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The seeing eye: photojournalism in a digital age

About the author
Adrian Evans is director of Panos Pictures.

Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955, celebrating fifty years of the World Press Photo competition, is a must-have book for anyone interested in photojournalism; but it also blows fresh life into the perennial debate about the health and future of the profession.

The editors Mary Panzer & Christian Caujolle, rather than merely producing an anthology of World Press Photo prizewinners, have chosen to look at how photojournalism has been used during this period by publishing 120 photo-essays as they originally appeared in newspapers and magazines.

Claudia Andujar ‘Prostitution in São Paulo’, published in Realidade (Brazil), 1967 Photographs © Claudia Andujar

Photographers, editors, historians and collectors were consulted in order eventually to arrive at a definitive choice, which amounts to a history of the second half of the 20th century as depicted in the print media. There are some truly iconic examples: Henri Cartier-Bresson in the Soviet Union and Mao’s China for Paris Match and Life; the reportage of the 1956 Hungarian revolution in Paris Match; Ernest Cole in South Africa, Don McCullin in Vietnam and Bruce Davidson on East 100th Street (all for the 1960s Sunday Times). Even more arresting are pieces of journalism that few readers will be familiar with: stories from Ogonyok magazine in Russia, Realidade in Brazil and Ojo in Mexico. It is the mix of the familiar and the unexpected that make the selection of essays so compelling.

For more photojournalistic features and photo-essays published on openDemocracy have a look at:

Charles Chadwyck-Healey, “Line of sight: the head, heart and eye of Henri Cartier-Bresson” (November 2004)

Nina Berman, “Purple Hearts: back from Iraq” (March 2005)

PhotoVoice, “London through refugee eyes” (June 2005)

Jan Banning, “Traces of war: Dutch and Indonesian survivors” (August 2005)

Chris Anderson, “The Gaza pull-out: in photos” (September 2005)

Tim Hetherington, “Liberia’s election: changing the picture?” (October 2005)

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One of the experts consulted during the making of the book responded: “I thought I had made it clear in my own writing on the subject that the photojournalism experiment was on is last legs by 1955, when you begin your story.” A little extreme, when one considers that 1955 was the year of the Museum of Modern Art’s Family of Man exhibition and the golden age of Life magazine.

Since then, photojournalism has faced many threats to its place in the media and cultural landscape, the rise of television being the greatest. Photojournalism has always managed to respond, constantly finding ways to reinvent itself. The still image, after all, can tell a story so much more powerfully than the moving image. The photograph exists in its own space, a contemplative space which gives the viewer time to dwell on the image and consider its meanings.

An evolving medium

Yet there is one major change. The photojournalist no longer looks to magazines for support. There were signs of what was to come as early as the 1950s, when W Eugene Smith’s battles with Life over its treatment of his work led him to seek magazines outside the mainstream in order to get his work published. His Pittsburgh essay, the culmination of over two years of photographing the city was published in Popular Photography.

Smith’s experience foreshadows the development of documentary photography outside the press. In the early 1980s, Eugene Richards found that no magazine would publish his harrowing personal account of his wife’s struggle with breast cancer until he approached American Photographer.

It seems ironic, in an age when more magazines are published than ever before. The profit-motive has overtaken the need to publish high-quality journalism. Newspapers and magazines filled with images of celebrities and lifestyle leave no room for photojournalism. They publish news photography but they have little interest in the photo-essay.

In this sense, it is not photojournalism but the media industry that has lost its way. There is a distinct possibility that newspaper readership will almost disappear in the next twenty-five years – the internet will see to that. Meanwhile, the photographer looks to other sources of funding for support – book-publishing, galleries (as the boundaries between art and journalism blur) and grants (photographers’ proposal-writing now has to be as good as their photography).

Don McCullin ‘Siege of Derry - dismayed housewives watch as soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment charge down William Street after an outbreak of stoning’, published in the Sunday Times Magazine (UK), 1971 Photograph © Don McCullin

The digital challenge

It is not just the magazine that is disappearing as an outlet. The physical nature of the photograph itself has gone with the emergence of digital photography. This in itself is not a cause for concern although some commentators see the digital age as another nail in photojournalism’s coffin.

But a digital photograph is no different from an analogue photograph. The real and far greater change is that news photography is no longer the exclusive preserve of the professional photographer. Digital cameras and the mobile phone have put paid to that.

Mary Panzer & Christian Caujolle, eds., Things As They Are - Photojournalism in Context Since 1955 is published by Chris Boot in association with World Press Photo (UK price £45.00)

Some of the iconic images of 2004 portrayed the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The photograph of the hooded man with his arms outstretched – resonating, like so many great photographs, with the history of painting and Christian iconography – could have been a World Press Photo of the Year candidate; except that it was taken, along with many current dramatic photographs (of the Asian tsunami or the London bombings, say), by an amateur.

What these photographs lack and what photojournalists give to their photographs is the sense of authorship. The auteur is still the most important element in the creating of photographic images. As long as there are stories to tell photojournalists will continue to explore, question and challenge the world in which we live and provide a narrative for our time.

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