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The Uncertain Future of Photojournalism

Credit Lauren Koski/Amarillo Globe-News

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Slide Show

The Uncertain Future of Photojournalism

Credit Lauren Koski/Amarillo Globe-News

By James Estrin Feb. 15, 2017

Photojournalism was Donald R. Winslow’s sole focus as the editor of the National Press Photographers Association’s News Photographer magazine and website. Recently, he left N.P.P.A. to become managing editor of content creation at the Amarillo Globe-News, a family-owned daily newspaper in Texas. James Estrin spoke with him about the state of photojournalism while Mr. Winslow was waiting to close the paper’s front page on Super Bowl Sunday. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q.

Don, you’ve been in the industry 40 years.

A.

Since 1976. Two small newspapers in Indiana, The Milwaukee Sentinel, then The Pittsburgh Press, The Palm Beach Post, Reuters, then CNET and, in 2003, N.P.P.A.

Q.

For the last 13 years, you’ve covered photojournalism. What has changed?

A.
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tote Carvela bag 'Rate' 'Rate' Carvela We’ve got the tried and true answers. Clearly, film to digital, print to the web, and staff photographers to independent. But people gloss over the implications and ramifications of what those changes actually mean. So remember how photographs used to be unique, and you would take someone and send them to Europe to make a specific set of pictures and bring back this story to readers who hadn’t seen anything like that before?

Well, the advent of the internet meant that picture editors, in many instances, stopped sending people off on those stories and instead used the internet to find a photographer who was already in Bucharest or Prague or Lagos and have them email their images back. On a smaller scale in the United States, magazine editors stopped hiring great photographers and instead Googled who was in Dubuque, Iowa, and basically settled on whoever was there. Maybe there was a great photographer there, but more often than not, there was a great compromise and a devaluation of the content of the images in the name of the product’s economics.

Q.

Yes, that’s largely because there was less money because of the state of the media.

A.

To some extent. But it also became a bad habit: “We did it last week, it worked, we got good images, we paid half the price, why don’t we just keep doing that?” And photographers didn’t help their own standing by accepting incredibly low day rates. There was a great economic devaluation and philosophical devaluation of photography.

bag 'Rate' Carvela tote Carvela 'Rate' Q.

What do you mean by philosophical devaluation?

A.

It used to be about the vision of the photographer you were sending. It was not a bottom-line decision. It was about the caliber of journalism and the caliber of photography that was being produced.

'Rate' 'Rate' Carvela tote bag Carvela Now, we’re willing to accept whatever we can afford to buy from somebody who’s already there. It’s not about the caliber of the journalism or photography. That’s a bean-counter decision.

Q.

This period of time has also seen the explosion of images on the internet and in social media, and that affects photographers.

A.

The pool of available photographers expanded exponentially with the advent of a global communications network. But that wasn’t necessarily good for the photographers. That made them available, but it didn’t mean that they were being properly paid or that their work was being properly used.

You drive down the street and there’s 50 fast food restaurants, but that doesn’t mean any one of them is any good for you. Or quality. In many ways, photography became junk food for editors.

Q.

'Rate' Carvela Carvela tote 'Rate' bag When you started at N.P.P.A. in 2003, there were many more newspaper jobs for photographers.

A.

Yes. Before the industry was gutted by greedy corporate owners and stockholders.

Q.

And today, there are fewer assignments.

A.

Fewer newspapers, and there are fewer staff photography jobs. Hundreds of newspaper staff photographers have become independent photographers. The product they were producing before was still photography. Now they’re being asked to produce video, audio and slide shows, too, while being paid the same amount.

Q.

It’s not just the loss of jobs, but in the last five years, there are fewer editorial assignments for freelancers in magazines or newspapers.

Carvela bag tote 'Rate' 'Rate' Carvela A.

Because they get their images from Getty and Comstock and other photo agencies. They’re not judging them on the same quality basis. There used to be a personality assigned to photography. You know, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa or some nine-time newspaper photographer of the year. There was a certain panache attached to that. Now, photography is almost anonymous because it’s homogenized.

Photojournalism used to be incredibly prestigious and a much sought-after profession. The overall devaluation of photography that started years ago ran concurrent with the gradual demise of newspapers, which ran concurrent with the rise of the internet, which ran concurrent with the use of video, and it was a long, slow, critical illness for photojournalism.

Q.

Carvela 'Rate' bag Carvela tote 'Rate' I think that there are a lot of fine photographers doing great work.

A.

But are they philanthropists, or are they trying to earn a living at it? Let’s just be brutally honest.

'Rate' Carvela tote Carvela bag 'Rate' Q.

The difficulty of making a living has skewed the profession away from people who are working-class or poor.

A.

Right, so only the rich kids get to play at photojournalism. That hurts diversity and hinders coverage. You and I could have gone into business with a Domke bag, $500 worth of Nikon gear with three lenses, and we were in the business of photojournalism. That same bag of gear today would probably cost you $25,000.

Q.

And a computer.

A.

