Donald Winslow was interviewed by the New York Times for an article titled "The Uncertain Future of Photojournalism" on February 15th. The article should be read here, but I will boil it down to several bullet points:
- a lot has changed
- the internet affords editors the ability to source local talent, saving money by settling on whomever was atop Google search results
- there's less money because of the state of media
- photography has been devalued
- global communications expanded the knowledge of resource pools
- the photography industry was gutted by the greed of bottom-line watchers
- fewer staff photographer jobs, and all photographers required to do more (video, audio, etc)
- fewer assignments due to stock agencies
- "only the rich kids get to play at photojournalism."
- the opportunities are greater but there are no patrons to support photojournalists as in the Renaissance
- only a few can afford to do photojournalism and earn a living at it until the business model changes
- Stock sales are 1/100th what they used to be
- Things must change for photojournalism to survive, and few people who are in the profession earn a living from it
In a follow up article, equal weight was given to someone with a small fraction of experience and perspective on the industry. The author of the piece called the Winslow article "pessimistic", and I had to revisit the definition for that word, which is defined as "tending to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen." The points above are accurate and depressing facts, but they're not debatable, they're facts, with, perhaps, the editorialization of #9.
The article was in question, on the same NYT LENS blog platform "Photojournalism’s Uncertain Future? She Begs to Differ", which you should read here is filled with ill-conceived opinion by Ms. Leslye Davis, an employee on staff who shoots video and still photography.
Following the publication of the Winslow interview, the questioner describes someone who "came into the Lens office" - and that's where it starts. Described as "a young video journalist and photographer for The New York Times", means Ms. Davis first has a paycheck from one of the highest paying newspapers in the country. For reference, according to the New York Newspaper Guild's 2003 contract (here ), which was effective through 2011, a photographer with 2 or more years of experience would earn a minimum of $1,777.83 every two weeks up to $1,955.54 for a Bureau Photographer. That's a salary, before benefits, of $46,223, to start - she's likely paid much more. That's an awfully enriched position from which, as the title of the article suggests "Photojournalism’s Uncertain Future? She Begs to Differ" - "beg" to differ. She stated she started as an intern at the age of 21, and then was hired on full time. And here, she's going to opine on the state of an industry she has experienced only a sliver of, from the position of staff photographer who doesn't rely on the dwindling rates paid to non-staff photographers? So, let's walk through everything that's been written, with the understanding that, as the author, James Estrin notes "Her conversation with James Estrin has been edited for clarity and brevity." What it clearly was not edited for, was accuracy, Leslye Davis is operating from, as our current administration has coined the phrase, a set of alternative facts.
Below is the Q&A exchange, interspersed with commentary and criticisms, and on a rare occasion, an agreement or two.
ESTRIN: What brought you into the Lens office a few minutes ago?COMMENTARY: Davis, who grew up mostly in Kentucky, the daughter of a school teacher, is a WKU alumni, one of the most difficult and prestigious schools for photojournalists.
DAVIS: I got an email from a Western Kentucky University photojournalism student.
DAVIS: She wrote: “I just read this article from The NY Times. It’s about the unstable career of photojournalism. After reading it my fears resurfaced of not feeling confident in the career I’m investing a lot of time and money into, especially if it means being able to barely provide my daily needs with the pay.COMMENTARY: This students fears should have never left, they should have always been front of mind. The student is right that they are "investing a lot of ...money" and she's right to fear being "able to barely provide my daily needs with the pay." Winslow did not dance around this point, he made it clearly.
DAVIS: What is your opinion on the future of photojournalism? Did you have the same fear when you were a student?”COMMENTARY: I hardly think that Davis is of the position that she has more insights into the future of photojournalism than Winslow. Winslow has been photographer, editor, served on a national board of the NPPA, and otherwise been in the trenches for decades. Why would Davis have a more informed or insightful opinion or even more facts than Winslow?
ESTRIN: So what are you going to tell her?COMMENTARY: So, from an email inquiry, she's just going to offer the blanket statement that her future is bright? Why is she making this promise? Allaying very real fears with a platitude?
DAVIS: I’m going to tell her she has a bright future ahead of her ...
DAVIS: … that there are more opportunities than ever before, especially for women, especially for minorities. She is both.COMMENTARY: There are NOT more opportunities that meet the test this student was asking for to " provide my daily needs". The opportunities largely exist to work for free, or for "photo credit", not that will provide for her daily needs for revenue. Further, to the question about the financial viability of the profession, the question about opportunities for women and minorities, while true, is irrelevant to the question, but again, it's a platitudinal sentiment at best.
