huge difference. When I think back to the late 1980s when I first started doing photography, I remember how how difficult it was to get work seen.
Beyond your own circle of friends, you could enter photos in contests, try to get event photos published in newspapers, try to get work shown in galleries, try to get your work critiqued by curators or gallery owners…None easy to do.
My work was almost never seen beyond my circle of friends. Compare that with Flickr today. Huge difference. If you do compelling work and write intelligent titles and tags, your work will be seen. It’s an exciting difference compared with the old days, and it’s gotten me excited about doing photography again.