Photojournalism: Lament for a dying field

Newspapers and magazines are cutting back sharply on picture budgets or going out of business

Telling a tale A police car on patrol in front of a collapsed building in an American city. Getty Images

Newspapers and magazines are cutting back sharply on picture budgets or going out of business altogether, and television stations have cut back on news coverage in favour of less-costly fare. Pictures and video snapped by amateurs on cellphones are posted to websites minutes after events have occurred. Photographers trying to make a living from shooting the news call it a crisis.

In the latest sign of distress, the company that owns the photo agency Gamma sought protection from creditors on July 28 after a loss of $4.2 million, in the first half of the year as sales fell by nearly a third.

Gamma was founded in 1966 by the photographers Raymond Depardon and Gilles Caron. With Sygma, Sipa and, earlier, Magnum, it was one of the independent agencies that helped make Paris a world capital for photojournalism, attracting some of the best photographers the field has produced.

Olivia Riant, a spokeswoman for Eyedea, said there would ‘inevitably’ be job cuts to make the agency viable.

“The problem is that news photography is finished,” Olivia said. “Gamma wants to go back to magazines and newsmagazines. We will stop covering daily news events to more deeply cover issues.”

Gamma’s history shows how the market has changed. The agency was acquired in 1999 by Hachette Filipacchi Médias, a unit of Lagardère SCA, which bundled it with others to provide photos for its magazine empire. But the business did not prosper, and it was sold in 2007 to Green Recovery, an investment fund that buys and overhauls distressed companies.
Gamma’s rivals have fared little better: Sygma was acquired by Corbis in 1999, and Sipa by Sud Communication in 2001.

The beginning
Photojournalism, often said to have begun with the American Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, experienced a golden age lasting from before World War II through the 1970s. Magazines like ‘Time’, ‘Life’ and ‘Paris Match’ had the budgets to put legions of shooters on the ground in competition for the best pictures.

Today, from the point of view of the news image buyer in a magazine or newspaper, it comes down to a calculation for the photo editor: At a time of shrinking advertising revenue and layoffs, can I afford to send a photographer at a cost of $250 a day or more plus expenses? If not, I may be able to illustrate the story adequately with a ‘live’ photo from one of the newswires or with an archival photo, both options available for a fixed monthly subscription.

“This is not a new trend; it’s the continuation of an old one,” said John G Morris, a former photo editor whose résumé includes years at ‘The New York Times’, ‘Life’ and ‘The Washington Post’. “I’m 92 years old, and I’ve survived a lot of crises in photojournalism,” he said. “I find the present situation depressing, but I’m crazy enough to be hopeful. There have never been more images out there, and we need more help in sorting out all the information.”

Eyedea Presse said its problems were compounded by a provision of French labour law that requires agencies take on photographers full-time after using a certain amount of their work, a serious competitive disadvantage when the competition overseas employs a much greater percentage of freelancers.
“We held out as long as we could, but this business model just isn’t viable anymore,” Stéphane Ledoux, the Eyedea chief executive, said after the court hearing. “They’ve killed French photojournalism by requiring the agencies to make salaried employees of the freelancers.”
French photographers acknowledge the problem, but they say agency managers exaggerate it to justify job cuts.
The major newswires dominate news photography. But the business of marketing and selling digitised pictures is led by two global companies: Getty Images, founded in 1995, and Corbis, founded in 1989 by the Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. The stock photo companies rose to prominence by buying up hundreds of image archives and making them available for sale online. While they do continue to sponsor photojournalism — Getty Images employs 130 photographers around the world — the companies are, in effect, services for managing digital property rights.

A treasure
If Eyedea Presse were to be liquidated, its archives of nearly 33 million images, including those from Gamma, Rapho and Keystone, would be a valuable addition to any of the major players.

“Photojournalism means the photographers can tell the story themselves in pictures, and there were places where they could publish those photos,” Klein said. “In the print world, many, if not most, of those places have since disappeared.”

Still, he said, there are reasons to be optimistic, because “thanks to the web, there are now billions of pages for photographers to show their work,” he added. “That’s led to more photos being used, but at a lower price point.”

Jean-François Leroy, organiser of the Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival, which runs in Perpignan for two weeks beginning Aug 29, pointed to a declining emphasis in the media on serious subjects — what he called the “disease of the press” — as another problem.

“Photographers are producing plenty of great stuff, but now the media seem interested only in celebrities,” he said. When Michael Jackson died, it wasn’t part of the news, it was the news. How many photographs of his funeral did we really need?”

Leroy said he would advise budding photojournalists to think very carefully about their commitment to the calling. Twenty years ago, a photojournalist made enough money to live on, he said. “I’m not pretending you would get rich, but you were able to live decently,” he said. “That is not the case now.”

Some photographers have taken to working for nongovernmental organisations, large institutions or companies to continue doing what they love, Virgili said. But that arrangement is ultimately unsatisfactory, he said, because “as a journalist you have a professional ethic, and by working for them you risk compromising your neutrality, you lose your independence.”

Revisiting that column last month, Halstead wrote that, if anything, conditions today were worse than he had predicted. To be a photojournalist today, he wrote, “You have to be crazy.”

“Those people who will do anything to come back with a story will be out there shooting for a long time,” he concluded.

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