People have been witnessing and taking pictures of notable events for a long, long time. And they’ve been selling them to traditional news organizations for just as long.
But professional photojournalists, and more recently videographers, have continued to make good livings at a craft that helps inform the rest of us about the world we live in. That craft has never been more vibrant, or more vital. But the ability to make a living at it is crumbling.
The pros who deal in breaking news have a problem: They can’t possibly compete in the mediasphere of the future. We’re entering a world of ubiquitous media creation and access. When the tools of creation and access are so profoundly democratized, many (if not most) of the pros will find themselves fighting a losing battle to save their careers.
Let’s do a little time travel. An old-fashioned movie camera captured the most famous pictures in the citizen-media genre: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder, the man pointing the camera that day in Dealey Plaza, sold the film to Life Magazine for $150,000— over a million dollars in today’s currency.
In Dealey Plaza that day, one man happened to capture a motion picture—somewhat blurred but utterly gruesome nonetheless—of those terrible events. Zapruder’s work, by any standard we can imagine, was an act of citizen journalism, even though the term did not exist back then.
Now note what media tools people carry around with them routinely today—or, better yet, what they’ll have a decade from now. And then transport yourself, and those tools, back to 1963.
Dozens or hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza would have been capturing high-definition videos of the assassination, most likely via their camera-equipped mobile phones as well as single-purpose digital cameras and video recorders. They’d have been capturing those images from multiple perspectives. And—this is key—all of those devices would have been attached to digital networks.
If the soon-to-be-ubiquitous technology had been in use back in 1963, several things are clear. One is that videos of this event would have been posted online almost instantly. Professional news organizations, which would also have had their own videos, would have been competing with a blizzard of other material almost from the start—and given traditional media’s usually appropriate reluctance to broadcast the most gruesome images (e.g., the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in Iraq), the online accounts might well have been a primary source.
And think about this: We’d also soon have a three-dimensional hologram of the event, given the number of cameras capturing it from various angles. Which means we’d probably know for sure whether someone was shooting at the president from that famous grassy knoll. In the future, government commissions will still issue official reports, but the documents will be created with much more input from citizens, who, because of digital media tools, are playing increasingly direct roles in governance as well as elections. The prospect of actually making policy, or at least having an impact on it, can offer a serious incentive to be a citizen journalist.
Another famous picture of our times is the single image that we will most remember from the July 2005 bombings in London. It was taken by Adam Stacey inside the Underground (London’s subway), as he and others escaped from a smoky train immediately after one of the bombs exploded.
The production values of the image were hardly professional, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was the utter authenticity of the image, made so by the fact that the man was there at the right time with the right media-creation gear.
In a world of ubiquitous media tools, which is almost here, someone will be on the spot at every significant event. It might well be you, and you should be prepared for the moment when you are in that position, which I’ll discuss in the next section.
How can people who cover breaking news for a living begin to compete? They can’t possibly be everywhere at once. They can compete only on the stories where they are physically present—and, in the immediate future, by being relatively trusted sources. But the fact remains that there are far more newsworthy situations than pro photographers. In the past, most of those situations were never captured. This is no longer the case.
Is it so sad that the professionals will have more trouble making a living this way in coming years? To them, it must be—and I have friends in the business, which makes this painful to write in some ways. To the rest of us, as long as we get the trustworthy news we need, the trend is more positive.
Remember, there was once a fairly healthy community of portrait painters. When photography came along, a lot of them had to find other work, or at least their ranks were not refilled when they retired. Professional portrait photographers, similarly, are less in demand today than they were a generation ago. But portraits have survived—and thrived.
The photojournalist’s job may be history before long. But photojournalism has never been more important, or more widespread. You can be a part of it, and I hope you will.