Finding life in photojournalism

“I unloaded my feelings about the ‘Sunday Times.’ I told them that I thought my working life was finished. They were going exclusively for a Leisure and Lifestyles magazine. All I was doing now was standing around in a safari jacket while the safari itself never took place.” Don McCullin in Unreasonable Behaviour”

After reading Otto Pohl’s timely piece “The Death of Photojournalism?”, I couldn’t help but think about McCullin’s description of his career. He had been working for a newspaper’s Sunday magazine in London for about 20 years, covering all of the critical war zones in the world. McCullin’s work is still considered some of the most important photojournalism ever made. But his newspaper had shifted it’s emphasis when it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. Photojournalism was dead.

That was 1983, fifteen years ago.

It could also be said photojournalism died on December 29, 1972 when the weekly LIFE magazine printed its last edition. The great icon of picture journalism had lost ground to the new kid on the block – television.

I also remember reading about Elliot Erwitt’s decision to shift his emphasis away from photojournalism in the 1950s. His fellow Magnum photographers were shocked at such crass commercialism, but Erwitt knew that the magazines wanted him to shoot nice portraits of restaurant chefs. He knew this wasn’t interesting photography. He also knew that the restaurant itself would pay much, much more for the same photo shot for advertising. The big paycheck would give him the resources to shoot photos he cared about on his own time.

Each generation of photojournalists has to face the conflicting demands of making a living and making good photos. It is frustrating, painful and depressing to realize that the pictures we consider to be important aren’t valuable in the marketplace. The photographers I admire seem to always find a way to survive this quandary. They find the way to make cash on the “easy” assignments. Then those resources can be used to fund their personal work which is always the work that is the most interesting but harder to publish.

This mind set applies even to staff photographers. Each week, I have plenty of mindless, no-brainer assignments that do nothing to further the goals of photojournalism. For whatever reason, the editors want these photos to fill in formatted sections that appeal to specific reader demographics. The photos aren’t interesting or enlightening but are instead information and functional.

Because there are only so many hours in the day, each “empty” assignment takes away from time that could be spent on something more journalistic. Knowing this can sap your enthusiasm for this profession. It can be the poison that kills a career.

I face this peculiar kind of depression but have been able to temper it by shifting my perspective. In my mind, I collect my paycheck for each and every one of the painfully boring house photos, mug shots or pointless product shots I make each week. That money along with the resources of cameras and film gives me the chance to pursue my own ideas in the time I steal in between assignments.

This Jeckel and Hyde approach can be stressful but it is the only method I’ve found to be able to continue my work in photojournalism going into mid-career. The only other options I can think of are to find an editor who wants to run “pictures Tom thinks are cool” or to give up altogether. I can dream about the former but can’t face the possibility of the latter.

Tom Burton

published originally on April 5, 1998 on digitalstoryteller.com

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