Photojournalism is dead

photo by Tom Burton


I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died.

Welcome, brothers and sisters. On this sad day we gather to remember the presence in our lives we called photojournalism. The proclamations have been made – photojournalism is dead – and many believe it to be true. But this a memorial service rather than a funeral because we have yet to discover the body. The proof hasn’t been found.

My comments today will reflect both my love for photojournalism and my respect for its basic tenets. One of those tenets is truth or, in my mind, honesty. So let’s be candid. Maybe it’s good that photojournalism is gone.

I don’t say this with bitterness or defeat. I say it with hope and a sense of adventure. Photojournalism may be dead but new paths are in front of us, if we chose to take them.

Photojournalism, we must remember, was invented to bring us from one stage to another. College professors championed the term for their courses designed to educate newspaper photographers and elevate them from cigar-chomping, blue-collared ruffians to serious journalists. The goal was to move from common laborers who filled photo orders to independent reporters who strove to show readers images that found truth in the objective reality of photography.

Ah, truth. There’s the rub. We believed that if we used small, unobtrusive cameras and hunted for candid photos that such images would be patently truthful. There was excitement and challenge as we entered the hunt, stalking our subjects with stealth and savvy.The goal was to disappear from the scene to the point that one became like a fly on the wall.

But, my friends, is there any moment more annoying than a dinner with flies? Is it any wonder Fellini coined the term paparazzo in his film La Dolce Vita to describe a photographer who swarms like a pesky insect? Simply observing a scene doesn’t insure truth. That was a weakness in photojournalism – perhaps its fatal weakness.

We were blind to this malady. We made photos in available light because a flash would change the reality. Some of us were shocked if we saw another member of the order chatting with a subject as a photo was made. Such conversation, after all, would challenge the candidness of a photo. We pretended that we could slip in and out of people’s lives, quietly stealing images, and present those fractions of a second as the truth of person’s life.

We held contests and rewarded ourselves for following the canon dictated by photojournalism. We began to believe that by its very style, photojournalism was truthful. Our circle of acceptance grew smaller and smaller and we operated in an atmosphere of assumptions. Our photos began to repeat themselves and we narrowed the range of acceptability. We became obsessed with the doctrine of photojournalism and our justification was “the truth.” And we were wrong.

That doesn’t mean we were liars. We relied on the medium of photography and the commandments of photojournalism to declare the facts around us. We told the truth as best we could. but it was a partial truth that showed people at their emotional extremes, in visually simple images that could be glanced at quickly. We forgot what what photojournalism should have been.

Now, photojournalism is dead. It’s been killed by the giant corporate media companies that want to increase profits by cutting staff and resources. Newspapers are anxiously searching for answers in the face of declining readership and news photography isn’t a marketable “news you can use” commodity. Newsprint is too expensive to publish large photo stories. It’s over.

Alas, photojournalism may be dead but I am still kicking and I want to make pictures. What now for me and for you, my brothers and sisters? Where will we go now?

Let me suggest that we remember the spirit of photojournalism when it was young and take it on in our lives. Let us take a camera and instead of being being slaves to the hot-spot news of the moment, use it to document the way people live on this planet. Let us interpret the “journal” of journalism as a personal statement. Let’s experiment with new ways to make images in the emerging multi-media age. Let’s take on the responsibility for the truth of a photo instead relying on a photography style so that viewers, when they see our pictures, believe them not because they believe photography, but because they believe the photographer.

There is no greater gift than the ability to see. The parable of the Good Samaritan is about giving, but it is also about vision because the man from Samaria was the only one to really notice a man lying on the road who was so sick that he appeared to be dead. The other important people of the day walked by without seeing but the Samaritan noticed his fellow and stopped to help. The Samaritan could see.

If you ever loved photojournalism as I did, wipe away the tears you’ve shed on this sad day and prepare yourself. We will need clear eyes to see our futures.


Tom Burton

published originally in December 1999 on

Note: The photo of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery , in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico  was made in 2009 and was not part of the original blog post ten years earlier.