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.