Photojournalism at War

Article  by  Claire HEMERY  •  Published 12.11.2011  •  Updated 14.11.2011
Whether the photojournalism industry is in decline or is undergoing a mutation, the uncertain future of photojournalists has now become a distinctive trait of the profession. Anxiety and optimism coexist in the face of competition and genre redefinition.
While the Arab spring, the earthquake in Japan, and the Ivorian crisis have revived the interest of the general public in photojournalism, industry professionals continue to send warning signals about the difficulties of a “job that won’t stop dying.” At Rencontres d'Arles[+] NoteFormerly known as “Rencontres internationales de la photographie,” created in 1970 by Arles-based photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier, and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette.X[1] in July 2011, and again at the “Festival du photojournalisme” de Perpignan “Visa pour l'image,[+] NoteFounded in 1989.X[2] a persistent malaise was highlighted by the attention of the media, the public and institutions: are photojournalists an “endangered species,” as a 2009 report headlined from the European Federation of Journalists?

In France, the decline of so-called “traditional” photojournalism agencies was confirmed in 2011 with the purchase of Sipa by the German agency DAPD. The restructuring following this transaction involved the dismissal of 34 out of 92 employees, including 16 out of 24 photographers. This is not surprising news, but, as Capucine Cousin explains, the disappearance of the last major French agency can be seen as a fatal blow to photojournalism. Sygma was bought in 1999 by the Corbis Group (owned by Bill Gates), and was liquidated in May 2010. Gamma, acquired by François Lochon in civil court, now survives almost exclusively off its archives which represent 80 to 90% of its sales. All these agencies have experienced the same problems: competition from wire agencies, (AFP, Reuters, AP) and the downward trend of market prices. For the past decade, they have managed to subsist by diversifying their activities (video, archives, revamped subscription plans) and targeting new clients (NGOs and businesses, for example).
If we still have pictures of everything that is happening in the world, we owe it to three telegraph [agencies],” “Visa pour l’image” Founder and Director Jean-Francois Leroy declared in 2001. By developing their photo services, major world news agencies like AFP (France), Reuters (UK), and the Associated Press (USA) have deeply upset the balance of power: the cost of digital equipment is less of a burden for them, and the improved speed in transferring pictures from the field to the newsrooms has greatly facilitated their independence. Faced with such competition – the individual and financial resources of these gigantic agencies – photojournalism agencies have seen their core professionals courted away and a new wholesale news-photo market develop “at the expense of personal works from engaged photographers.”

