... long live citizen journalism!
I ran across this article from the Guardian last week on Lightstalkers, and didn't really get a chance to sit down and read it through until this morning.
Is photography really dead? Andrew Brown, an accomplished English journalist in his own right, says it is. He points to the ease-of-use of modern photographic equipment, and lamenting the fact that it is "so easy" for the Everyman to take a photograph now, claims that the overall quality of pictorial stock is in decline.
In some ways, Andrew seems to be on the right track. It is infinitely easier to take a photograph today than it was, say, 50 years ago. The equipment necessary to take high-quality photographs even through the 1970s was cumbersome, difficult to use, and required a great attention to detail in order to get a professional picture. Of course, the Polaroid camera existed back then for the amateurs, so it's not like "easy to use" is really all that new.
What really makes the difference now is that one can take extremely high-quality photographs using digital cameras these days, and easily meet or exceed the quality of many editorial photographs sent across the news wires. Andrew is certainly correct in saying that a professional can take a beautiful photograph with every click of the shutter, whereas amateurs can only get one once in every dozen pictures or so. Heck, I know that's true -- that's about how often I can get a relatively professional-looking photograph with my consumer equipment (and, more importantly, my consumer eye). Chris Anderson, who is a professional, can accomplish the same 100% of the time. I'm fine with that, that part of the photographic world is still, and will remain, completely intact.
I can sympathize, of course, with Andrew's point. We in the computing world have been dealing with increasingly simple computers for a decade now, and have seen the bar of entry into our profession be lowered continually. Whereas it took a team of computer scientists hours of work to develop a basic database application back in the 1970's, anyone can do it themselves today, without putting much thought into it. Sure, the quality of some software packages has declined over the years, but overall, is the computing industry better for all of the simplification? I think it is. (Other than the managers, but that's a whole different topic.) Similar discussions were had back in the 80s, when the advent of the personal computer, printer, and desktop publishing software seemed like it would threaten the entire publishing industry.
The outcry died down quickly, once we discovered that the publishing industry wasn't genuinely threatened by the types of publications produced on this consumer equipment, which tended to be more of the Church-bulletin, PTA meeting variety.
Where I think Andrew is missing the point is that it's not just the quality of news photography that's in decline, but also in the editorial process itself. How else could we be in a situation where the Reuters wire editor admit that, in the middle of a major conflict, he didn't have anyone on staff that could write a decent caption? Or bother to check the accuracy of the ones that had been sent in? In what world is it acceptable for the New York Times to distort and misrepresent the context of a photograph so completely that the photographer himselftakes to the streets to denounce it?
Most egregiously, in what world is it acceptable for a news organization to accept and transmit a guerrilla army's word as fact, without bothering to objectively try to ascertain the facts on the ground or otherwise make note that the information provided to them is carefully-orchestrated propaganda? The editorial process, once the vaunted guardian of objectivity, has fallen into complete disrepair, and the resulting lack of objective coverage is, from my point of view, what is hurting the photojournalism industry more than anything.
Andrew's correct to point out that there are some problems with the photography industry. I'm just not sure he's looking in the right place.