Is Photojournalism Really Dying?

Dirck Halstead, Editor and Publisher of the The Digital Journalist wrote in a recent editorial his proposals to save what he considers the dying art of photojournalism (see below)

As much as I respect him for what he’s done to advance visual journalism (he is after all the “father of The Playpus) I question some of his assertions.

Yes much of journalism is in trouble because of the current changes, but is he making things look worse than they are in order to make a self-serving argument? It seems to me that he’s suggesting that funds by private groups for journalism education is misdirected, and should be given to organizations like his, “online publications… [with] vast knowledge of the Internet and their experience in editorial judgment.” I agree that philanthropy is needed to help fund journalism projects that some news organizations choose not to fund; that has always been the case and it’s worse now. But education is equally vital and is in as great a need for the support of those with deep pockets. There will always be a need and a place for journalists, for good responsible storytellers to document our history and inform us. It is especially vital in some non-western countries where journalism training is developing and they are reaching out to us for financial aid. One such place is Rwanda where organizations like Rwanda Initiative that works with the National University of Rwanda school of journalism.

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KIGALI, RWANDA. MAY 30, 2009 — Community members gather for a community meeting on Umuganda, a day of mandatory community service in Rwanda, Saturday May 30, 2009.   Umuganda is held on the last Saturday of every month, when everyone participates in some kind of community work like tree planting, street cleaning.  The tradition helps in community building because it brings everyone, genocide victims and genocidaires to work side by side.   (Phil Carpenter)

There also seem to be this idea that unless we have the capacity to do large international projects all the time then photojournalism is dead.  There obviously is a need to to international reporting; our world is very interconnected and countries have many interests outside their borders.  But we don’t all have to be “documentarians of world events” all the time to be successful photojournalists making a worthwhile contribution. The time and resources we spend sometimes on funding some of these projects could be spent on focusing on many local stories instead. I keep saying that photojournalism, visual journalism is very, very far from dead. It is changing dramatically, and we just need to understand those changes and adapt. Change doesn’t mean death; it’s just growth.

Dirk’s editorial:

“How to Start to Save Photojournalism
September 2009

In recent issues of The Digital Journalist we have been looking at the crisis in journalism in general, but photojournalism in particular.

Newspapers and magazines are experiencing precipitous drops in circulation in subscriptions and on newsstands. Advertising is plummeting.

The money used to cover news is where the accountants cut costs. This results in massive layoffs and buyouts of reporters, and especially photographers. It is not only in the U.S. but it is a worldwide phenomenon. Major international photo agencies are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Although the Great Recession has made industry woes worse, the systemic problems over the last decade make it impossible for news companies to ever regain former levels. The industry has permanently reset.

With the exception of a few newspapers and wire services, the possibility of working in journalism and being paid to do so is increasingly difficult. Those who lose their jobs will probably never return. For newcomers it is almost nonexistent. Many photojournalists, who are the prime documentarians of world events, no longer have the financial capability to fulfill this important role.

The situation has gone from critical to dire. The World Wide Web, although it is a tremendous source of information, was set up with the idea that information would be free. From its beginnings, publishers were guilty of discounting the importance of the Web as a key source of revenue.

Last month we called on the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to create pay walls around their unique content. The hour is very late. Without appreciable revenue, the newsrooms of these newspapers will shrivel and die. Important coverage of stories around the world that we depend on these papers to provide will simply disappear.

Is there a way to turn this situation around?

In our view, there is only one way: Philanthropists must come to the rescue.

Today, organizations such as the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, The John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, McCormick Tribune Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Torstar Corporation and others spend billions of dollars a year on grants for journalism, most of which currently go for worthwhile educational programs and to institutions.

The problem is that the money is being primarily spent on creating a new generation of journalists for whom there will be no jobs. Without a newsroom to work in, the most dedicated journalists cannot complete their missions.

We need to prime the pump. The emphasis must shift away from education to newsgathering. Foundation money for journalism should primarily be redirected for coverage. This means there must be places for journalists to have a home. Here the Web is vital.

