I Think This Is Where Journalism Is Going

- - The Future

Photographer Stephen Alvarez sent me a link to a film he made for NPR (story here) and he seemed quite sure that “this is where journalism is going because these new cameras open up a narrative that was unavailable just a few years ago.” I wanted to find out more so I asked him a couple questions about it:

Rob: Can you explain why you feel that way?

Stephen: I can now see in film the same way that I saw in stills, I build a story arc the same way that I would in a photo essay, but with movement and sound.

Rob: Video cameras have existed for a long time now, what’s changed?

Stephen: Technologically this is possible now. A photographer and a radio reporter can go into the field and come back with a set of pictures, 3 written essays, 3 radio reports and a film. Just the 2 of us in the field working together sharing the production and reporting. Then of course a great team at NPR working closely with us in post production. I don’t think I could have pulled my end off if I was using a video camera and a still camera. Aesthetically, the stills and video are similar enough that I can switch gears between them. Plus these new cameras will work in almost no light so with my fast canon lenses I can shoot anywhere.

Rob: Do you think video is a better way to tell a story?

Stephen: Economics have pushed me toward making films. The photo essay, the form of journalism that I’ve spent most of my career creating is all but gone. Sure there are lots of places that will publish your pictures once they are made, but almost none that will pay you to do it. I mean the New York Times Lens Blog does not pay anything. I want to keep working in long form journalism, so collaborating closely with a reporter and creating films is one way to do it. I’ve also always felt sort of hemmed in being a photojournalist. Photo essays are wonderful things but they are not so good at providing nuanced information. Film can do that and provide emotional impact.

Rob: Do you think magazines on the ipad should be chock full of video?

Stephen: I don’t see e-magazines chocked full of video. But I do see long form, feature stories moving in this direction. It is a huge amount of effort and it does take close collaboration, something that photojournalists are often loath to do, but the truth is that both Jacki Lyden and I reported a better story in Nashville together than either of us possibly could have separately.

There Are 35 Comments On This Article.

  1. I didn’t realise about lack of pay for NYT lens blog… Photogs should be tougher and not allow them to publish on there without pay…

    There always seems to be a devaluation of photography, I’d love to see how many newspapers sell with pages full of text only and crap amateur snapshots.

    Some photogs should really pool together and create a photojournalist publication and sell it themselves or online or something……

    • @T, You know what, i think Mr. T has it right. If the Lens blog does’nt pay, then honestly at some point, suppliers have to say enough is enough, and cut the supply. I mean, it may be true that there is no advertising on the blog, except for the New York Times. they are the ones who essentially get credit for being a source for the work, by showing it, so giving it for free is really ridiculous. Come on agencies, freelancers, it’s time to get tough, web use is fair use.

    • @T, On reflection I feel the need to stress that if the NYT/Time Magazine initially commissioned the photos and the usage terms included the web, then obviously it’s fair enough.

      Furthermore, I disagree with moving into something because its more economical – why not fight for what you love? Publish it and promote it yourself then, use crowdsourcing, start a blog, start your own photo agency, get a solicitor, charge more money for what you do, etc, etc, etc… If all photogs held the line together then publishers would rightly show more respect…

      • @T, Maybe I didn’t hit this point hard in what I told Rob, but I made that film out of a huge desire to do it. I could not have told the nuance and complexity of the story in a set of photographs alone. Change in technology opens up a narrative opportunity that was unavailable just a few years ago.

        The other thing I am trying to point out is that the magazine photo essay that all of us LOVE is economically dead. How many viable photo essay assignments are given in a year these days? 60 maybe?

        • @Stephen Alvarez,

          That’s cool, I have no problem with film at all, and I think there is certainly an argument for it also impacting more people; Restrepo was on the other night and I thought it was a superb insight, and obviously with it being Oscar nominated etc. there is potential for greater exposure than just still images.

          But for me still photography is different; its about capturing and dwelling on a single moment frozen in time, and the power of that image as a symbol.

          It just gets my back up a bit I suppose because I feel like if economics is always the dictator then where are we going? And you know you could assign yourself, set up a blog and get an app made and sell those things including prints via Paypal? See how econmical that is maybe? I don’t know…

          I just feel like photogs have more opportunities to self publish now so maybe they could fund their own assignments and make money from them using technology like the internet, wordpress, apps, etc….?