The very value of photojournalism and its production is being questioned: many lament the fact that the daily press and magazines have turned their back on field photography in favor of illustrative images and celebrity photos. In 2009, Jean-Francois Leroy was indignant: “They buy celebrity subjects with a budget that would send 12 photographers to Darfur or Chechnya.”  Neil Burgess, the founder of British photo agency NB Pictures, also points out that the press is no longer funding photojournalism. In an interview with The Guardian, he explains that photo reportage has been replaced with “decorative visual work.” Photo reportage is now self-funded, commissioned by NGOs, or taken from books. Could this be due to a lack of interest or resources? The press crisis has clearly weakened the profession of photojournalism: “In three years, the average price of a photo has been halved,” said Beatrice Garrett, executive director at Sipa Press.
The Internet has certainly hightened the competition with the advent of online image agencies and databases that offer often amateur photos for free, or less than five Euros. These pictures are clearly not on par with the work of reporters, yet they feed the editorial press, illustrative pictures replacing informative ones.
Before even questioning these editorial choices, photojournalists are primarily concerned with their pay. At “Rencontres d’Arles” in July 2011, the Union of Professional Photographers (UPP) organized a funeral march: fifty professionals wandered into the city dressed as Grim Reapers (black cloak and scythe) escorting a coffin symbolizing copyright law and holding signs that read “Fotolia killed me” or “Royalty-free pictures result in a slow and painful death for photographers.” They called on governments to do something about the proliferation of “illegal or one-sided contracts.” In 2001, Marc Laimé had reported on such practices which are very remote from the French concept of intellectual property: “With an initial lump sum, clients (agencies or media outlets) arrogate all rights of use and sale of their photos, acquired once and for all.” The UPP’s funeral march also decried “the misuse of the DR (‘droits réservés’ or ‘all rights reserved’) mention.” They equally recalled the urgent need to legislate on orphan works and expressed their disagreement with Hadopi’s PUR label: “They have branded Fotolia, stock photos recovered from unscrupulous agencies and sold at 14 cents each. Professional photographers cannot make a living under these conditions.” In response to these concerns, pervasively present during “Visa pour l'image,” the French Department of Culture and Communications issued a statement on September 12, 2011 that reiterated the government’s commitments with respect to the profession: they announced the creation of an aid fund for the production of documentary photography in March 2011, as well as a photojournalism observatory, and they promised to continue discussions on the orphan works bill submitted in May of the previous year. French Minister of Culture and Communication Frédéric Mitterrand said in Perpignan in September that, “Were we to let such a mode of expression [photojournalism] disappear, we would be committing a crime against intellectual and cultural progress.
Photojournalism in its conventional form is in jeopardy, but an overhaul of the profession could just save it. Nevertheless, though some see evolution simply as a distortion, others say it represents the future.
For instance, photojournalism-related publications are reporting encouraging figures: the magazine 6 Mois founded in March 2011 by the creators of XXI (Patrick de Saint Exupéry and Laura Beccari) has increased its print run from its initial 40,000 copies  to 48,000; the quarterly magazine Polka, founded by former Paris Match Managing Editor Alain Genestar, is increasing its publication frequency to become a bi-monthly come September 2011, after having almost completely balanced its budget in 2010.
The success of these publications is proof of a shift from photo reportage to an approach that targets collectors, a trend confirmed by the proliferation of art galleries hosting the works of photojournalists. Some have made it their specialty, like Magnum Galerie, Fait et Cause, La Petite Poule Noire, and Polka, a gallery associated with its namesake magazine. Guillaume Binet, a photojournalist and founder of the Myopia agency and La Petite Poule Noire gallery in Paris, sees these exhibition venues as a way to show images ignored by the press. “Unlike its predecessors, the new generation has fully integrated the artistic dimension of documentary photography and photo reportage,” says Guillaume Herbaut, co-founder of the collective Œil public, in an interview with Telerama.
Another possible channel of distribution can be added to specialized magazines and galleries: the Web, which invites photojournalists to explore new narrative forms. “We have been observing a shift in position in the past three years: photographers have started making videos in tandem with journalists who are becoming writer-producers,” said Wilfried Esteve, president of the Freelens Association, at a new media meeting hosted by the Perpignan Festival. Web documentaries and audio slideshows (Diasporamas, Mediastorm) – “new formats of visual information” – are also experimenting with new financing strategies like crowdfunding via platforms such as Kiss kiss bank bank and as a new path for photojournalists. Nicolas Rauline and Caroline D’Avout of the photo blog published by Les Échos encourage photojournalists to seize technological opportunities rather be subject to them. For instance, they could take advantage of the tablet boom which forces magazines to focus on quality images, or have a go at 3D images.
Photojournalists are at war, constantly having to defend their work in the financial and legal arenas. But their malaise comes primarily from an identity crisis which has awakened nostalgia in some for the golden age of photojournalism, and in others, elicits enthusiasm for new multimedia approaches.
Translation by François Couture
Photo credits: Hervé Kerneis / Flickr; La tribu du bubu / Flickr; blacque_jacque / Flickr; Poster for Rencontres d’Arles 2011; Cover of  6 mois (Issue 1)  published March 24, 2011.
  • 1. Formerly known as “Rencontres internationales de la photographie,” created in 1970 by Arles-based photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier, and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette.
  • 2. Founded in 1989.
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