Photojournalism: No More Heroes?

[The TED/Demos team working to raise awareness of XDR-TB with photojournalist James Nachtwey invited me to write a short piece on the future of photojournalism for their site. The following is a slightly edited version of that piece]

We inherit the archetypes of the Photo-Journalist and their Work from the profession’s Golden Age: that of Time and Life magazines, and of early Magnum; the searing inscription of truth burnt into 36 frames of Ilford FP4. Photo-journalists as Heroes of the Modern Age.

Times change. When we now read about the Magnum photographers who, upon hearing the breaking news while at a meeting in New York, early morning 9/11 2001, grabbed their Nikons and ran to the streets to get the story, we feel respect for their courage, but also a little bemusement. Like some half-forgotten, fallen league of superheroes striding into action: Magnum? They still do that stuff? Huh? Post-Modern, aren’t we, each and every one of us, citizen journalists, with cellphone and blog, our story to the world? No more Heroes.

But: a photo-journalist is one not only witness to events, but one able to bear witness to their meaning, with objectivity, truth-in-haste, for an audience often culturally and physically remote from those directly affected. How? Training, access, technology, narrative skill, cross-cultural literacy. We may view heroes with suspicion, but there’s value yet in the craft skills of the journalistic professional.

So: can’t a good journalist with access to citizen stringers achieve as much, bearing witness on behalf of those whose images serve as record of witness? Why not split the word photo-journalist at the hyphen and be done with it — bury the whole idea with the other redundant heroisms of the Modern age.

No. Documentary evidence is increasingly easy to fake in post-production or presentation, and jaded audiences are conditioned to the contingency of all ‘truths’: in a cloudsourced, ever-more-diffusely-mediated future, the existence of individuals who both offer themselves to be and are able to bear witness is imperative. We need those whose can say, resolutely, and incontrovertibly, “I was there. These are my images. This my testimony”.