Stephen Mayes – On Photojournalism Today

- - Awards

Lens Culture has published audio interviews with 38 photographers (here) that I discovered via Gallery Hopper.

I remember a few months back some very provocative quotes coming from a speech Stephen Mayes gave but I’m not sure if the full audio ever made it out. Len’s Culture has it (here) along with those wonderful quotes:

“I wonder if World Press Photo is peeling away from reflecting the media as it is, and is rather reflecting the media the way we wish it were. Of the 376 images awarded prizes this year, I would be curious to know how many have been published in a paid-for context. Maybe all of them. Maybe. But the overall impression that I’m left with from the 470,214 images that I have seen entered into the contest in the current decade, is that they reflect a form of photojournalism that is now more romantic than functional.”

“The overwhelming impression from the vast volume of images is that photojournalism (as a format for interpreting the world) is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world.”

“As one juror said this year, ‘90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.'”

Stephen is the Managing Director of VII Photo Agency and served as Jury Secretary for the World Press Photo Awards from 2004-2009.

UPDATE: It was originally published with the audio on Notes from Nowhere (here).

There Are 12 Comments On This Article.

  1. “As one juror said this year, ‘90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.’”

    In my opinion, this is a fundamental reason for the collapse of traditional media. Since I was a sophomore journalism major at the University of Mississippi, I’ve always argued that there are thousands of stories not being told, because journalists somehow feel the need to all chase the same, ‘hot’ stories.

  2. Functionality is the death of wonderful photojournalism. Great editorial photography has always been a luxury. One that publisher have (foolishly) decided that they can now survive without.

    Functionality is a photo of the winning touchdown catch. Which is just a document, not normally spectacular, and is usually better reported with words. The journalistic equivalent of a traffic camera catching a speeder.

    In my experience, the majority of contest winning images were not originally published, at least not in the magazine that commissioned them. One of the main reasons that elite photo agencies (like VII) exist is because we don’t allow the editorial decisions of a certain magazine to validate our work.

    Mayes is certainly correct with his observation that photojournalists have (by and large) quite observing the world. Of course, for the most part those that are still working are paid to transmit, not to observe.

    The observing budget has been eliminated.

    The reason that most of the world is ignored by photojournalism is simple.

    War, famine, poverty and other hardship is generally much easier to photograph and is much more likely to win contests, than what most of us know as ordinary life.

    • @Kenneth Jarecke,

      “War, famine, poverty and other hardship is generally much easier to photograph and is much more likely to win contests, than what most of us know as ordinary life.”

      I agree with everything you said, but isn’t the real challenge of a photo-JOURNALIST, to document the, many times unseen, stories of ‘ordinary’ life?

      • @Tim,

        Of course.

        One of the most important jobs of a photojournalist is to cover ordinary life, the goal being, to paraphrase Henry Luce, ‘to photograph the ordinary in an extraordinary way’.

        The problem is that photojournalists aren’t normally rewarded for this kind of work. When it comes to contests, mediocre pictures from the third-world usually trump great images of everyday life.

        So, it is a challenge to pursue images that won’t be seen, help pay the bills, or even win a prize now and then.

        Sadly, from what I can tell, this has always been the case.

        Even Luce’s LIFE wasn’t profitable until the Second World War came along. Heck, the first Gulf War is what put CCN on the map.

        So that’s a part of reality that sucks.

        • @Kenneth Jarecke, Again, I agree, especially with the Luce quote. But that takes us back to the basic issue of the state of photojournalism. A personal question for each photojournalist should be, “why am I doing this?” Is it to win contests, or to be a visual voice to convey stories?

          Personally, I’ve never won a contest. The primary reason for this is simple; I’ve never entered a contest and really don’t care to. I really don’t care that this may have hampered my career to some degree, because I didn’t become a photojournalist to win contests. The fame is nice, but it can be achieved in other ways.

          Just last week I captured a particular image of someone. I was told that when the wife of the subject saw the picture, she was nearly brought to tears. That’s why I shoot pictures. What the hell good is a contest if the work has no affect on the audience it is intended to serve?

          • @Tim,

            It’s just an economic reality. There’s a financial reward for photographers, agencies, editors and magazines that have a certain level of prestige. Contests are one way to create that “buzz”. Right or wrong, it helps some of us to continue working and to reach a sizable audience.

            It is however, a slippery slope. It’s pretty obvious when a photographer is trying to use the hardship of others to advance their careers. You can see it in their pictures. There’s something missing. People become props, and the tragedy becomes just another chance to pad their portfolio.

  3. Thank all of you for a stimulating discussion. Sounds like there is opportunity out there for someone with vision and courage. Not sure what form it will take but those untold stories are certainly compelling. It will be interesting to see what forms from this.

  4. Frank Evers

    WPP is simply one prism within the much larger world of photography, and as Stephen articulates…it is a distorted one at that. Stephen is repeating what many leaders within photography have been saying for years, which is that the WPP has become a anachronistic institution, stuck in a particular worldview which bears little resemblance to the real world.

    Spend any amount of time in photography, at festivals, in galleries, online, reading through the multitudes of high-quality photo blogs out there, and it becomes quickly apparent that there are plenty of incredible photo stories being told every single day, quality photo stories which capture the entirety of life on this planet. That the WPP chose to ignore them shows how irrelevant it is quickly becoming.

    That said, the WPP is still a very important institution for bringing photography to the general public, so one can only hope that they are hearing the message and will make the necessary adjustments to reflect the world as we all know it, and not the world as they might want it to be.

    All in all, these are good discussions to be having in the open, so thanks for posting.


  5. This sounds remarkably similar to Jeff Goodby’s column about “irrelevant awards chasers” in the ad industry which you linked to a while back:

    “It’s fast becoming clear that the majority of things we’re rewarding, as an industry, are either small or marginal efforts for legitimate clients, things we made for real clients that the clients seem not to have ever heard of, or out-and-out fakes.”

    Perhaps this is an unavoidable evolution of a craft, whether advertising or photojournalism? When the stakes get paradoxically both small and scarce?

  6. The planet as we know it is dying all around us. The signs that we have reached that point of no return grow stronger and more prevalent each and every day. And yet, we have to look for stories? The coming ecological breakdown will make the current economic crisis look like the blandest of cakewalks.

    I’ll be dead in a couple of decades, but I don’t understand how so many of my peers with children simply refuse to see, acknowledge and confront what is so blatantly obvious all around us. Photojournalism’s role in more effectively disseminating this information is both obvious and essential. But we still refuse to be pried from our usual menu of celebrity and entertainment.

  7. Well this is very very interesting, every single bit of it, and I’m going to listen
    to the link several times as I learned a lot….perhaps I heard things with which
    I agree and am anxious to think that others think like this as well.

    Thanks for posting on this wonderful, varied, smart, intellectual, well-thought-out
    photography blog! maggie