DAVIS: Some of the points in the article were right, but the overall message about the uncertain future of photojournalism was wrong and it spoke more to what photojournalism used to be than of what it’s becoming.COMMENTARY: Incorrect. There wasn't a single fact in the article that was wrong. In fact the premise - that it's "uncertain" is accurate. Further, the message and points too was painfully accurate. It offered a history lesson and facts about the state of the industry today. Facts cannot be wrong. 15 is still bigger than 5.
What's troubling, (and Davis ignored Estrin's question about fear) is that, in an interview here Davis expresses her own fears on this same topic of money, writing "I’ve always had an intense irrational fear of student loan debt" yet she's allaying these same fears in a fellow WKU student. That's just plain irresponsible. Especially so when she's making upwards of $50k in salary, and is provided with all the equipment she needs to do her job. Estrin notes in his interview with Winslow "The difficulty of making a living has skewed the profession away from people who are working-class or poor" to which Winslow affirms that and responds "That hurts diversity and hinders coverage..." and notes that a "bag of gear today would probably cost you $25,000".
ESTRIN: What is so exciting about her future?COMMENTARY: I'd like to think that Estrin, a self-avowed optimist, here is asking a question, if he's being honest with himself, he knows should be answered more along the lines of Winslow's answers, "the bottom line is, can you pay your bills at the end of the month?...Are you going to pin your mortgage payment on getting an Alicia Patterson grant? Or a Robert F. Kennedy Award?"
DAVIS: Newspapers and journalism in general are excited about visuals.COMMENTARY: Yes, they are excited about visuals. This is a superfluous and pandering comment. Even before cameras existed, newspapers used visuals and were excited about them. Here's a visual in the New York Herald from 1836, the year before the camera was invented.
DAVIS: If you look at The New York Times 2020 report, the first point is that the report needs to be more visual.
COMMENTARY: Yes, and within that same point, it affirms the importance - primarily so in some cases, "We also need to become more comfortable with our photographers, videographers and graphics editors playing the primary role covering some stories, rather than a secondary role." Yet, step outside of the staff offices of the NYT, and the reporters in many cases think they can take the photos, and the reporters in most cases, are paid more. From a database of rates, here a reporter in 2014 is paid $700 flat, for "1,000 words. It required plenty of quotes from different sources. The photographs were taken by a professional. They purchased first global rights but the contract included a 1-month exclusivity period in which I could not re-sell the article. I didn't think one month was that big a deal when I submitted the contract, but lord was I wrong. Through the NYT syndicate, the article was re-sold practically everywhere in that time." That professional photographer was paid about half of what that writer was paid, according to standard NYT freelance rates, and while that $700 rate surely varies, not so much for the "day rate" the NYT pays freelancers.
DAVIS: The gear necessary to shoot well and the platforms on which to distribute the content you’re creating are more accessible by the day. At bare minimum, we’re all carrying hi-res recording and viewing devices around in our pockets.COMMENTARY: The "gear necessary to shoot well" is not "more accessible by the day", because it's getting more expensive as pay for the same workload increases. Winslow noted "Now they’re being asked to produce video, audio and slide shows, too, while being paid the same amount." Colleagues who previously could capture "wild sound" are being asked to capture audio like NPR. And as to platforms, Ms. Davis has given a great deal of interviews on varying platforms and news outlets about her experiences, but she's distributing on one - the NYT platform. And platforms like YouTube are beginning to charge (for example, YouTube Red) and other platforms are moving away from free offerings towards ones that, ahem, charge to use. Again, accessible is not just the existence of a platform, but also the ability for the photojournalist to be able to use it and that gets incrementally harder as they charge more when pay is stagnant, or, factoring in inflation, buying power is declining.
DAVIS: Now we can be the authors and tell our stories.COMMENTARY: In a 2014 interview here, some 3 years ago, Ms. Davis opined when asked about her typical day at the NYT, she says she gets pitched from a journalist, "do a lot of research...Then I’ll do more research, I’ll map out the logistics, get a budget ready, and say, “Here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s how long I’m going to be there,” and ask if that sounds okay. I’ll hop on a plane or I’ll rent a car, and go."
She's therefore telling the stories of other journalists, on the budget of the NYT, without worrying about how her rent is going to be paid for however long she's "going to be there" on assignment.
ESTRIN: That was my issue as a newspaper photographer until at least 2004: I didn’t get to be the storyteller. Even if it was my idea, I was illustrating someone else’s words. As we got audio, and video, and it became accepted that a photographer could write, then I could be the author.
DAVIS: Exactly. We have voices. We can dig up the story, weave the narrative and make it beautiful.COMMENTARY: No, not "exactly". The voice is that of the NYT, and to the extent that the voice of the reporter serves the financial interests (page views, video plays, etc) and the goals of the NYT, the voice of the reporter can be amplified by the NYT.
