the essay:
By David A. Cantor.
 

“Don’t shoot until you feel it in your gut” -Lisette Model

While being careful to measure its apparent seduction, I didn’t think that growing up with television was the negative cultural debacle that social critic George W.S. Trow has made it out to be. After all, the NBC dinner hour news program’s closing theme was the coda from the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Who would have thought that some thirty years later this same news entity would have given us an “all presidential scandal all the time” cable television spin-off anchored by a smarmy sportscaster.

Upon reflection some of the ideas in Mr. Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context” have eerily become more prescient than I first thought. The new media managers blindly exert their influence, defining what they think the news boundaries of our community are and what content we need to see and hear to help the news executives establish them.

Cable delivery has exponentially multiplied the problems with television programming. More and more mind-numbing, mixed-message infotainment coming at you ...right after this message. But photographers shouldn’t feel left out. After all, digital delivery has mitigated some cornerstones of the craft, notably creativity and copyright. The need for speed has hobbled insightful editing on the wires and has put authorship under seige in all photographic venues.

For news photographers, especially photojournalists who prefer long-term essay length projects and agency members who rely on contractual work, this past year has been disastrous. The presentation of all rights for no or little compensation contracts, or clients as limited agent contracts at every level of the business - from some wire services to many newspapers and most news magazines - has had a chilling effect on photographers and the perceived value of their creativity. News organizations have said, ”We place little value in your creativity or your years of service,” with these “my way or the highway” contracts. Imagine that photographers are contracted to represent some of the most respected names in the media while on assignment, yet are thought of so poorly by these same clients that many are not even offered the chance to negotiate for their rights. No discussion, no compromise; just sign here.

So client business practices set the photographers howling. Much growling by alpha and beta members of the pack and territorial marking were set in motion. True to form, the clients knew they had the market pressure on their side. True to form, photographers became their own worst enemies with some cutting deals and rushing to sign while scrambling over the backs of their more disciplined and concerned brethren who were trying to redress problems they encountered. It was a pretty ugly sight, made uglier by corporate gloating, always done after much publicized hand-wringing and faux-apologetic business babble aimed at people whose principles were wavering under the stress of economic concerns battling creative consciences.

Probably the most astounding and disheartening aspect of this change in business tactics is that the assault on photographer’s rights was led by the so-called and often times self-appointed leaders of news photography. Think about it: the very people photographers once looked to as mentors are the same people who either had an active hand in orchestrating the wholesale dimunition of creative rights or stood by as news organizations waged a small war where photographic creativity was a victim. It seemed like a re-telling of the plot from Robert Altman’s “The Player”. You can almost imagine the industry’s self-styled leaders thinking how much better this picture business would be if the independent photographer, and his agent, could bewell, eliminated.

(Monica Lewinsky 1999, By Jamal Wilson.)

Let’s not lose sight of the original motivation behind the hijacking of creative rights. Basically, the grab for copyright was an added attraction to a solution brought about by a business dilemma for news employers. After years of watching stringers and freelancers be used as virtual employees, the government realized that news entities were avoiding payroll taxes, and benefits, since these photographers (and editors), unlike true independent contractors, were allowed access to on-site facilities and equipment as well as supplies. No photographer had an objection to helping clients restructure the business nature of their relationships. However, being asked to supply and process film that you would then never see again for possible resale and promotion was an insulting late hit. A story idea delivered to a client with whom you had signed an all-rights contract would no longer be your story idea. Non-proprietary creativity is an oxymoronic business concept which shouldn’t be tolerated.

Sad to say, these business problems were overshadowed by news coverage itself. The scandal obsession drove meaningful photojournalistic pursuits from the news pages.

Imagine the naive picture editor pitching images from the Sudan where millions have either died or are at risk from starvation after years of civil war. “Nope, I need a fresh picture of Monica.” Once again, coverage concerns were “properly addressed” by photographers and their editors or agents. I doubt anyone in this business will soon forget the look of abject fear in the eyes of Betty Currie as she tried to get to the Federal Courthouse to testify under subpoena. Left to their own devices, the assembled press, which consisted of everyone from everywhere, decided that a media-riot was necessary so that everyone got the all-important image.

Truly memorable stake-out photography ensued. After all, with diminished opportunities for pictures, editors double and triple teamed every moment, ensuring that any photographic moment would be buried in a torrent of media misbehavior. Every Monica sighting produced a gaggle of elbowing, back-pedaling media miscreants driven by getting the picture. Not a good image, mind you, just an image.

Maybe I can pitch some images from situation in Kosovo undermining the fragile Dayton Peace Accords? “Nope, I need a new pictures of David Kendall and Henry Hyde.” The more staid “Ken Starr holding his coffee-cup while getting into the car every morning” ritual photo-op was a personal favorite. These boring pictures were only made more “exciting” by inexperienced photographers, who after signing any contract presented them, rewarded their clients with technically incompetent images. “Excuse me but a twelve-second ambient exposure with your strobe dialed down two stops may not work...”

Maybe I can pitch some follow-up images of Hurricane Mitch or the Colombian earthquake which impacted millions of people and people’s lives are still a disaster and will be for years to come?

“Nope, I need a picture of Sid or Vernon.”

 

 

(Above: Broken scales in a store window. Hope, Arkansas. © David. Cantor 1998.)

