Wake Up Call

Yesterday I intended to write about some vague notion connecting suburban anthropology and focal lengths. It'll have to wait — a day of illness knocked me down and I barely left the house.

I did have the computer around though, and between working on some 3D models I got a chance to look at the April issue of The Digital Journalist, which contains a few items about the new New York Times contract for freelancers. As recounted in the American Socitety of Media Photographers analysis and the letter to NYT from freelancers who say they cannot sign the new contract, the basic consensus for most shooters is clear: the contract simply appropriates all value for NYT and leaves the photographers with all the expenses and legal liabilities. Great. Editorial Photographers, mentioned here only one entry ago, has also entered the fray, urging its members not to sign.

And staffers at companies like NYT, who make more than freelancers, have got to be watching their backs now too. The future for them looks grim. Read Greg Smith's core article to work-out the numbers for yourself.

Smith asks: "Will visual news reporting become the province of hobbyists, thrill seekers, status hounds and people who don't know how to watch out for their own interests — let alone those of their readers and viewers?" This question immediately reminded me of an hour-long French documentary I'd seen just a few days ago on Link TV, titled Good Morning Afghanistan.

Good Morning Afghanistan, as the LinkTV blurb states, recounts the story of "a journalist thrown into extraordinary circumstances" — basically, he and his companions were riding in a taxi that made an unscheduled stop. They heard some gunfire and stumbled into the first hours of the Mazar-i-Sharif uprising. At the time they were virtually the only ones there to cover what eventually became a major story — including the public appearance the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

The french journalist is Damien Degueldre, who was lucky enough to be accompanied by a veteran American freelancer, Dodge Billingsley, and Alex Perry, working for Time (Perry later became a public figure in India after publishing an unflattering assessment of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Perry's subsequent harrassment by Indian authorities). Damien met them in Uzbekistan. He had never used a video camera before. Before the war he worked for L'Oreal cosmetics. He wanted "to see real war." He and Dodge not only caught some amazing footage at Mazar, but they went on to win a Rory Peck Award and the Royal Television Society's Camera Operator of the Year with the Channel 4 doc incorporating this footage: House of War, later picked up by CNN.

The footage from the Quala-e-Jangi prison is rivetting, sometimes unbelieveable. Northern Alliance infantry blazing off RPGs for the sake of posing heroically in front of the camera (under fire, no less) — and at no target in particular. Dusty body parts strewn across the field, a hidden hand popping from a tree stump to spray machineghun fire all around. An airstrike — what do you mean we hit our own guys? And the Afghan fighters who survived laughing at each other's dirty faces and being quick to loot the fallen Taliban bodies. Brutish, chaotic, senseless, stupid — you can pick your adjectives, they all fall short. It's also tempting (and surely wrong) to look at the footage as a characterization of the entire war, depending less on what you see than on your political views already formed before watching it. It seems pointless to try and identify "good guys" from "bad guys."

The battle over, Degueldre et al cover a little bit more, including (unknowingly at first) the re-capture and interviewing of Lindh.

So at this point in the documentary, Degueldre has been out with his new camera for a whole week, has captured amazing stuff, and the next thing you know he's on the freelance payroll of "real" news organizations like the BBC. At which point, the crazy in-your-face footage promptly ends, replaced by what real news organization do: standups of staff journalists like the BBC's designated celebrity blogger, Angus Roxburgh, talking into the camera about events that happened in the past from some nearby safe location. Yup, he's there all right.

Degueldre certainly fits Smith's characterization of a "thrill seeker" and I don't know that he's done much news work after his stint at Mazar. He got lucky repeatedly — first by meeting-up with people who would guide him and keep him from getting killed; second by having their car stop accidentally at exactly the right (or wrong) place at the right time; third by not actually getting killed in some of those situations; finally by having people on hand who would buy his material and get him, eventually, out.

When given a "real" job, he photographs expected, unchallenging talking heads ("won't my mom be thrilled, I'm working for AP!"). Apparently talking heads are what real new organizations want — news driven by predefined media celebrities (I want Ollie North in Karballah, pronto!). Is it any surprise that they'd rather go for the cheap adventure seeker, rather than the six-figure staffer who's going to be raking-in overtime and danger pay for being where no fully-sane corporate employee ought to go?

There's little room for danger (or idealism) in a corporate media that's primarily concerned with making their product as simple as possible for the sake of providing lots of high-viewership, receptive advertising eyeballs.

A couple of years ago, we were hearing a lot about how 9-11 had inadvertantly breathed new life into photojournalism. Did it really? In retrospect, perhaps the lesson has been just the opposite. Though PJ-created, the amateur show Here is New York covered the attack as thoroughly as most any of the hundreds of professional PJs who were dispatched to Manhattan. Amateurs like Mike Schade were sending out in-depth coverage from their digicams that very day. From my distant home in Hawaii that morning, it was hard to get news — but I got shots in email, made by friends from their rooftops in Brooklyn.

Is it any surprise that orgs like NYT can see that they can harvest information from independants like Mike, or even Christopher Allbritton, far more easily than by sending a squadron of expensive staffers or even contract freelancers? And while they're at it, why not make the collected information their exclusive property, so that the corporation can leech value out of it for years to come?

I'm not even going near most of the question of "is photojournalism art?" except to say that to the corporate purchasers and licensing organizations, it is. It's "content," used to fill pages. Photojournalists, like artists, may be driven by a desire to make a living or by some arbitrary idealism, but in either case the chances are strong that their interests are not really coincident with the interests of the people who are distributing and selling their work, whether in a gallery or on page one.

Comments on "Wake Up Call"

Dirk
April 7, 2004 08:04 PM

Nice rant. I can see the other side of the coin too though. A sheer unlimited supply of material, with little or no commitment. Seems like a good deal to me. For years we have known that as far as the image quality goes, amateurs can at least match the pros. I believe a few years back, several prized press photos of the year were amateur shots (fireman carrying baby in Oklahoma bombing for example). As the content consumer, I can just burn my providers, with good confidence that supply will still not run out. The numbers are in the consumer's favour, millions of (digital) cameras walking around out there, good chances I can land a scoop - on the cheap. And for a breaking news item, I don't always need the brain behind the camera. As a news agency I would make sure that the number of my picture desk is easily accessible to the public...

I am curious where it will go.

 

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