So Davis, as the author now, it seems, comes up with an idea, researches it as she did when she was getting pitched from other journalists, and then now pitches it herself and so it seems that this workflow still applies - "I’ll map out the logistics, get a budget ready, and say, “Here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s how long I’m going to be there,” and ask if that sounds okay. I’ll hop on a plane or I’ll rent a car, and go."
Again, when she returns from having "hop[ped] on a plane" her heat will still be on, no eviction notices under her door alongside paltry checks from editorial clients who pay in 60, 90, or 120 days that won't cover the rent and are late, alongside of credit card bills which accrued interest after 30 days because the client hasn't paid yet.
ESTRIN: I remember you telling me that when you went to Western Kentucky as a student you thought you were the worst photographer in the class.COMMENTARY: It seems this question is designed to illustrate to other people who think they are poor photographers, that they too, with enough hard work, is sure to also land a job at the NYT.
DAVIS: I was terrible. Some other students were inherently talented when it came to composing a well-framed photo or understanding light. It was only through sheer force of will that I got any better. I really had to put in the hours to understand and learn.COMMENTARY: There were 2,078 graduates in Spring of 2012, the year Ms. Davis graduated, 410 within the same "Bachelor of Arts" degree category as hers. In looking at their 2014 ciricculum (here) there's not a single course required on how to manage a freelance photography business. Remarkably, according to US News, the 4-year graduation rate (here) at WKU is just 27%, and according to a 2015 report (here) they graduated just 35 students in the WJU photojournalism program.
DAVIS: But the reason I was drawn to the field wasn’t because I wanted to be the best photographer in the world — I do want to be good because light and composition and moments are what move people in an image — but I don’t think those elements are more important than the story itself. And I was always drawn to the stories.COMMENTARY: These are all wonderful sentiments where Ms. Davis opines about Davis, her motivations and what she's drawn to, but they are irrelevant to the state of photojournalism. They are biased anecdotal insights at best.
DAVIS: There are so many great examples of people who have crossed that threshold and been successful. They are making beautiful images, but they’ll also make video, make podcasts, write, whatever it takes to get the message across.COMMENTARY: How do you define "so many"? It relative? Is 1% of a population "so many?" As a noun it's defined (here) as "the majority of", whereas as a determiner, pronoun, or adjetive, it's "a large number of". The US population is 309 million people. Of that population 124,900 are photographers, according to the US Department of Labor (here) who, by the way, make a median income of $31,710 a year, and which the US Department of Labor notes about job prospects "Salaried jobs may be more difficult to find as more companies contract with freelancers rather than hire their own photographers." Within her industry, there are only 3,150 jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are 138,000,000 jobs seasonally adjusted in the US, which is 2.3-thousandths of a percent of jobs that are for photographers in her industry. So, it's not clear what data Ms. Davis was relying on to advise her fellow WKU photojournalism colleague that her future was "bright."
How do you define "successful?" it could be (according to Google) "accomplishing an aim or purpose", or, more likely in this story, since we are not talking about whether or not photojournalism can accomplish something, but rather, the state of the industry as viable, "having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction". Again, the article she was responding to was discussing whether or not the field is one where the participants can pay their bills, so let's focus on the second word, "profit."
ESTRIN: Like who?
DAVIS: To name a few: Maisie Crow, an incredibly talented still photographer who has been working on a documentary about the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi for years now.
DAVIS: Marcus Yam, who apparently just won Newspaper Photographer of the Year in POYi — he was also awarded a World Press Multimedia Award and an Emmy in 2011 for a short doc that was a combination of stills, audio and video. And for that he was working on a team. That’s important. That very independent approach that we’re taught in photojournalism school can be the best (and only) way in some situations. But I mostly find that working alone is to the detriment of the project.
DAVIS: Also look at Liz Baylen, Malin Fezehai, Tim Hussin, Erin Brethauer, Zana Briski, Chad Stevens, Bayeté Ross Smith … I could make you a list that’s pages long.COMMENTARY: A "list that's pages long" of photographers "who have crossed that threshold and been successful"? No, that list, at that length, does not and cannot exist.
ESTRIN: What have photographers lost and what have we gained during this period of change in the media?
DAVIS: The fact of the matter is 20 years ago our field was largely inaccessible to minorities, women and foreigners.
DAVIS: Shooting high-quality video was an expensive, niche market.
DAVIS: Finding inspiration in our field required a trip to the library, a newspaper subscription....
DAVIS: .... and frankly, special admission to the (mostly) boys club.
