Clifford’s article compares the worlds of Matt Eich, a talented young photojournalist living in Norfolk, Va with D. Sharon Pruitt, an advanced amateur living on Hill Air Force Base in Utah. To make an adequate living, Eich is having to do supplement his magazine projects with advertising and art. As an extension of an interest in photography developed on a Hawaii vacation, Pruitt now regularly supplies images for licensing by Getty Images via Flickr. Her work exists as part of an ever-increasing pool of worldwide amateur photography that is now much larger than the output by professionals.
Eich was one of my students last year at the Joop Swart Masterclass sponsored by World Press Photo in Amsterdam. He and fellow students had several impassioned conversations with the faculty about the future of professional photography, particularly photojournalism, in light of declining options in print. Their fears about the future are the subtext in Clifford’s article.
As Clifford’s article puts it:
“Mr. Eich and Ms. Pruitt illustrate the huge shake-up in photography during the last decade. Amateurs, happy to accept small checks for snapshots of children and sunsets, have increasing opportunities to make money on photos but are underpricing professional photographers and leaving them with limited career options. Professionals are also being hurt because magazines and newspapers are cutting pages or shutting altogether.”
As evidence of the decline in print publishing opportunities, Clifford cites statistics from two sources. Publishers Information Bureau, tracking availability of ad pages in magazines, showed a decline of 41percent in the period 2000-2009 from 286,932 down to 169,182. The decline in ad pages has meant a corresponding shrinkage in the editorial space, leaving less room devoted to publishing photographs.
Mediafinder.com, a website that tracks publications, showed that 428 magazines closed in 2009 alone, according to Clifford’s research.
The decline in advertising revenue, impacting newspapers and magazines alike, has meant a lot less revenue available for editorial content creation and that in turn has impacted the likelihood of photographic assignments available for professional photography. Instead, publications faced with shrinking editorial budgets have been tempted to turn to the licensing of amateur work at much lower prices.
The long-term prospects for professional photography are now in question as a by-product of the economic turmoil roiling media companies. For professionals trying to support families and meet life needs, the current landscape seems to be imposing significant challenges. For example, how does one separate one’s work from the ocean of amateur photography that is increasingly improving in quality thanks to technology and training afforded by web-based instruction? The economics of scarcity no longer work well for publishers or individual professional photographers alike. Instead, the world is increasingly awash in images being created by amateurs who are documenting things of interest for pleasure. Many are reaping the benefits of additional income from licensing as a happy by-product of their enthusiasm. Photo agencies, recognizing the financial realities of the moment, are benefitting from this income stream, but perhaps to the detriment of the professionals they also serve.
While media companies may be tempted to opt for the low-cost solutions, there are those who are raising questions about whether the demise of professionally-produced visual journalism is really in the world’s interest. From the perspective of the audience, Clifford quotes Katrin Eismann, chairwoman of the Masters in Digital Photography Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, near the end of her Times article.
“The important thing that a photojournalist does is they know how to tell the story — they know they’re not there to skew, interpret or bias,” said Katrin Eismann, chairwoman of the Masters in Digital Photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “A photographer can go to a rally or demonstration, and they can make it look as though 10 people showed up, or 1,000 people showed up, and that’s a big difference. I’m not sure I’m going to trust an amateur to understand how important that visual communication is.”
“Can an amateur take a picture as good as a professional? Sure,” Ms. Eismann said. “Can they do it on demand? Can they do it again? Can they do it over and over? Can they do it when a scene isn’t that interesting?”
Ms. Eismann’s assessment would seem to imply that professional visual journalists’ work still has benefits to the audience that only they can deliver. Is that view of the landscape for visual journalism shared by the audiences for such work?
There are at least two other questions for professionals to ponder in response to this article. How can professional photographers create enough value for the audience with their work to enable a sustainable livelihood? Is that question fundamentally different today than in the mid-20th century?