Dirck Halstead’s perceptive two-part analysis of the photojournalism business is a must-read for photojournalists or anyone considering this career. It should also be a wake up call for stock and advertising photographers hoping to sell their images for use in print publications.
Halstead has more than 45 years of experience as a photojournalist. He was TIME magazine’s senior White House photographer for 29 of those years and is now publisher and editor of The Digital Journalist, an online visual journalism monthly.
In his latest two articles (here and here), Halstead outlines the history and recent trends in magazine, newspaper and wire service photography from an insider’s point of view. He discusses how publishers have become more dependent on “citizen journalists” and how this has lead to a decline in opportunities and pay for professional editorial photographers. He notes that there are “far more photographers pursuing fewer jobs than ever before,” resulting in salaries and fees at bare subsistence levels. This leads to what he calls “the time of the eternal intern.”
Photographers and writers lament the degree to which return on investment has taken over the industry. But the simple fact is that if advertisers, consumers or some combination of the two refuse to pay what it costs to professionally produce the information they receive, then journalism is no longer a profession. If supplied at all, content must come from volunteers. If individuals cannot support themselves in a profession, it becomes an avocation or hobby. No matter how talented or dedicated to creating great images a photographer might be, he cannot work for free for very long.
The weakness in the citizen journalist strategy is that, by definition, these people are not “reliable source(s) of ongoing coverage. Their ‘scoops’ tend to be once-in-a-lifetime moments, as opposed to professional photojournalists who make it their business to be on the scene of breaking news time and again,” Halstead says.
On the other hand, some amateurs with intense interest in particular subjects have demonstrated that they are willing to devote huge amounts of time reporting on their interest. Increasingly, publications struggling to meet a budget will undoubtedly use these resources to the fullest.
Recently, a photography student asked Halstead, “Why would you be a photojournalist today?” His answer was, “You have to be crazy.” Then he added, “I have always considered being crazy as important to a photographer as being curious. Constitutionally, we thrive on chaos and challenge. Being a photojournalist is more a calling than a trade. Those people who will do anything to come back with a story will be out there shooting for a long time.” Assuming, of course, they don’t starve.