As commercial photographers, we are continually adapting to new technologies, moving from black and white, to color (then to slides) and now to digital. Similarly we are often expected to adopt new strategies and philosophies as the market we work within changes. More and more folks I hear from are finding that second process of adopting harder to take, and I am not sure it is just a function of our advancing ages.
First, let me give a bit of background information. When I was doing full-time editorial work , I was constantly on the lookout for new subjects to explore. I used to read everything I could get my hands on, tell anyone I met what I was interested in and generally take in all the information I could. I would clip articles, photocopy books or write myself notes about the things that caught my attention. As I gathered material on a given topic, I dropped the papers into manila folders in my desk’s metal pull out drawers. Eventually certain folders, such as the ones titled “globalization in India” or “welfare reform in America” became too big. That was when I knew the subject was an important one, worthy of exploring and interesting enough to hold my interest.
As a blogger, I work much the same way. I gather information from what I read, hear, etc., then add in the comments folks send to me (usually in reaction to previous blog postings.) Finally, I stir in something of my own experience and voila, a new blog entry. This blog entry started with a an email where a friend updated me on their work writing:
“I am still taking pictures although am uninspired by the shallow coverage we do here. Would like to work more on lengthy stories but it is rather impossible… Editors expect you to come back with best work in a matter of a few hours, where one feels the story would need some time investment.”
This person (who needs to keep their job and thus, requested anonymity) went on:
“There is a new growing trend , that I can see, and I wouldn’t even call it “new photography.’ To me it is weak, dull, digital images transferred to b/w, semi blurred (unsure if on purpose.) It seems an effort to be different from what is shown on TV and the Internet, as breaking news. Obviously print editors are trying to use different images….. Nothing new there, but the outcome is a mutation of photojournalism! I am staying where I am, the old school. Too old for a change!”
The last line caught my attention because this photographer is only old school in one sense; the work has always been about the people portrayed. You have seen the work many times and trust me, it is beautiful, compelling and very, very humane. Otherwise, this photographer has been as good as anyone I know in terms of continually changing, adapting to new technologies as they come along.
Adapting to new technology is not the issue. Adopting a new working philosophy clearly is the issue.
I know about this question first hand. For over fifteen years, starting in 1986, I worked full-time as an editorial photographer I worked for some excellent clients/publications as I have written about in previous blog entries. To the good ones, I still owe a debt of gratitude.
Today, for me, that aspect of my photography is almost gone. I have written about that change in previous blog posts, but my friends’ comments made me reconsider why I have adapted to new technology but not adopted the new philosophies.
On the most obvious level, economically, I am very clear why I will not adopt the new ways. The new contracts that most publications insist photographers sign are frankly, deplorable. I will not work under any contract that requires me to give most or all of the rights to my images to publications for minimal fees.
I still do have a few clients who respect me and my work and the contracts we agree to are fair to both sides, but frankly, they are few and far between. I will soon be posting a separate blog entry on the declining economic side of this business, but this post is more about the philosophical side of photography.
On that point, the reason I am doing less and less editorial photography is that I have slowly declined to adopt their philosophies. My friend’s note is just one example. Here are a few of my own:
Between 1986 and 1991 I used to have a fair amount of work in the Sunday New York Times magazine. Being in the Times magazine was great for business, because editors of many other publications looked to the Times for photographers. One published piece in the Times magazine resulted in lots of other assignment work. The last thing I ever did for the Times magazine was in 1991 and the way that played out was the first sign for me of the direction that editorial photography was taking.
The assignment was a very interesting story about how Israel’s massive expenditures on defense were resulting in the under-funding of important social service programs. In Israel, I photographed in a shelter for battered women and in public schools with no problem.
I was also assigned to photograph the homeless there. Out in the field, I quickly learned that Israel, having a long socialist tradition and being populated by people who were excellent at planning, did not have the kind of homeless people we see in America, at least not in 1991. My best “shoot” was among homeless people who were so well organized that they had tents, cooking stoves and water for bathing. The homelessness that I found, in the field, in the Israel of 1991, was nothing like what my editor was expecting back in New York City. I kept photographing the reality on the ground, shipping my film (before digital image transmission,) and receiving pushy calls from my editor. She was expecting images of homeless people living on subway grates like what she would see in New York City even if that was not the reality on the ground. Finally, the magazine’s Israel based writer was kind enough to intercede on my behalf, point out the reality to my hectoring editor and the difficulties ended. So did any future assignment work for the Sunday New York Times magazine.
Working on other projects, I have experienced similar disconnects between what I saw on the ground and what some of my editors wanted from me.
While working in India, for example, I have certainly been struck by the poverty, which is the visual stereotype of India. But to me, the most amazing story in India today is how globalization is bringing new possibilities to millions and millions of people. At the moment, today’s economic uncertainty has brought this idea into question, but long term, most economists argue in favor of globalization as the best way to fight poverty across the globe.
Much of the editorial portraiture in today’s market is so heavily stylized and over produced that many photographers fear turning in more quiet portraits that show people as they really are rather than as some distant editor wishes they would be.
As a photojournalist, I worked long and hard in the early part of my career to develop the skills to compellingly photograph what I found “in the field” and later earned the autonomy to tell stories as I saw them. I am by no means the only photographer who has done this.
Yet as time has gone on, I am trusted less and less to tell the story as I see it, in the field. Again, I have some excellent clients who trust me completely, but for many others, one of the philosophical trends I have failed to adopt is where the supremacy of the editor’s perspective in the office takes priority over the photographer’s in the field.