Worse yet, the photographers who rightly saw little creative opportunity in Washington and refused guarantees in D.C. in order to pursue subjects with some social and visual merit had little chance for their work to grace printed pages anywhere in the U.S. As the new millenium approaches and the media breathlessly awaits the next “biggest story of the century”, one wonders where meaningful news photography and photographers are headed. Some authors on websites, where much of this dialogue has been relegated, after lengthy laments about marketplace de-evolution pitch the new “techno” newshound with multi-marketing disciplines, consigning the “traditional” photojournalists to the tar pits of other past extinct species.

Solo news photographers and photojournalists, long the benchmark of the genre, are caught in a dizzying circular definition. Many responses to the current dilemas do revolve around technological solutions which have photographers spending less time developing and shooting projects while wrestling with scanners, modems and video. Adverse marketplace conditons also require new learning curves for business solutions, which take even more time away from creating images or make pursuing projects deemed economically risky. Granted, failure to recognize and react to industry change is terminal, but given the plethora of truly mediocre participants in this work, how creatively one responds may be the key.

The realist must be concerned with naysayers predicting the demise of ”traditonal photojournalism”. I would like to assume that this concept is premature for two reasons. First , in the myriad of solutions to combat the seemingly downward spiral of photojournalism, the word or concept “creativity “ is rarely, if ever, heard.

In “Timequake” Kurt Vonnegut launches a little gem that goes to the heart of successful news photography. He writes,”Pictures are famous for their humanness and not their pictureness.” If you have any doubts, ask yourself what value a picture of any subject shot through the tinted window of a passing car has for you, short of proving that some photographer was present and justified his day rate (determined no doubt after signing a poorly conceived contract). Pete Hamill in “News Is A Verb” writes, ”The photographs must add to the story, not simply illustrate it.” When creativity returns to the forefront of news photography, and it will, the less creative “f/8 and be there” types will be at a distinct disadvantage. (Of course, can those who are holding out for a return to creativity survive until this current cycle runs its course?)

The second idea that supports the continued need for “traditional photojournalism” is that after a year of being assaulted with banal images from a non-visual story, editors may well heed the public’s distaste for this photopablum and look to present them with more evocative work in more prominent displays. One can see this trend occurring in smaller niche magazines whose number and circulation are increasing. It is astounding that the mainstream print media, while losing readership to electronic and other alternatives, has failed to recognize and play their coverage to a true historic strength: strong images in a dominant presentation.

Competing with 35” video displays and the portent of HDTV may seem daunting, but most home computers have small screens. Until the utilization of fiber optic cable supported ISP’s, long download times for large files coupled with small monitors mean print media is still the most suitable place for a reader to appreciate a photograph and its impact (despite the success of this particular site, of course). Viewing a photograph and absorbing its content is a contemplative process that may be the antidote for the sensory and information overload that resulted from the rapid, repetitive reporting and subsequent overblown media perception of the recent Washington scandal. Editors troll the web to view work they might not otherwise see. Startup internet photoagencies are now answering the call for alternatives to all-rights contracts, while e-zines are a replacement for the disappearing mainstream print space for images that provide more than a glam shot of the celebrity du jour. But ask most people how they prefer to view photography and the answer is in large print format. So don’t throw away that chrome film just yet.

Finally, as some of us have put news shooting aside for a return to the simple joy of picture making itself, we began to wonder how some independent photojournalists are keeping their creative drive alive in the face of adverse market pressure. Some photographers redirect their anger about the demise of the traditionally uncomplicated way business used to be conducted and and how images were valued.

Les Stone, whose portfolio of Cambodian mine victims was included in an earlier issue of foto8, writes,

“I love photography and in an inverse proportion my anger is intense. I know that the world of news photography has changed and probably forever, [which leaves me] trying to strike a balance between two worlds; the world of film and the world of digital media. [Editors] don't understand the complexity and the effort that went into any of this work, that’s why I'm trying to reinvent myself. I don't want to give up; thats why I sit here and redo my portfolio. All I can say is that I still enjoy creating art, I don't mean news, I mean work that I can look at over and over again and be amazed that I did that.”

Andrew Lichtenstein, whose jailhouse tattoo portfolio can be seen in a foto8 issue, filed this message,
“Sometimes I wonder...But just when I reach the final stages of road rage and frustration, as I'm driving south on 9th avenue in the mad rush to get back to Brooklyn, I look up at a giant billboard ... It’s a black and white portrait of Cesar Chavez, his head down, a pair of field tools balanced on his shoulder. I really do think about that photograph. What a richer world I live in because I drive by it everyday. And the rage and frustration lessens... It’s not an easy life, but I've seen a lot harder.”
[The photo described above was taken by Time/Life veteran Bill Eppridge.]

Two views along the spectrum of creativity that make a pointed summation for this screed. The wonder and joy in the artistic process and the satisfaction one gets from a telling and well executed image. The next level for this discourse is an exploration of the creative process in news (and other) photography and its evolution in the constantly changing marketplace. At foto8, we are actively engaged in this discussion. We are hoping that some of you reading this will respond via e-mail so that we may incorporate your ideas and concerns into future essays. Without an open forum for these ideas, photographers will continue to be at the mercy of market driven editors who will overlook creativity for profit every time.

Let’s see if I can pitch these pictures of the fallout from the religious riots in Indonesia or these images of Russian miners who haven’t received their salary for over two years. “What are you nuts?....Get me a shot of Linda for crying out loud.”

© David A. Cantor 1999.

(I have to thank JHG for the edit, Diane Coman from Apple for the research help and would like to recommend the following books, in addition to those previously mentioned, for helping to focus some ideas: “Occam’s Razor” by Bill Jay, “The Digital Evolution” by A.D. Coleman, and Brassai’s “Letters to My Parents”. Sadly, the editor calling for the scandal pictures is based on a very real person.)