We recommend that substantial amounts of funding in the form of grants from concerned foundations go to online publications such as David Alan Harvey’s Burn, Brian Storm’s MediaStorm, Bombay Flying Club, STORY4, 100Eyes, The Digital Journalist and others. Because of their vast knowledge of the Internet and their experience in editorial judgment, online publications will become the arbiters of who is deserving of these grants. They will earmark the grants for photojournalists with worldwide and local projects that deserve coverage.

Though philanthropists should make a long-term commitment to the industry, it does not have to be infinite. As photojournalists produce important new work, the penetration of the online publications into the general public will increase dramatically. With that expansion, and the efforts of the industry to generate real revenue, advertising rates will rise, benefiting the entire industry to the point where eventually these publications will be able to take back the traditional role of creating assignments without help from the philanthropists.

Until then, this is the only real way to keep this vital industry from perishing, leaving society bereft of visual information at a time when it is more crucial than ever.”

Focus Statements, Characters and Advanced Storytelling

Hello all. Just some updates since my last full post last spring. Again sorry for being missing in action but things have been quite hectic since my last post.

First, I attended the NPPA’s (National Pres Photographers’ Association) Advanced Storytelling Workshop at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas in March. Originally called the “Advanced Team Storytelling Workshop” it was geared towards TV crews with a certain number of years experience. Now with the recognition that many of us work solo as vj’s or “one-man-bands” the word “team” was dropped from the title. Itw as also opened to print photographers like myself who are increasingly doing video for our newspaper and magazine websites. Again a certain degree of experience was required. Myself and a shooter from USA Today were the only 2 newspaper photographers.

The course was a week long and we hit the ground running. Our first assignment had been mailed to us weeks earlier, and it was to edit and form a story from the raw footage of a tornado. We were also expected to arrive with story ideas because the course was treated like a full time working news room. We had story meetings were we had to pitch, defend, shoot and edit our own stories for deadline. Needless to say there wasn’t much sleep.

This is my first assignment, shot, written and edited by me on the NPPA’s Advanced Storytelling Workshop held in San Marcos, Texas in March ’09. A little rough around the edges but it’s still a nice little story.

The staff was dedicated (more than a few Emmy award winners) and talented. The candidates were from as far away Europe, but I was the only Canadian.
I learned much. I had to unlearn many bad habits that I had picked up over the years but I came a long way on that course. They even pushed me to track my own voice on one of my stories.

It is so hard to apply the things you learn on a course, after the couse because part of the process is still to unlearn some of the crap you practiced before. That’s why they warned us at graduation that for the first few months, the stories we shoot would be the worse in our career. They were right. I am proud of almost NOTHING I’ve shot since March. But I’m getting better. The two biggest things I came away from the course are: how hard, and how important focus statements are; and how important it is to spend time capturing good sound. I also learned how to write to pictures and improve my skills enterprising stories. Oh. And how bad so much of TV news is!!!!

Since I graduated the best story I’ve shot is about stories of Mohawk peacekeeprs. It’s still rough, but i’m still working on focus statements, and unlearning bad habits is still hard. But I’m getting better;-)


Missing In Action

Apologies for the absence. I’ve been quite busy the last two months. First with a workshop in Texas – Advanced Storytelling , then with a trip to Rwanda to teach multimedia journalism for a month to journalists which is just wrapping up, and about which I’ve been blogging. I promise a full report on all activities within days.

The Cello Suites: A Story About Music

VIDEO: The Cello Suites: A Story About Music

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Photo: THE GAZETTE/Pierre Obendrauf

When I got this video assignment I was really doubtful that it’d be suitable as a video story. I’d been to a number of book launches that, though they could be interesting by virtue of the reading itself, it’s rare that there is anything of visual interest. And so after cussing for a second or two, I decided to look into it a little deeper to see what I could scrounge from it.

The assignment had said a “book reading” at this launch, with live music played on a cello, but when I called the author he said that there was to be no reading at all. Just a guy playing the cello and him signing copies of the book, with a short introduction. Ok.

I decided that to make this thing work he HAD to read, and for people interested in buying his book it would be nice to hear him say something about what motivated him. So I inquired whether he’d be willing to get to the venue a little early so I could get him to talk about his book on camera, and read something. Being a journalist and former colleague he was quite accommodating and understanding, and agreed to do so.

This was my plan then: A-Roll: him talking about why he wrote the book, reading excerpts from it;
B-Roll: people milling about, him signing, people reading the book, tons of closeups of the book etc, the cello, etc
Use the cello music as background.

Got to the event. Interview went fine; reading went ok, then found out that the cellist was expected to play 1/2hr later than I expected. Ah well. All things considered the shooting went ok.

I managed to complete post production in about 3 hrs and, except for a few things I kinda liked the end result.

1. I need to get to interviews with about 15mins to spare, even for simple sit-down interviews. Usually if I’m using lights and such I give myself 1/2hr, but for this I gave myself 10 mins since I had no plans to use lights. Maybe I’m a perfectionist but I wasn’t happy with the framing and lighting of the interview at all. In fact it sucks.

2. As much as the assignment might look like crap at first, give it time. I’m finding out that if there is enough advance time, a little planning might help you save it.

Bear with me y’all; I’m getting there. CRITIQUES PLEASE. Thanks a lot.

The Amazing Skidboot

The Amzing Skidboot What a beautiful story: excellent writing, good shooting and great editing. There is just one surprise after another and the more you watch, the more you want to watch.


‘The Lens’ Montreal Gazette Photo Blog.

The Lens


Video Stories Major Metro Newspapers Can And Should Do

This is a simple but effective video story by photojournalist Brent Foster for Time Magazine.
The Real Slum of \'Slumdog\'
Another example of what newspaper photoJOURNALISTS can and should be doing.

Chuck Fadley makes a similar point, using a PBS documentary as an example. This is what he says:
“I just watched Frontline’s “Inside the Meltdown” on PBS. Watch it. Frontline\'s \"Inside the Meltdown\" It’s a graduate course in storytelling; it’s an incredibly powerful story; it’s timely; and has incredible production values. (And it uses stills to great effect.)

“This is an absolutely gripping doc on the financial crisis, put together by producer Michael Kirk. You can watch it online. There’s also a ‘behind the scenes’ clip with Kirk here: \"Inside Frontline: The Making of…\"

Kirk put this hour together in 20 weeks. It uses material from the backyards of NYTimes, the WSJ, and the Post, any one of which could have done this story. In fact, the backbone of the narrative is structured on interviews with reporters from the Times and WSJ.

This is the kind of story telling that major metro papers could and should be doing, but are not.

Folks, we need to step up to the plate.”


The Story Behind “First Crush”, An Interview With Kids and Their Romantic Love

The video First Crush was done as a story for Valentine’s Day. I approached the assistant managing editor with the idea of doing a video where I’d interview fifty 6-year-olds by asking them one question about love, and reveal the question at the end of the video after the kids had given their answers. I figured it’d be interesting to see what kids had to say about love. They were bound to have surprising stories, especially since many parents don’t expect kids that age to be thinking about things like this. (Click on the image to watch the video).

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My challenge was how to make it work for the paper since I wanted to keep the question secret. I also wanted to make it into a package from which people could learn something. So after some research I figured the story in the paper should be about exploring first crushes, and that would point to the video online. A writer volunteered to do that portion of the story, and the editor gave the green light. The writer’s story was about whether as people, we are wired for love.
The principal at Dante elementary school in St Leonard agreed to help; she found the kids (ages 6-8). The parents had already given consent at the beginning of the year for the kids to be interviewed by the media for stories. It was difficult to find fifty children since there simply wasn’t enough time, and in retrospect I think it would’ve been too many. I got what I was expecting: some really amusing stories in response to the one question I asked.
Post production was simple; the biggest challenge was finding the music. I settled on an instrumental piece by Montreal band Plants and Animals ( and they kindly gave permission to use it. Then I had to decide if I should use the names of the kids. After consulting some colleagues and editors, I decided not to show their names in the video for their own protection.
Lessons learned. Pick the music beforehand – finding something appropriate and getting rights can take a long time.

Newspaper Misidentifies Journalist as Terror Suspect

A local French-language Montreal paper today on their website apparently misidentified a Canadian Press reporter, and buddy of mine Sidhartha Banerjee as a terror suspect.   Apparently the page wasn’t up for very long.  What the hell!!


Gazette 3-part Online Documentary: History of Quebec Anglo Exodus.

After four months I finally finished post-production of this short doc, the biggest project I’ve ever worked on in my 14 years in the business. It’s about the history f the Quebec Anglophone exodus from the province, seen through the eyes of 9 people who left Montreal for Western Canada.

The story was generated by writer David Johnstone, and last October The Gazette sent us out west to track down these nine people: Vancouver Island, Vancouver and Calgary. Then we went to Aylmer, Quebec for one other person who moved there after leaving Calgary.


ED Rene.hrAs the photojournalist on this project, my job was to pruduce the visiual part of the story, including the video. When I was briefed on the story, I decided right away that it had to be a documentary, not just a simple video report. There were so many layers to the story and the historicl significance was to important not to delve into it deeply. Having decided that, I had to decide how to structure it, what elements I would need, what information I needed to get from the “subjects,” what questions to ask them. The writer had his own needs for the written portion of the story, and ahd his own set of questions for the interview.

Because of what I needed, I had to call the “subjects” before leaving Montreal, to do pre-interviews to A: help prep them for what I would need, B: get ideas for anything else I could use, and C: get ideas for other questions we could ask during the interview. I even watched a few documentaries to get ideas of what could work.



On the ground, I also had to shoot b-roll, tons of it given that we had nine people to interview. During the interviews, having informed the writer what I needed, I had to pay close attention to the questions. The writer could easily forget questions that I need asked since he is busy dealing with his own questions and his own needs. Also, the answers give me ideas for b-roll, (including archival pictures or old family pictures) and other questions that might suit the needs of the documentary. So after every interview the reporter wold ask if I had other questions or if I needed anything. I can’t afford to forget to ask something. If the writer does he can always make a phone call later. If I forget, I can’t fly back from Montreal to ask the question on camera, so It could create serios problems.

All this to say that team work on projects like this is VITAL. Whenever he had ideas he’d ask my advice or opinion, and vices versa.

For stills I decided to shoot mainly portraits o the subjects, and if editors needed other images I decided to use stills puled from the video. The gear I brought with me: 2 Canon 1D Mk111 still bodies; 1 Canon XHA1 vid cam; 1 tota lamp; 2 umbrellas; 2 Canon 580EX speedlights; 1 Canon 70-200 2.8 lens; 1 Canon 17-35 2.8 lens; lights stands and infra red transmitters, loads of batteries, tapes, extensions cords and a small video tripod.

Then it was time for post production. I shot close to 6 hours of tape, and I certainly had enough material to make an hour-long documentary, but for online purposes I decided to make it half that, chopped into 3 episodes. For editing I had to decide on scoring, find archival images, etc. After some reseach I decided on two Bowser and Blue songs, which they kindly gave me permission to use. Total post-production time was about 1 solid month, spread out over 4 months.

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Lessons learnt: plan everything down to the last detail BEFORE shooting (I could’ve planned better). Be thorough during pre-interviews so the people understand what you need; plan shots carefully so you don’t end up with too much tape; BRING A HEAVY TRIPOD, no matter how much gear you have (had so many problems with the small one I brought; VERY jerky); shoot deails for b-roll (you can’t have too many); don’t forget to manual focus during interviews; PLAN EVERYTHING.

I loved every minte of this project in spite of the many, many frustrations. Would love your critique so I can get better. Thanks.