That’s the minimum cost for you to get into photojournalism. So only the rich can get into the game. If you’re trying to earn a living from it, you better have a year’s salary or two in the bank. And the amount you’re being paid for a daily assignment or a staff job is ridiculously low. Why would someone underwrite the expense of a four-year undergraduate degree to compete for a $35,000-a-year job?

Q.

So should anyone who wants to be a photographer and isn’t rich do something else?

A.

You and I started in an era when all we had to do was produce still photographs and be a journalist. That’s gone. Now you have to be able to do video, shoot digital, tweet and file to the web immediately. It’s a completely different job.

Q.

What would you say to the 24-year-old who insists on being a photographer?

A.

tote Carvela bag 'Rate' Carvela 'Rate' If you’re going to earn a living now, you have to be a photographer who occasionally does photojournalism. You have to be able to do wedding photography, corporate photography or event photography.

Q.

At the same time, I am an optimist, because I think the opportunities and possibilities are in many ways greater today.

A.

The opportunities are greater, but the bottom line is, can you pay your bills at the end of the month? Or do you have to be supported by someone else? Renaissance artists were supported by patrons. There are no patrons supporting photojournalism now. The patrons were newspapers and magazines. And they’ve cut off the money. That’s just the raw truth of it.

Q.

There are some foundation grants.

A.

Are you going to pin your mortgage payment on getting an Alicia Patterson grant? Or a Robert F. Kennedy Award?

Q.

Well, this is an uplifting interview.

A.

Well, I’m sorry, did you want me to lie? You’ve asked me what I’ve seen in the last 13 years, and this is what I’ve seen and concluded.

Q.

So then, at N.P.P.A. magazine, you were covering the decline of photojournalism. Or would you say death? Is that too dramatic?

A.

That’s too dramatic, because photojournalism was a craft that for a while evolved into a profession — i.e., you could earn a living at it. And now it’s evolving into whatever the next thing it is. There’s only a few people who can afford to do this, are going to be able to earn a living doing it, unless the business model of publishing and purchasing photography changes.

Q.

Photographers are now getting paid 1/100 of what they were for individual photo stock sales.

A.

National Geographic’s stock agency doesn’t sell photos for pennies. New companies came along doing that. My friend in Rome is willing to walk down the street in Tuscany, shoot 30 pictures, upload them to this little stock clip agency, and every few minutes her phone goes ping-ping, ping-ping. And she just sold a picture for $1.50.

Q.

Talking about new models, didn’t you work at CNET and Reuters?

A.

Yes, I worked at Reuters in D.C., and then I went to CNET in San Francisco for seven years. I was part of the launch of news.com and cnet.com.

Q.

So you were involved in the beginnings of this revolution of media.

A.

I was actually involved in it before then. When I worked at Reuters New Media, we were trying to take Reuters stories and photos and automatically parse them together on a page that was published on the web. And the first one was President Clinton placing a wreath on Memorial Day in Arlington National Cemetery, on Apple eWorld. And because Apple had the metrics to measure it: It was seen globally by 25 people.

Q.

Is there anything that makes you think that another technological or media revolution is likely?

A.

Things have to change for photojournalism to survive. The craft of photography and photojournalism for a while evolved into a profession. And there are a few people who are still able to practice that profession and earn a living.

Q.

I’m not suggesting that there will be a rebirth of newspapers in print. But there will be something in the future. I don’t know if that includes an economic model for still photographers or visual storytellers.

A.

In history, there have been professions that basically disappeared. There’s still a few chimney sweeps around, but not like there once was. The question is, what will photojournalism evolve into, and can someone earn a living doing it? Or is everybody now a photographer, like everyone thinks they are Ernest Hemingway just because they have Microsoft Word?

Newspapers went down that road, too, giving all the staff reporters a camera or an iPhone. It’s a two-and-a-half-megabyte file, looks pretty clean, and it’s going to look great reproduced on the second cousin to toilet tissue.

Q.

One of the things that characterized you as the editor of the N.P.P.A. magazine and website was not just the depth of your understanding of photojournalism and its history, but also your love for photographers.

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I became a photographer in the fourth grade in 1963. And that’s who I am. I am a photographer. Photography to me is my passion, my calling, my love, my best friend. It’s always been with me. It’s never gone away. It’s never failed to bring me great joy. I earned a living in photography either as a photographer, an editor or manager. That’s a pretty amazing thing.

Q.

Why did you take this job at the Amarillo paper? Are newspapers an addiction?

A.

Well, I’ve been a photographer. I’ve been a writer. I’ve been a designer. I’ve been a project manager. I’ve been a mentor and a college professor. And as managing editor of a paper, I get to use a little bit of those skills every day. This is like bringing together everything I’ve experienced for 40 years in one job position.

Q.

But you love this so dearly. I know that.

A.

You know, if you cut me open, I’m still a newspaperman. I will still bleed ink.

Q.

You recently received N.P.P.A.’s Jim Gordon Editor of the Year award. What has the organization meant to you?

A.

N.P.P.A. has been important to me in every aspect of my life, professionally and personally. Every job I got had to do with being part of N.P.P.A. The people there brought me along from nowhere and taught me and helped me. N.P.P.A. was both a fundamental necessity and luxury in my life.

All right. I’ve got to go do the front page.


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