Where Have All The Photographers Gone?

They’ve been laid off.

Last summer’s gutting of the entire photo department at the Chicago Sun-Times sent a shock wave through the industry, and shivers down my spine. As a photojournalist with 3 decades in the business, I struggled to rationalize such a big, stupid decision by supposedly smart people. I heard similar horror stories taking place at other papers, mostly in the U.S., and saw snippets of the bloodletting at some Canadian institutions as well.

Fast forward to the early days of 2014, and another bombshell: more layoffs at The Globe And Mail and The National Post, 2 of the largest papers in the country. And in the case of the Globe And Mail, a stunner: out of 5 full time photographers, 3 have lost their jobs. One of them, Peter Power, is not only a friend, but unquestionably one of the most talented people with a camera in the entire country.

So what the hell is going on?

It’s no secret that times are tough in the newspaper biz. Advertising is in freefall, readers get their news fix in a host of different ways, and papers struggle to figure out how to stem the tide. I get that it can’t be easy. I also get that as revenues dry up, you look for ways to save money. What worries me is that lately, photographers are finding themselves in the cross-hairs. I think I am beginning to see why that is, and it’s disturbing.

Time was, back in the old days (like, the 80′s, when I started), photography was kinda magical. We used ‘film’ back then, ‘developed’ the pictures, and got high on fumes from a myriad of different chemicals in the darkroom. Even for amateur photographers, there seemed to be an understanding that professional photographers possessed a skill set they lacked. And life, as a professional newspaper photographer, was good.

Time and technology have brought those 2 worlds closer and closer together. Digital cameras in 2014 boast image quality I could’ve only dreamed of when I was given my first digital camera in 2000. They shoot stills and video, and are the very definition of point-and-shoot simplicity. But they are not the culprit. Smartphones are.

EVERYONE, it seems, has a smartphone. iPhone, Android, Blackberry – doesn’t matter. Along with all the other brilliant tasks they do, they shoot pictures, and video. Very, very well.

Now, everyone is a photographer. Give ‘em a smartphone, a few apps, and away they go. Go to a sporting event, or a spot news event, or practically anything else, and spot the photographers. It won’t be hard – there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them, pointing there phones and capturing it all.

Sometimes this is good. Spot news events are recorded; politicians are held accountable for their actions. The problem is, all these budding photographers have missed one crucial point: the tool in your hand is not what makes you a photographer.

If your smartphone photo is out of focus, or poorly composed, or badly lit, it doesn’t get better just because you shot it on Instagram. It’s just a crappy photo with special effects. The ability to share photos on various social media platforms makes all these pictures readily available to the masses. That still doesn’t necessarily make them good. But if enough people see enough poor pictures enough times, they’ll start to believe. They’ll believe these are good photos, and they’ll believe they can make photos just like that, too.

There is a mindset that these ‘citizen journalists’ can fill the void, that we can somehow eliminate professional photographers and everything will just roll along like it always has. It won’t, of course; quality will suffer, and the readers will be poorer for it. But if our readers have been sufficiently ‘dumbed down’ by the glut of crap passing itself off as good photography on social media every day, will they notice? Or more importantly, will they care?

I hope that there are smart people in positions of authority in newsrooms who see the value of a well lit, in focus, beautifully composed image. Remember, it makes your paper look professional. Just like the professional who took it.