Persistence and evolution

The “future of photojournalism” has been a topic of debate/lament for the past few years as the media landscape changes. (Actually, it’s been a topic for decades as the media world has changed, but that’s another story.)

A common refrain is that the future is bleak: publication outlets are diminishing, the ones that remain are cutting staff and devoting less room for photojournalism, everyone has a smartphone and an instagram feed. You can excuse those who are passionate about photojournalism for feeling like the walls are crumbling, the rug has been pulled out, (insert your own metaphor here). Everyone once in a while though a voice pops up to say,”Wait a minute. Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

That’s what I take from Susan Meiselas’ comments on the New York Times Lens blog a couple of days ago. In an interview with James Estrin, Meiselas talks about empowerment in the face of an uncertain future. She identifies some positive perspectives to this new media landscape. She notes the photojournalism community has felt stuck and/or threatened, and she seems to find the answer by looking within instead of without.

“It is incredibly important to not feel disempowered but to feel re-empowered,” Meiselas says. In other words, we can look at the changes as fundamentally demolishing the value and contributions of photojournalism, or we can look at them as challenge. There are more options than before, both for forms that photojournalism can take and paths to get it in front of an audience. It’s certainly harder to gain broad exposure than it was in the heyday of LIFE magazine, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Recognize the opportunities and how to make use of them. The late Angus McDougall, after a long career in photojournalism, was still excited about the possibilities offered in the digital/online age.

We have this discussion in classes a lot: what motivates you as a photographer? Are you driven by telling visual stories, or are you looking for the exposure? The two have a relationship. Unless others see the work it’s hard for it to have an impact. But lamenting the changes (longing for some perception of the good old days in some cases), seems like giving in. Looking at the environment as one filled with opportunity seems more invigorating, challenging photographers to do good work and be active in getting it in front of others.

Admittedly my bread and butter doesn’t come from making photographs. It comes from teaching and studying and writing. Change comes to everyone though, in the form of different expectations, continually raising standards or evolving means of evaluation. What’s good for the photographer is good for the academic. Take hold of the now and make it work. Because the past isn’t likely to come back…. at least not in the same form.

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