To the dauntless lensmen


The Sun-Times was wrong and right when it fired its entire photo department.

Wrong: Images are more important than ever. Look at this page: Medium practically forces us to include a photo with every post. On Google+ posts sans images get little love. This week at my J-school, a dean emphasized that every item we publish should come illustrated.

Right: There are more photographers now than ever — all of us taking pictures with our phones and cameras and sharing them for everyone, including newspaper editors, to see. News doesn’t wait for an official staff photographer to show up. A single event doesn’t need to be captured by a hundred lenses. And besides, times are tough; something always has to go, right?

But the paper did it wrong. I would have changed the definition of a photo department and a photographer — and I have little doubt that most photographers there would go along with this notion.

Just as a reporter no longer does all the reporting — it’s collaborative — and just as reporters need to concentrate on adding value to flows of information that already exist, so can photographers build a new relationship with a new photo ecosystem.

It should be their job to get the best photos for their news organizations however they can do that. They’ve long done that, but now they have more ways to do it. They should become expert in culling the public’s photos to find the work of witnesses to news. They should cultivate amateurs who can shoot well. They should train every member of an editorial department and every amateur who wants it in how to capture news to the best of their ability.

The photo department should grab onto tools to help locate people who are at the site of news, to ask for people to take a shot that’s needed to illustrate a story (the obvious stuff: a picture of a building that was sold, an image of another damned snowstorm).

But then the photographers — the experienced, the pros, the artists — should go where they can add the greatest value, capturing the images that amateurs and reporters can’t and pushing the standards of their publication higher.

That is what the Sun-Times lost this week: the stellar photographer who can do what you and I can’t, who sees the world differently, who isn’t afraid to stick his nose and lens into the action.

When I was a cub reporter on Chicago Today, I remember my editor, Milt Hansen, calling our photographers dauntless lensmen (nevermind the gender; it was 1973) and giving them each a moniker, like Fearless Frankie Hanes. I went to cover small-scale riots with Frank and he schooled me and protected me even as he risked his own skull to get the best picture. No paper should ask an amateur or a reporter to do that.

Mind you, we are teaching all our students at CUNY how to take better photos. My colleague who does that recognizes the even greater need for his training now. That is well and good.

But reporters who are busy listening, parsing, asking questions, taking notes, and seeking out witnesses and experts isn’t going to do a good job also capturing the emotion, the mood, the feel, the special perspective of an event. Oh, they can be taught to take a decent picture of a guy at a podium or a building with the sun in the right place.

But we may have hit the limit of expecting journalists to be — in the words of one of my former students — eight-armed monsters, doing all that a reporter should do plus taking pictures plus taking video plus capturing audio plus begging for data plus thinking of graphics. Yes, they need to be able to do each of those things, that’s why we teach them those skills. But all those things? At once? Not without help. Not without the experienced, the pros, the artists.

Here’s to the dauntless lesmen.

  • Exactly Jeff,
    A special gallery of Sun-Times news photos and a film interview with John H. White:

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  • specker

    The dauntless lensmen are still around, in the form of the wire services that everyone is using. Newspapers can get along just fine with canned art from subscription services, just look at the world’s largest newspaper website, the Daily Mail. Photographers have to find real value in what they do to counter act this trend. Unfortunately this is not the case. Classic photojournalism has been displaced by social media sites and the over abundance of images that can be inserted into so called news. Now that newspapers are run by bean counters, photo staffs are the first to go. Photography has never been something that generated income, Life and Look magazines folded a long time ago. The next generation of news photographer will have to work in an environment that will be funded outside of the mainstream for-profit companies.

    • Judith

      In the now-dominant “USA Today format,” it’s photos that generate a daily’s income – something obvious from how reading-averse a large percentage of Americans now are.
      Don’t think that many dailies in America could stay in business as text-only publications.

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  • Jame L.

    The fact of the matter is that staff photographers in all forms of today’s media ( along with photo editors) are in danger of losing their jobs. That includes photo powerhouse Getty Images as well.

    Technology has caught up with the professional and the professionals ( in this case photographers) are worried about their careers and livelihoods. UGC and Crowd Source is the future and reporters are probably feeling the heat to NOT complain about taking Iphone photos or video. They might lose their job!

    In the end, the average joe reader most likely does not care or know where the images come from, they don’t read the tag lines or credit lines and they sure as hell don’t care if the person is a staffer, freelancer or a guy with a cell phone. The image, as compelling and as relevant as it is in today’s internet world, has lost its value because of the over supply and cheap prices.

    You are a professional photographer today because it is the career you signed on to years and years ago. You are now stuck with an expensive camera, limited career choices and dwindling income prospects. It’s sad, unfortunate but only to get worse.

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  • Yet another rather complex issue. Sure everyone is a photographer. Sure reporters are overtaxed. Sure papers can’t afford their staff. Sure we don’t need lineups of dozens of photographers each taking the same photo from the same angle with their motorized cameras. But, every once in a while we get a true journalist with a singular and important vision like Tim Hetherington. His was a valuable perspective that should make us realize that we still need great writers — even if we all have MS Word.

    Check his work out: