It’s an odd thing when the world finally embraces what you do as a necessary skill, then lays you off.
That’s essentially what happened to about 20 photographers who, until this week, worked as photojournalists for the Chicago Sun Times. They will be replaced by iPhone weilding writers, freelancer and citizens armed with various methods of collecting light as pixels.
The layoffs include John Kim, who won a Pulitzer for his work. I guess getting one of the highest honors in journalism isn’t enough to save you.
At the same time you have Quartz, which brings pictures and graphics front and center to create a winning model in a journalism environment that has pushed many publications to the edge. Each story has an enormous image associated with it (usually licensed from the AP or Getty Images) as well as visualizations.
I’ve spent my life studying photography and, at various times, came close to making it a career. I’ve shot Bar Mitzvahs, news events, promotional items and had a few art shows. I’ve used SLRs, medium format, Polaroids, point and shoots, rangefinders and various types of camera phones.
What is often lost in the discussion about photography isn’t just that taking a picture is easy. Yes, it’s easy to capture light on pixels. It’s that taking a picture that tells an accurate story is difficult. This isn’t about the tools, it’s about the people behind the tools. Think about how many Instagram shots of food you’ve seen over the last few years, or selfies. It’s easy to shoot a nice picture of food, the lighting is consistent, it’s not moving and it’s been presented to you in a simple format (same with photographing yourself in a mirror). It’s much more difficult to take an image like the iconic image Sports Illustrated put on its cover after the Boston Marathon Bombings, or the beautiful artistic shot on the front cover of Boston Magazine remembering the same event.
The New York Times has used Instragram on its front page, which is basically an iPhone with lots of software behind it. They’ve also used Instagram for crowdsourcing images from big events, like the storm in February. Even photographers who a few years ago vowed to never give up film can’t resist the pull of digital. I have had a few photos published over the years, mostly stuff taken on film (Polaroid and 35mm) but it all had to be scanned in order to submit. I still pull out my big SLR and get amazing results from it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective camera. The old saying goes, the best camera is the one you have at the moment you need it.
Today, there are millions of cameras at every moment. Just think about the vast number of images the FBI had to work from when investigating the Boston Marathon Bombings. But even with all that information, it took a skilled photographer to truly capture the moment. It took real investigators, not crowds on Reddit, to turn the raw information into usable intelligence.
What does this mean for PR?
The positive for PR (and the part that should concern journalists) is that the need for images combined with the lack of desire to pay for them means more opportunities for our clients to get their messages across. When our client Winston Chen was featured on NPR, the images all came from his blog.
There’s a balance here. Editors aren’t going to run just anything, the image needs to tell the right story, but that’s what PR people do, we take our client’s messages and turn them into stories that people, including journalists, want to share.
It doesn’t matter if we do that with words or images.