"Show truth with a camera." Cliff Edom, Missouri Photo Workshop
Updated: Aug 23
The founder of the legendary University of Missouri School of Journalism's Photo Workshops further added, "Ideally, truth is a matter of personal integrity. In no circumstances will a posed or fake photograph be tolerated." These core values are what guided a generation of news photographers throughout a very progressive and productive period in the newspaper and magazine industry for a number of years.
Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a staff photographer at most small, and some large newspapers; those who haven't shuttered the doors completely. Instead, the visual assets that newspapers employ now are becoming mostly video centric. A skill unto itself, admittedly. Daily life is no longer being recorded by a corp of trained visual journalists who document every aspect of their communities through still photos. The art of newspaper photography is in desperate decline. Only a few large media organizations continue the craft.
Newspaper decision-makers have decided that video is much more important than photography. The obvious fact that you can't publish video in "print" illustrates the expected and ultimate demise of the printed newspaper product altogether. How newspapers think they can be competitive in the video market with any of their local TV stations is beyond me. The newspapers can't even afford to by cameras. These are the same decision makers that let startup Craigslist put the first nail in their coffin by destroying the classified section of their newspapers, a very integral part of financing journalism. By now many newspaper owners have depleted most of the news staff (not just photographers), cut salaries and benefits, and sold the institution to hedge funds who drain the remaining profits from the papers, including selling the land the newspapers were built upon. The watchdogs of society have virtually been put out to pasture.
I'm fortunate to have started in the days of film. Black & white film that had to be processed and printed by hand. A photographer's technique in the darkroom was as important as the image itself, even though the image was being printed on poor quality news print. If you were traveling on assignment, you had to carry a darkroom, set it up in your hotel room, develop film, make prints (yes, with an enlarger) and transmit photos with the equivalent of a fax machine over a dedicated phone line. It could take up to an hour to make all that happen, if you were fast. One photo at a time.....
Nowadays, I can shoot, chimp (look at the photos on the camera back) and push a single button to send the file wirelessly to an editor, within seconds of taking the photo. I recall working closely with a Nextel engineer on transmitting photos taken with the first digital cameras, wirelessly using new cell phone technology via cellular data networks (FTP, or File Transfer Protocol as it's now known). That was back in the 90's. Since then, there's been ongoing change in the technical aspects of the industry. Cameras got better, auto-focus took over. We used to have to actually hand-focus a lens, choose a correct exposure, and adjust for correct light balances using filters. ISO's or ASA as we knew it, were limited. Shooting 800 or 1600 speeds were about as high as you could go. Normally, we worked in much lower film speeds due to quality issues. We learned to master light and tried to make art every day.
So I circle back to those words"personal integrity". For me, integrity related to my own photography is very personal. What makes it personal is the importance of truth and the commitment required to do the job. The news industry is not a nine-to-five business. It's not always safe, it's not healthy and some times is absolutely not fun. It takes integrity to endure the routine discomforts associated with the job. Some of us have covered war, disaster, civil unrest and lost friends and colleagues in the process. Although I've come closer to succumbing to the elements covering sports than I did in a combat zone (that I was aware of ) But suffering through these challenges is often awarded with a set of storytelling images that record history and impact lives. To bear witness to others' suffering takes compassion. Something woefully lacking in today's society including the news industry.
If you'd said before the end of my career I'd be shooting with no film, ISO's as high as 10,000 and higher, using auto-focus, and sending my photos instantly through the air from anywhere in the world, I'd probably have laughed. It's not laughable, however. It's true. But along with those technological advances have come pitfalls. Social media has taken center stage and now everyone's a publisher and everyone with a cell phone is a photographer. Good luck finding a real image that is actually truthful, one that's not filtered or toned to death. No-one wants to see the world through the eyes of a trained professional any longer. People scroll through photos as fast as I scroll through the thousand frames I just shot in the first period of a hockey match looking for the few nuggets in the bunch with a puck in the frame..
As I inch slowly towards the end of my currently 40-year career, I look around for the next generation of news photographers. Someone anxious to take up the torch. They are few. And I don't mean the amateurs trying to transition from their day job into being a "sports-shooter". The last newspaper I worked for had more photographers on staff than you will find in the entire state presently. So, in the spirit of speaking truth, I'll say that the sad truth is the industry, as I once knew it has become mostly an online clicks business of sports, entertainment, politics and stock. A numbers game. More is better, quantity over quality. It's a real shame. And that's the Truth as I see it.