Photojournalists Scramble to Video. Is it Worth It?
by Amanda Lin Costa, April 24, 2012
Few can say they didn't see it coming. but many felt the final nail in the coffin was firmly in place when at the end of 2011 CNN fired 50 photojournalists. The international news network explained its decision in a letter: We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company. What exactly led up to this is point is hard to pinpoint; it's a chicken-or-egg situation. Some might say it began with the lowered cost of DSLR cameras or the fact that every cell phone began to come with a camera. Another camp will point fingers at the steady decline of the newspaper industry and its inability to maintain exclusivity as the daily go-to for information, leading to a shift of quantity over quality. Add to that the crash of world economies, and the result is that photojournalists have been losing their jobs to mass layoffs for the last few years. But many are rallying and turning on the video function on their DSLR cameras and becoming video journalists. PHOTOGRAPHERS LEARNING VIDEO One successful photojournalist who early on made the transition to video is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vincent Laforet. He told me that when he was growing up, he wanted to study both journalism and film. "I picked journalism in the end and
am happy I did so. When the Canon 5D MKII came out -- it seemed to be the perfect timing to make the transition for me," he said. Laforet dove into video early on when the technology presented itself and has made a name in the video world. He is now a member of the Directors Guild of America. I also spoke with two photojournalists currently incorporating video into their reporting, Ana Elisa Fuentes and Julie Dermansky. Ana Elisa Fuentes' photography has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Life, Vanity Fair, People Magazines and the Los Angeles Times, and Julie Dermansky has been working with The Atlantic, US News, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post. I asked them why they first started shooting video, what difference they find between photojournalism and video, and what they think of the current market for photojournalists. Ana Elisa Fuentes: Clearly the market for photojournalism, at least in the United States, is shrinking -- specifically, the day-in-and-day-out photojournalism as seen in daily newspapers and magazines. This is very sad, and I see this as perilous and injurious to democracy. Journalists are the fourth estate, part of the check and balance of our democratic process. Images are essential to an open society. The most profound difference for me between video and photography is in "still" -in photography, you can wait for hours for the right moment. The waiting requires patience, for what Henri Cartier Bresson coined as "the decisive moment." When you have captured this moment, everything comes together. I believe having more tools available in the tool box is essential for photographers or anyone in visual media. I also believe photographers have to become more creative in how still images can be used or sold. I often recommend up-and-coming journalists to think "packaging." What languages do you speak? How many? Polish your writing skills. Acquire multimedia skills. Your office is your laptop -- update, update, update." Julie Dermansky: I started out as an artist showing my work in galleries and selling it on the streets of NYC in 1988. In 2004, I switched my focus from painting and sculpture to photography. I branched out from my in-depth personal projects into the realm of photojournalism in 2008. Labeling myself an artist or a
photojournalist is of no consequence to me. I leave that for others. I started to learn video when I went to Iraq in 2008 and started to make a habit of shooting video along with my stills using a Canon 5D MKII in 2010. Technically, photography and video require some of the same skills. The hardest thing sometimes is to decide whether to shoot video or stills -- often by doing both you can end up with work that is not as good as it should be. It is very hard to go back and forth, and inevitably you will miss the still you wish you would have taken -- or missed the moment of action you wanted to film. So generally, I shoot stills first and video once I'm done, though I don't always stick with that standard. Emotionally, that has more to do with the situation than the media. Both are fantastic tools to work with. I have worked with a cameraman and produced video news packages from Iraq, so I picked up tips from him. Working with a pro in the editing phase taught me a lot of what is needed to make a news package. This is a terrible market for photojournalists since so many photographers are willing to give their work away for free. Media outlets have started to rely on the free stuff. There is a small number of photojournalists who are able to continue to make a living, but the whole marketplace seems to deliver lower and lower paychecks -- and there are fewer jobs. Crowdsourcing and free photos are lowering the bar of quality as well. Some talented members of the photography community have had to drop out to make a living in a different way. Shooting video helps keep a photographer marketable as news media wants both stills and film these days, and they want it for one price. If you can't do it, they take someone who can. Also, in the commercial world, video commands higher fees than stills, so for practical purposes video shooting is a skill one needs to have to survive. Not to learn it is to limit yourself. You should take advantage of all available tools at your disposal. That is how I see it."
