Andrew Meares believes photography can thrive in this era of smartphones and digital platforms, but doing it well still relies on traditional news skills.
The darkroom was a place of magic. It was another world. The inverse promise of a film negative. The magical waving of your hands to control light from the enlarger. The emergence of a print from a soup of chemicals. It was tangible, it was real and it was photography. It had been this way for over 150 years.
But as silver halide crystals have given way to digital pixels, what is photography’s future?
A very real crisis is upon us all, as the entire media struggles with audience relevance and plummeting funding models. Photographers are particularly vulnerable as the culture of curating replaces creation. A photograph is now a colourful arrangement of pixels on a screen near you. From conception to copyright infringement with the right click of a mouse. Tumblr accounts, meme distributors, mummy bloggers and, increasingly, mainstream media, actively pursue a viable business model where photography comes free – as long as they get a click on the way through.
Perhaps the answer to both these dilemmas lies, again, with innovation.
Just as we must reinvent the newspaper, we must also redefine photography. We can no longer rely simply on the evolution of camera technology to solve this crisis.
While the transmission of photos over a phone line was part of the news workflow from the 1930s, 21 years ago on a warm December night, I was all alone in The Sydney Morning Herald darkroom. A few hours earlier, flashbulbs had sprayed their staccato light fusing the image onto the film. I then fled through the corridors of power to a waiting taxi, dashing to the airport to fly the film back to Sydney.
Australia had a new prime minister. Paul Keating had defeated Bob Hawke 56–51 in a party room ballot.
I emerged from the darkroom with a fresh print, eager to share my image, only to notice the newsroom was deserted. In the far corner, crowded around the lone television, the whole news floor and no doubt most across the nation were watching Hawke's predictably tearful farewell press conference – live.
The power of a photograph is in the sharing. The primary role of photojournalists is to link a subject with a viewer in a meaningful way. On this historic night, the constraints of time, place and chemistry had meant the overwhelming tasking of sharing my image had rendered it obsolete.
Outside that very same party room, another prime ministerial leadership challenge unfolded earlier this year, with Julia Gillard defeating Kevin Rudd 71–31.
This time my wi-fi enabled digital camera could connect the unfolding events in that corridor to a significant audience instantly, via The Pulse liveblog on the National Times website, as well as providing a permanent historical record in print. Photography is the true “multimedia medium”, able to be displayed across all platforms from mobile to web, video, apps and, of course, in print.
Photojournalism has remained relevant through the constant embrace of change. We once made and scanned prints from the most unlikely locations to send over the wire. Negative scanners eventually replaced the need for a print. And for more than a decade, the digital photography revolution has allowed us to file live. Being digital first is not new to us. The media industry is finally catching up with our workflow. Our capability is required now more than ever.
A confused crowd gathered around my laptop as I sent my first digital photo in 1998 from the roadside of a truck accident. I knew my working life wouldn’t be the same. Although the image quality was far inferior to film, my pictures were better as I could remain on the job longer, unencumbered by the need to process and scan a negative. When shooting film, you usually only had time to send one or two pictures from a job and this influenced the way you composed and edited images.
The game had changed. The deadline had shifted to when I was ready to file. I could now send as many frames as I wanted, instantly. The era of the necessarily stooged picture was replaced with a documentary approach. The good, the bad and the ugly were now made available for publication both in print and online for the first time.
Digital photography innovations swept the industry and enabled the public to be better informed. We were now able to send pictures from the jungles of East Timor via a satellite phone, bringing home the tragedy and helping shape the response. The breadth of stunning coverage from every aspect of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was only made possible by the digital camera roll-out.
As the Twin Towers were struck in New York in 2001, there was an expectation that the event would be photographed and made immediately available from every angle. Digital photography was now well and truly part of our consciousness.
Following the 2002 summer bushfires, I wanted to find a way to bypass transmission via a laptop so we could literally file on the run with just a camera and a mobile data connection. In scenes reminiscent of Apollo 11 (the first iPhone was still five years away), we hacked a personal digital assistant and patiently waited as the fledgling 2G mobile network uploaded our images. We knew then that things could only get better as camera technology and telecommunications would no doubt improve.
In the last decade, photography has been democratised – the huge clunky, slow, digital cameras that cost $20,000 have now evolved to a camera everywhere. This year, camera phones will outsell point-and-shoot cameras. Empowered by super-fast internet connectivity linked to an ever increasing participatory social network, we all now have access to the ultimate image sharing workflow we once dreamed of.