DAVIS: Now when you open your phone, you have access to recording tools, online connections, and a constant stream of inspiration and information that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago.
DAVIS: Do people have to make compromises? Absolutely.
DAVIS: Does it mean you’re selling out if you have to learn to use a tripod or how to record audio without peeking? No way. It’s just a skill, like your camera is just a tool. Our mission should be to connect people and tell their stories and you’re in a better position to do that now than ever before.COMMENTARY: Again, irrelevant anecdotal experiences and not relevant to the state of the profession.
DAVIS: If there’s something I worry about losing, it’s a commitment from some news outlets to ensure that the images they publish are coming from reliable sources.
DAVIS: Also, it’s true that the inundation of visuals that we all come across daily makes us prone to desensitization. But I don’t foresee that changing, so why waste time lamenting it? The caliber of work required to capture and maintain someone’s attention is at a higher standard, but that just means the stakes have been raised.COMMENTARY: Ms. Davis is suggesting that lamenting a desensitization by a daily inundation of visuals is a waste of time? Perhaps the National Institutes of Health should tell all the PHd's and doctors who investigated (here - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4522002/ ) this "Desensitization to Media Violence: Links With Habitual Media Violence Exposure, Aggressive Cognitions, and Aggressive Behavior" should just delete the article and work on something more important? The findings are somewhat alarming, but, well, Ms. Davis suggests we should not "waste time lamenting it."
DAVIS: What we’ve gained is personal insight into communities from insiders. In the past people might not have been connected enough to tell their own stories. Now they can.COMMENTARY: Ms. Davis believes that personal insight from insiders is a gain? Perhaps, but not always - often the neutral perspective of an outsider coming in garners a more objective perspective on the story. Ms. Davis certainly isn't an insider in the field of freelance photojournalism nor the state of the field of photojournalism as a whole. She was able to be "connected enough to tell their own stor[y]" to Mr. Estrin by walking into his office in the same building she works in. Now she has, and it's done a serious disservice to her WKU colleague, and the industry as a whole.
DAVIS: The Internet makes sharing and receiving stories all the easier.
DAVIS: Some people see it as a detriment that we’re not sending journalists all over the world, but to me, that’s a positive sign about the opportunities that have been made available to journalists within their own communities. Locals are connected to their community, they know what they’re doing there, and they speak the language.
ESTRIN: So you are going to get more and different voices?
DAVIS: More different voices and it’s just financially smarter. It would be ridiculous for newspapers to regularly send a photographer across the world, hire a fixer to help translate for them, pay all their expenses. And this goes for video too. It’s a much smarter strategy to employ people who are closer to the places they work.
DAVIS: Also, when it comes to understanding deep-rooted issues like conflict, poverty, inequality, we often have people who’ve never personally experienced any of that strife documenting this stuff from a hundred feet away. This field tends to weed out the poor students because of their need for stability and that’s so unfortunate. It’s valuable to promote the people who understand the struggles they’re documenting.COMMENTARY: Well, this goes to Mr. Winslow's editorialized point about "rich kids" in the field of freelance photojournalism, and she seems to agree with him. Yet, while she sees that " It’s valuable to promote the people who understand the struggles they’re documenting" it's not worthwhile enough to pay them a living wage? Is she suggesting that the only way to understand being poor is if you too are currently poor too? One can only cover a terror attack in Paris if you've been the victim yourself of a terror attack? Where does the poor analogies by Ms. Davis end?
ESTRIN: There are old ways in photography that have died. And it’s very hard to make a living.COMMENTARY: This is a pandering question - just like there are no more chimney sweeps, as Winslow pointed out in his interview.
DAVIS: In some sense, you’re choosing to be a journalist and/or an artist. And it’s true that those are not necessarily well-paid fields. If you feel drawn to telling stories, in my eyes it’s a worthy trade.COMMENTARY: There is no honor in living the "starving artist" creedo. In 2007 I wrote (here - http://photobusinessforum.blogspot.com/2007/01/ready-proud-starving-artist.html ) The Proud Starving Artist. It's not a worthy trade, yet, from all accounts, Ms. Davis has little personal experience in less than well-paid fields, her income is protected (rightly so) by the NY Newspaper Guild.
DAVIS: That said, I’m a single person who’s not trying to raise a family.
DAVIS: I do find the rates that some freelancers have to work for very low and especially for my friends who are committed to working exclusively in journalism and not taking advertising jobs for ethical reasons.
DAVIS: I came of age after the so-called golden age of photojournalism. I have a question: What, to you, is the difference between now and then?
ESTRIN: There are fewer editorial assignments, there are far fewer — mostly poor paying — newspaper jobs. It was never an easy field. And documentarians never made money — they’re probably better off now.