DO PHOTOJOURNALISTS MAKE GOOD VIDEO JOURNALISTS? Adam Westbrook, a multimedia producer who writes and lectures on the subject of video journalism, believes there are many pitfalls to be avoided when photographers move into video. He even wrote a guide to common mistakes. Some include: forgetting the importance of audio or not using a tripod when needed and, most importantly, understanding "show, don't tell" as a principle of visual storytelling. As he aptly says, "Five years after YouTube's birth there's probably not a newsroom in the land that isn't trying to do video journalism in some way or another." Some of the mistakes Westbrook points out can be avoided with proper training, but that appears to be something many employers are not willing to pay for. As early as 2009, the question of whether or not newspapers would be willing to train their photographers to become video journalists was being investigated by Blake Kimzey for Black Star Rising: "Training for photojournalists in video varies from newspaper to newspaper -- but at many papers, it's been spotty at best. Most photographers say sufficient training and the time to learn are seldom provided. While some newspapers send their staffers to attend industry conferences, and others offer in-house courses, many staffers say they mostly learn through trialand-error on the job."
This appears to still be a problem -- as Sean D. Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), recently told me: "Unfortunately for our members, the publications have been wanting the video, but they have not generally been willing to pay for the training. Many visual journalists have paid their own ticket to attend NPPA's many video and multimedia workshops." Elliot said that the advent of web video and multimedia led the NPPA to reconfigure many of their educational programs some years back. "This was in the era when newspapers everywhere were looking at web video as the salvation of their operations. Time has shown that nobody has been able to monetize web video well enough for it to be any sort of saving grace," he said. "Many papers have either eliminated or curtailed their web video efforts. Some chose to focus on doing less video but doing it better, and some have simply dropped any semblance of quality, opting instead for short snippets of video shot by reporters with smartphones or Flip-type cameras. The jury is still out on where this will fit into the long-term journalism paradigm." Laforet has some wise advice for photographers interested in learning video: "It's a very different field -- and not for everyone. I recommend they try it out first before making the commitment. I recommend they study the competition and the economics of the field they are going into. Just as there are many different subfields and specialties and budgets in photography -- the same is true of video. It's a bold move, but one that many should at the very least try, in my opinion."
DOES LEARNING VIDEO PROVIDE ANY KIND OF JOB SAFETY? I tried to track down an official study of how many photojournalists had lost their jobs in the last few years in the U.S. NPPA didn't know exact figures, and Kenny Irby, a senior faculty member at Poynter, said he didn't know of any study offering numeric data. He explained that collecting such data took a great deal of resources and money, something scarce these days. "We know that staff sizes and the number of 'feet on the street' reporters are way down," he added. In an article on Poynter in 2009, photographer Ami Vitale, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek, Time and Smithsonian, was optimistic about her experience with video: "This is the best time to be a photojournalist. We have more tools available than ever before, and we also have an audience bigger than any time in the history of mankind ... I see this as a wonderful time to exploit all these tools for the power of good!" Yet in an interview earlier this year, Dan Chung, a photo and video journalist and founder of the popular website DSLRNewsShooter, said, "I don't really see a future in photojournalism, if I'm completely honest, as a way to earn a living. But also there are a lot of creative opportunities with moving images that you couldn't possibly dream of doing with stills. I'm surprised, though, that relatively few other photographers have made that conversion."
But with the cell phones in everyone's pocket being equipped with HD video capability, will free crowdsourced material just take over video journalism as well?
Laforet gave a nuanced answer: "I'm afraid so. But not to the same degree. The production hurdles and the amount of work involved in getting a good video piece out (pre-production, script, storyboarding, editing, music, mixing, grading, etc.) makes it more complex than making a single photograph. It's very hard for most to do all of these specialties alone -- it almost demands working with others and therefore becomes more complex and, more often than not, more expensive." It looks like the term "visual journalist" will become a common phrase. "The move to online has been, arguably, a boon to visual journalism as far as the potential audience is concerned, but obviously the challenges that the web has posed to the business model of newspapers has led to a lot of lost jobs," Elliot said. As for the problem of many photographers losing their jobs to "citizen journalists" as in theCNN case, Elliot said, "The reality that citizen journalists will have a better chance of 'being there' for the big moment is only more real today. The democratization of photography, where one no longer needs to have esoteric darkroom skills and tens of thousands of dollars of equipment to produce images of relative high quality has certainly affected certain markets. "But the need for visual journalists who have a command of both the technical aspects of still and video as well as the mind-set for quality visual storytelling remains. Video storytelling is different in execution than still photography, without a doubt. But it has been well-established that very talented still photographers can make the transition back and forth between the media and enhance their visual reporting." It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few years. Certainly the public's demand for visual content shows no sign of declining. Just this month, the Associated Press announced its own online video delivery platform. Clearly, demand is high, and rising.