Decades ago, a staff photographer position at a newspaper or magazine was a prestigious rank. Glamorous even. Back then, before the onslaught of television and then much later the Internet, folks learned about the world’s events in the pages of printed publications. Photo magazines published what were literally the only images Americans saw of conflicts and other historic moments around the world. Or so I have read. I’m only 31.
Photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Gordon Parks and others documented such significant moments in history that their photographs remain vital reminders and the lone visual accounts of these world-changing events. The Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement come to mind immediately.
These days, things are obviously much different. It’s not difficult to learn of an event happening on the other side of the globe the very moment it’s actually happening. That’s a wonderful thing in some ways, but it sure has changed the way photographers, especially photojournalists, go about the business of documenting news. It’s changed what we think IS news and it’s changed the pace with which we record and publish the content we collect. And speaking of content, that’s technically what we are now. Content providers, which is a term I’m guessing Bresson would have shuddered at. The goal is more around quantity and efficiency, rather than quality and objectivity. At least it is in the minds of many.
As the staff photographer for a group of six suburban newspapers and a magazine, the assignments I get most often are what I call the three P’s: preconceived, previews or portraits. In other words, we’ve gotten so obsessed in getting information out there fast, we now more times than not prefer to tell folks what’s about to happen instead of what did happen. Documenting life as it occurs has taken a back seat because it doesn’t happen on schedule and on demand. Photographs have become things to “accompany” written articles, and to increase views online with slideshows packed with as many as possible. Quantity rules these days.
Part of this is out of necessity. Small staffs don’t have resources to spend time on more in-depth projects. Part of it is because the business was forced to change because the model it once used to survive is long defunct. Part of it is done simply because we’ve turned our backs on the roots and ethics of the industry.
Certainly, there remain photographers today who still accomplish great things. Salbastio Salgado and James Nachtwey are two of my most admired. Anyone covering war, famine, corruption, crime and any other strife around the world are following the footsteps of photojournalism’s founding fathers. For the rest of us, we spend a lot of time with the three P’s.
I met friends at the Chicago Art Institute recently to see an enormous gallery of Bresson’s photographs. It reminded me there are times in your professional career when you must rededicate yourself to your roots, and ethics, and sharpen your focus. This incredible exhibit RE-opened my eyes to what really matters in my profession. Shooting photographs of uninfluenced moments. Documentation of time. Wherever you are.
So with that, I have posted a photograph I shot from Daley Plaza last week of folks gathering for a Critical Mass bike ride in Chicago. In black and white of course. It is quite simply a moment in time and that is all.