Photojournalism: making an impact

The power of photography to shape public opinion is undisputed, yet budgets for photojournalism are being cut all over the world. Vision reflects on the reasons behind this

“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.” So said AP photojournalist Eddie Adams after winning the Pulitzer Prize for an image that gave the anti-Vietnam war movement in America fresh momentum.

Photographs are immediate. The amount of information they can convey in a few seconds can transform public opinion. They can damage or enhance reputations – witness the controversy over the recent Obama selfie – hasten the end (or the beginning) of a war and provoke governments to respond to humanitarian crises.

Occasionally these world-changing images come from amateurs, victims of catastrophe or even perpetrators of violence. One of Time magazine’s top 10 photographs of 2013 was the iPhone snapshot of a woman and her five grandchildren sheltering from Tasmanian wildfires under a jetty.

Much more often, they come from trained photojournalists, who have the resources, experience and bravery to venture into conflict zones and capture images that tell complicated, provocative stories.

So why is the photojournalism under threat? In November, to highlight the importance of the art form, the French newspaper Libération ran an entire issue with blank boxes in the place of images. “Photography takes the pulse of our world,” culture editor Brigitte Ollier wrote in a front-page editorial, saying of the issue: “Information is missing, as if we had become a mute newspaper.”

Timed to coincide with Paris Photo held at the Grande Palais, the edition drew attention to a wave of pay cuts and staff reductions among photojournalists around the world. The same month, the Pew Research Center announced that the number of U.S. journalists had decreased by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2012 – a bigger decline than any other type of journalism.

Advances in digital photography and the growing capacity of smartphones to take high-quality images has meant that reporters armed with iPhones and ordinary bystanders can often be the first to take a snapshot of a historical event. Relying on these pictures is cheaper than paying staff photographers, and the dwindling ad revenue supporting the traditional print media has led to a culture of cost-cutting.

With growing numbers getting their news via Twitter and Facebook, taking the first picture can become more important than taking the best picture, but haunting photographs like Robert Capa’s close-up shots of the D-Day landings or Dorothea Lange’s portrait of a migrant mother during America’s Great Depression endure and colour our sense of history. Without a new generation of talented working photographers to replace them, we’ll all be worse off.