It is a paradox that as the digital age morphs into the mobile age, photography is increasingly accessible to all, but the unique power of a photograph has been eroded. From black and white prints and the advent of colour; box Brownies and Polaroids; scanning negatives and digital imaging; camera phones and video frame grabs; 3D and 360 degrees; timelapse and helicam drones; high dynamic range and cinemagraphs; Google street view, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – our world is reproduced, represented and now reblogged more than ever before.
To understand how visually stimulated we now are, consider this: 3500 photos are uploaded to Facebook each second. That’s over 12.6 million an hour or around 300 million a day. Mark Zuckerberg holds over 140 billion of our photos in his album. With a staggering 1900 per cent growth since 2010, the Instagram photography app posed both a threat and an opportunity to Zuckerberg’s photography business and was snapped up by Facebook for a cool US$1 billion.
A revolutionary “app” in its day, the box Brownie proclaimed: "You press the button – we do the rest”. Today that slogan could easily apply to the mathematical algorithm used by Instagram that evokes the nostalgic authenticity of the film era, just as Kodak – once a photographic behemoth – files for bankruptcy. Instagram combines a need for easy post-production with a desire for self-publishing. A smh.com.au weather blog recently praised “instagram-tastic” contributions and proclaimed “isn’t technology wonderful – it makes everyone a professional photographer with just an iPhone”.
If we are all “professional” photographers now, beyond photos of cats, in a world awash with images, what is our contribution to be?
The collective noun for a bunch of news photographers is a “whinge”. This self-deprecating term of endearment once expressed the transient discomfort of the moment – being forced to wait hours in the sun/snow/rain on a meaningless stakeout for a glimpse of a celebrity/criminal/politician, only to make great art that was then butchered by some uncaring layout subeditor. We now mourn the loss of those subs and fear for our own futures. The discussion has shifted from complaining on the job to asking, will I have a job?
The innovation of photography in the late 19th century liberated the need for an artist's interpretation to provide a literal representation of the world. Newspaper illustrations were consigned to history and the newspaper photograph was celebrated.
Television eventually replaced news photography as the primary visual medium. Despite this, photojournalists have filled a crucial role through the insightful capturing of humanity, distilled best by any iconic image our collective memories recall. The infrequent but eloquent images emerging from contemporary Syria are testament to the need for brave photojournalists to speak the truth.
But the full artistic liberation of photography is yet to occur. Joerg Colberg recently wrote of a “stasis” in contemporary photography with a reliance on “nostalgia”. He could very well have been commenting of the state of the newsprint industry.
With everything photographed, where does a sense of progress come from? An inherent conservatism is limiting our acceptance and exploration of “new” photography, leading to an “existential crisis”.
Photojournalists embody change. They must.
Their purpose is to capture and share a moment of transition, to provide clarity in a complex world.
Anticipation is our leverage.
Photojournalists know when a cricket wicket will fall by watching the batsman’s feet. Where the mark will be taken. When and where the action will climax. We all know the secret to any fast moving team sport is to not follow the ball but to watch the gaps.
Know your game and follow your gut.
Photojournalism is in profound transition beyond the decline of newspapers. We need to anticipate new ways of working, earning and connecting. Watch the gaps. We are a truth genre and we all know trust has a value.
So too must the Alliance pivot to provide meaningful support for copyright protection, training and assistance for an ever increasing casualised and outsourced workforce.
Free from the strict form of the newspaper photograph, for the last eight years I have gathered audio and video as well as photos to help tell my stories better. I’m still a first responder with the best seat in the house to history unfolding. My old skills of being in the right place at the right time are serving me well in the new media age. I’m still a storyteller be it with a single frame, a gallery or a major production. The nonlinear timeline is now my creative darkroom. I live blog and dabble in cartoons, and my work goes viral in memes. Innovation and experimentation may not pay the rent or save the industry, but as Citizen Kane of the fictitious New York Inquirer said: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of.”
Photography is more relevant today than ever before. The tablet apps and web galleries demand our stunning work. Our language has won. Sure, everything has been photographed – we just have to do it better. Our only limit is our creativity.
Andrew Meares is the chief photographer for Fairfax Media in its Canberra bureau. He won a Walkley in 2010 for best online journalism for his coverage of the federal election.