ESTRIN: But, I think in many ways it’s a golden era for photographers now. There used to be a few dozen gatekeepers, editors or curators who decided whether you succeeded or not. Today you can bypass the gatekeepers and publish directly to your own audience. There were a few hundred people, mostly white men, who could make a good living internationally by parachuting into other countries. It wasn’t a very diverse bunch.
DAVIS: Yeah, all I can say is let that die. When I was in photojournalism school I had an identity crisis because almost every photographer I admired or we talked about in class was a white man with a head of white hair and a great big beard.
DAVIS: Occasionally there was a Caroline Cole or Barbara Davidson but typically women we discussed covered conflicts. It seemed the only way to carve out a path for yourself, as a woman in this field, was to go out into the war zones as if to say, ‘I can do anything a man can do.’ But you should be able to be a woman in photojournalism and tell stories from your unique perspective. You should be published, and you should also be able to do that if you’re black and you live in sub-Saharan Africa. Or if you’re Indian, or if you’re Japanese— your unique perspective is valuable, and it’s to the benefit of us all that it be shared.
ESTRIN: When I was your age I walked door to door with my portfolio and I was lucky if maybe the secretary would take it, you know, because I didn’t have the connections. And if this small group of people didn’t say, “yes, you can come in,” then you couldn’t come in.
DAVIS: This is why I love the Internet, Jim. The door’s wide open. Lots of people are rushing through, though, so you better be good.
ESTRIN: How old are you now?
ESTRIN: I’ve known you for five years.
DAVIS: I know. I’ve been here since I was 21. I’m a product of this newspaper.
DAVIS: When I was accepted for the New York Times internship, I was thrilled but I did not expect to get hired here full time. I started here as an intern on the multimedia team which we no longer have. I think “multimedia” is a culture that’s seeped into The New York Times visually across the board. But when I started, there were only a few of us that did photos and videos. And then I was hired into photo. After a year I was moved to video.
ESTRIN:. You can write, you can photograph, you can do video, You can do VR. It’s a little hard though, in truth, to do many things at the same time.
DAVIS: Right, I know what you mean. It’s very hard. This job is supposed to be hard though. The thing I always consider is that I never want the gear or the shooting to get in the way of connecting with that person and thinking through the story. And that’s why it’s good to work on teams. If I had my way I would work with a cinematographer all the time.
DAVIS: It’s hard for small newspapers that have photographers go out and shoot and edit a video story and do stills in one day. That’s just too much. And you’re going to get mediocre product across the board.
DAVIS: We’re a newspaper with more resources than most people have. And we get more time on stories than most journalists. I realize we are lucky here.COMMENTARY: this is probably the biggest understatement of this article.
ESTRIN: What do you think are the effects of photography becoming so widespread?COMMENTARY: NO, not everyone is a "writer" or a "photographer". Just because you can write, doesn't make you a writer worthy of the NYT. Ask your editors. And just because you can take a photo doesn't mean the NYT will publish them. There are countless people who fancy themselves writers online, who's only readers are their family members and close friends.
DAVIS: Before pens and paper were accessible people were carving their ideas into stone tablets. I bet when pen and paper came along the writers were skulking around grumpy like, “now everybody thinks they’re a writer.” Well, everybody is a writer. And everybody is a photographer. And there should be no ill will on that matter. If there’s a story that’s happening in the middle of nowhere North Dakota and there’s nobody there to cover it except for John Doe with his iPhone, then thank God for John Doe with his iPhone. In terms of being able to share information and stories, we’re in a great position right now.
ESTRIN: It’s the democratization of photography.COMMENTARY: The "democratization of photography" isn't necessarily good. While some might suggest that a democratization of an industry (whether it be writing, or photography) is the commonization of that industry away from academics or the priviledged, that is not necessarily good. An academic will distill disparate insights and apply history to their output. And, well, I can't see far enough back in time to a point where "the priviledged" are the journalists and photographers. Yet, as Winslow suggests, that era may be soon arriving.
DAVIS: I do believe all these changes will continue to promote people who traditionally have not been empowered. And I hope that editors will hire with intentionality.
DAVIS: The best advice I can give to young visual journalists is that things are always going to be changing. Change with them. People are always going to get discouraged. Encourage them. Maybe one day they’ll do the same for you. There are always going to be stories to tell. Maybe right now more than ever before.
* Correction: A previous version of this article referenced an outdated job position for Marcus Yam, as a freelancer for the New York Times. He currently is on staff at the Los Angeles Times. The post has been updated to reflect this updated position. We can only hope he remains on staff.
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