Iraq War, popularity of amateur submissions are furthering the efforts of MSNBC.com and Washingtonpost.com to bring still photography to a wider audience.
Fiery explosion. Bloody face. Dead body. Those words bring certain images to your mind, especially when reading a story on war. But they can't compete by a long shot with the actual images of war. A recent online photo gallery on Washingtonpost.com's Camera Works, titled "Eyes on the War," makes that perfectly clear. The excellent presentation includes the audio stories of 24 photographers from various agencies and news organizations, which play alongside a selection of their moving photos.
Some top news sites are rekindling their love of still photography, and their readers are leading the way. While multimedia producers have been pushing video and audio technology, the public is more intent on stepping back and seeing the big picture, literally. The BBC News Online has allowed people to submit their own photos to the news mix since last March. It has given cameras to people so they can capture their everyday life, and has even put up calls for photo assignments to the public.
Simultaneously, the demand to see "Photos of the Day" or "The Week in Pictures" slide shows shot by professionals has skyrocketed on top news sites. Washingtonpost.com's photo pages account for 10 to 20 percent of site traffic, and it saw a 164 percent boost in page views of multimedia between January and March (due to the war and shuttle disaster). MSNBC.com had 1.5 million visitors daily viewing slide shows during the Iraq War. While Jeff Birkeland, Yahoo News senior producer, won't give particular numbers, he calls the site's photo displays "extremely popular."
And the subject matter of online photo galleries often is not what you'd see in newspapers, on TV or even in magazines. War photos are much more graphic, and many galleries show scenes of utter poverty and despair in Africa, Asia and South America. When the U.S. released grisly photos of Saddam Hussein's dead sons, most news sites ran them while their print counterparts were much more hesitant.
The Iraq factor
Andrew Locke, MSNBC.com's multimedia honcho, was an online journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the days before the Web, on Prodigy. He says slide shows and big photos have been online for years, but that the Iraq War proved to be "the biggest watershed" by bringing a huge number of eyeballs. "It used to be a niche thing done for photographers only," he told me. "Now, finally, mainstream big news operations like ours are taking still photojournalism seriously."
The war in Iraq, and a focus on the Net, gave broadcasters such as CNN, NBC and ABC the impetus to look at still photography. Locke notes that CNN even hired noted photographer David Turnley. "We had embeds, and satellite phones, and digital videocameras, and laptops and live video of ground combat halfway around the world for the first time ever," he said, "Despite that, a lot of people -- first the public and then the mass media -- woke up to the fact that still photography was a really powerful way to tell that story."
Locke said that during the war, photo slide shows ranked as either the first, second or third most popular pages each day on MSNBC.com (itself the top-rated news site, according to Nielsen//NetRatings). What was it about photos that attracted people during the war? Perhaps with so much shaky information about what was happening, people wanted to see something solid, believable.
"In some ways, it feels more real with a still photograph," Locke said. "You look at the dust that's collected on a soldier's M-16, you can see a tear running down his face, crystallized there. With video that might just be a fleeting moment.... There's a clarity to a story, especially on a computer screen with the luminosity, that freezes a moment in excruciating detail."
But can you make a living?
One of the biggest problems for still photographers is a steep drop in pay for photojournalism work. Freelance photo editor Scott Braut blames the poor economy and the money-conscious large news organizations for putting the squeeze on photogs' pay and eroding digital rights. As one freelance photographer told him recently, "I'm not going to take $25,000 worth of equipment to an event for $100 [for a newspaper]."
Locke says it's hard to turn around a problem of supply (too many good photographers) and demand (too few outlets). Still, he's determined to pay photographers what their work is really worth and not just what they could get for it. "Very few of us on the Web are paying real money for photos," he admits.
Tom Kennedy is the managing editor for multimedia at Washingtonpost.com and the founder of Camera Works. He's a former photo editor at National Geographic, and moved over to the Web in 1998 because he saw it as the most likely medium to save photojournalism as a force for communication. He told me that the standard of living for photojournalists has "palpably declined" and that it's tougher to make a living now in editorial freelancing than ever before. I asked him how much big news organizations had contributed to that. His answer: "I think a lot."
"Photography's been devalued as a mechanism of expression with increasingly less resources devoted to it," Kennedy said. "Basically that's enabled photojournalism to whither on the vine in print. I don't want to claim victory yet [on the Web]. We're just in the top of the first inning. I hope we can light the way and point the direction, help fuel a resurgence of photojournalism. There aren't a lot of outlets yet. But it's important we find an economic model for Web journalism."
Kennedy has shifted most of his small staff of video and photo producers (who actually shoot original material) mainly to video because of the vast amount of photos he gets from the Post and wire photographers. MSNBC and other sites are in a similar numbers game. In fact, MSNBC's Locke says his staff wades through 25,000 photos each week to choose the 10 that make "The Week in Pictures," which are then voted on by readers. Birkeland said the Yahoo News editorial team sees a virtual "fire hose" of news photos each day from the portal's many wire services and partners.
Longtime photojournalist Dirck Halstead, who runs The Digital Journalist e-zine, calls Camera Works "the clear winner" out of the top 24-hour news sites. "Its problem is that like all photo sections in online versions of the newspapers, it tends to get buried, so a lot of it never gets seen," he said via e-mail. "Most people go to the Post online edition to get their front page news fix, and have a short attention span."
Cheap and plentiful
One thing that might not help for pros is the advent of participatory journalism, where anyone with a cheap digital camera or even a video-enabled phone can send in a picture to a news outlet for publication. The BBC News Online has been aggressive with its "In Pictures" section, soliciting personal photographs from readers -- as well as on-the-scene shots. The site is running a new feature called Photo Assignment, and is asking for photo essays from the public in the run-up to World AIDS Day on December 1. How much will people get paid? For the most part, nothing.
But Phil Coomes, picture editor at BBC News Interactive, doesn't see it as a clash with professional use of pictures. "It's an extra dimension and allows interaction with our readers at new levels," he said via e-mail. " As for the advent of camera phones, the BBC sees a lot of breaking news opportunities. "As these become widely available and people carry them everywhere, then we will see big stories broken via the public's pictures," Coomes said. "Indeed, many great news pictures in history have been taken by amateurs -- it's just that now they can transmit them in ways only the pros with expensive [equipment] were able to in the past."
Kennedy and Locke praised the BBC's efforts and said they were impressed with its polished results. But Locke warned that taking in reader photos would present a difficulty for his strapped staff, having to wade through even more photos. And Kennedy pointed out that the credibility of amateur photographers would have to be carefully scrutinized. Photo editor Braut puts it best: "Thankfully, and to their credit, being a professional photojournalist means more than simply having a camera in your hand."
Perhaps the explosion of digital cameras and camera phones in the hands of amateurs will give them a better appreciation of the hard work of photojournalists. And maybe that could lead to a renaissance in photography in general. As photos on news sites gain in popularity, and users gain the power to add to the visual dialogue, perhaps the Web can bring back photojournalism as a force for change.