Twelve months ago I was finishing up my first month here at Luther College in my role as director of visual media. Students were just arriving back on campus, which meant my staff of roughly 20 photographers and videographers, were beginning to trickle back to campus.
Earlier that summer one of my staff photographers had emailed to ask me to be her advisor for her senior project, and as such we had scheduled a meeting during the first week of school to chat. I remember this talk well because after about a half an hour of catching up on how her summer went and what her plans were post-graduation she paused, slowly looked up from the portfolio on her lap and asked: "do you REALLY think someone can make a living as professional photographer?" I answered as honestly as I could: "It's definitely a competitive market, but there will always be a market for talented photographers." I believed that then and I still believe that now, but now it’s with some deep reservations.
Professional photographers, particularly photojournalists, are under siege and the impact of this war will have a greater impact than simply leaving talented photographers without work.
It’s been a rough year for staff photographers. You see, roughly seven months after that senior and I met, the Chicago Sun-Times gathered their entire photography staff, including staff photographers and editors, in a hotel where it was announced to all of them that they were being let go. 500+ years of combined experience fired in a meeting that reportedly lasted 20 seconds. The Sun-Times then circulated a memo the following week stating that all reporters would be trained in iPhone photography.
The impact of such a decision was seen almost immediately but really grabbed people’s attention a couple of months later when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Here’s an image of the cover of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times side by side:
One was clearly photographed by a photojournalist while the other looks like some sort of snapshot taken with a phone. Gee, I wonder why?
The Sun-Times are not the only news entity to fire entire departments of photographers. Just this past August, Reuters, one of the largest wire services in the world, announced they would be firing all of their North American freelance sports photographers. Two years ago CNN handed out close to a dozen pink slips to staff photographers citing, as PetaPixel reports, the rise of the "citizen journalist" as one of the main reasons for their decision. The fact of the matter is, the number of people who are Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagramming, ect. have become so prolific that many news organizations have taken to crowd-sourcing their visual media.
This crowd-sourcing trend has left many of us professionals in the photo community stunned, scared and asking more questions than there are answers for. The trend as of now seems to be set: more and more staff photographers will be replaced with throngs of generation x’ers and millennials with smart phones.
As a reaction to these trends I believe -at the risk of sounding self-serving- that photo literacy and education is more important now than it ever has been. Never in the history of photography have there been so many photographs being taken. To go one step further, never in the history of humanity have our lives been so documented and it’s hordes of the general populous armed with camera phones and Facebook accounts that are doing the documenting. If the future of visual story telling lies in vernacular photography then a more educated public is more important than ever.
As someone who works with photography students I now make it a point to let them know that even if they decide not to go on to be professional photographers (and most of them won't) that they should take their photo education seriously. I remind them that they are the future storytellers and that our visual history is in their hands. Photojournalists are trained experts in the identification and execution of visual story telling. Those experts can never fully be replaced. But training the emerging future image-makers (read: general public) not only in photography but also in a strong liberal arts education founded in critical thinking, problem solving and interdisciplinary studies, may help lessen the burden on dwindling numbers of staff photojournalists across the country.
Aaron Lurth is director of the visual media department at Luther College, and will begin teaching in the visual and performing arts department in the spring. He has shot marketing campaigns for Luther, and was the photographer for the Cedar Rapids Kernals, the minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. His photo exhibitions have been presented in galleries in several different states.