Yesterday, I was conducting a live chat on behalf of knowledgewebb.net on visual journalism topics when I got this question from a student.  “Should I continue to take courses in photojournalism or switch my major now?”   The follow up question was something to the effect with all that is going on now economically “… is there a future for journalism?”

My swift answer was emphatically not to switch majors, assuming that questioner had the passion to pursue a career in visual journalism and that there would be a future for journalism no matter how uncertain the current environment seems for newspapers and broadcast entities.    I simply believe journalism is too important a force for social awareness and the positive development of society’s to not exist in the present and future cultural landscape.

Further, in my opinion, visual journalism is one of the most valuable forms of journalism because it can present realities about the human condition in a way that engages the mind, soul, and heart, with a kind of specificity and directness that can be transformative.  It can act as both “mirror and window” to quote John Szarkowski, the late director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Interestingly, today, I had a further conversation about this topic with Paul Waldman, the passionate man behind LAMPP, (the Living American Master Photographers Project).  It is  an effort designed to examine and record the insights and experiences of America’s living master photographers, driven in part by Paul’s own experiences as a photographer and poet.

Paul’s premise is simple and clear.  Each of these photographers is producing powerful visual stories with their photography that bear witness to the times, while also transforming the minds and consciousness of those who encounter the images.  “We are entering an age where the words can supplement and illustrate images rather than the other way round,” he said.

Using language very similar to my own, Paul went on to enthusiastically describe some of the lessons that can be derived from encountering such work.   “Photography is the ultimate meme carrier; the ultimate idea carrier – it is the way we know who we are and it is part of how the landscape of American thought gets changed over time.”  “We cannot develop emotionally if we can’t see clearly who we are through the intimate experiences presented by photography,” he added.  In fact, he thinks the lessons of photography are essential if we are to keep pace in our cultural, social, and political evolution with those advances that are being created by science and technology.

Paul sees the value of visual journalism and is determined to interview and record the life experiences of great photographers to learn about and share their knowledge to build on truths found in the photography itself.   He thinks it is important to try to speak out of behalf of the community of men and women who are the photographic community – a community that is bound together by capabilities for visual self-expression and truth-seeking in many arenas.

I agree with his perception that visual journalism can influence profoundly how we see the world and what we think is within our grasp, as we each grapple with the fundamental realities of human existence.  How we address the future of peace and conflict, economic development, cultural relations and even environmental issues are all subject to lessons that can be drawn daily from strong visual communication.  Each time an image is made we have the opportunity to learn something new (or at least consider anew) a situation, person, or event that might be outside the realm of our immediate individual experience.

So yes, I do think there is a future for visual journalism, and yes, I do think it is worth pursuit and worthy of being a life’s work.  And, thanks Paul Waldman for adding your own enthusiastic, eloquent voice to those who would describe its possibilities.