  2. This is the obvious case with photo-journalism, and a great opportunity for them. But wonder about all other forms of commercial photography. At some point with motion you will get up to – and want -a level of production that just puts you in competition with all those directors, cinematographer’s, and DP’s already out there.

    • @ggw, I disagree. I think that the future lies in packages. What a photog could do for the client. I’ve lost two gigs because I couldn’t roll vid into the package. DP’s arent’ photogs. there will always be a need for stills, it’s just that clients want something else brought to the table.

      • @JMG, …photogs are not dps… The problem I see with most film work coming from photogs is the lack of narrative and good editing… I hire a photographer on my film shoots and add that to the package, but I don’t try and be something I’m not. The photographer that realizes his roll as a a director will hire a dp.

  3. I’ve heard this argument before and agree that it has potential but I think we went through the discussions where video narrative was the save all for journalism. In those same discussions, I never heard the point raised that if budgets are tight for a still shoot do we really expect budgets to be available for video shoots, which are exponentially more complex?

    One of the more innovate thoughts I have heard came from Lou Lesko – he foresees the wealth and array of documentaries being produced filling the place of the “please go ahead and die” beast that is reality TV.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Rob. Your Dan Winters series was great too.

    My sweetie told me about the radio broadcast yesterday as she was coming home from work. I went online and as delighted to find not only the radio piece, but the video and the written story.

    It’s great on two fronts–this is a part of a story I’ve been working on and it proves (again) that a journalist *team* can produce for print, radio and web (and even broadcast). In spite of the draw backs, we truly do have the tools to be cross-platform now.

    It’s great to see a radio station taking this on.


  5. Why in the world are photographers allowing their images to be published on the NYT lens blog without compensation? That is mind boggling.

    • @David,

      That’s easy to answer. You could have NYT Lens Blog publish work, get thousands of built in eyes to see it, maybe link it to other people, share it on Facebook/Twitter, make comments and discuss. No money received, but no money spent.

      Or, you could take those same images, post it to one’s own blog or website, and then what? Do a mass e-mail campaign to promote it? Hope that one has enough Twitter/Facebook followers to see it?

      I suppose it would be different if NYT Lens or Time were assigning stories that cost a photographer money to produce and shoot, then telling them to take a hike when it comes time to collect a check. But I believe they (the blogs) are simply helping to shed light on work they like.

      • @Terence Patrick,

        IF that is the case, then why does NYT need to have ads on that blog? Why can’t they just be paid in the “exposure” of people coming to see the photos on their site? If they’re not paying the photographers, why are they collecting ad revenue?

        Oh, right, it’s because they have a business to run. Well ain’t that somethin’.

        • @David, it’s a photoblog. No one asks those photogs to be on it. I’m cool with not getting paid to submit and hopefully appearing on the Lens blog.

            • @David, Not really. I mean, look. If you you post up something there it’s cool. NYT isn’t going to break down your door to hire you. You weren’t assigned anything, right? So if you get a good photo out into the world, how’s that harming anyone’s biz? Could it help you GET a paid job? Sure. The people you need to train your guns on are the thieves that mine Flickr/FB etc… to try to get over. Someone posting on a photoblog put up by a prestigious organization is harmless to your business.

              • @JMG, i would have to say, this paid gig you speak of, most likely it will be somewhat of a digital version, and possibly only for the web. if that’s the case, what exactly is your argument when it comes time to discuss fees. you’ve already set a precedent that free is ok for the web!

                • @robert gallagher, there would be no argument. Posting something on a photoblog is an introduction to your work. that’s all. If you’re a pro, and someone likes your work after seeing that photo and then others on your site, they will pay you. If they don’t, say no. They weren’t worth the effort anyway.
                  I guess it’s a matter of perspective. I see just one more small way to promote your work, you see it as giving it away for free.
                  NYT isn’t assigning you a shot for the blog. they’re giving you the chance to show your work.

                  • @JMG, and if you think it doesn’t work, check out the last issue of PDN where a photog got a Converse campaign based on work from his Flickr page.
                    Flickr made Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir who went from being a flickr shooter to an account with Toyota.

                • @robert gallagher, and if you think it doesn’t work, check out the last issue of PDN where a photog got a Converse campaign based on work from his Flickr page.
                  Flickr made Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir who went from being a flickr shooter to an account with Toyota.

      • @Terence Patrick, “No money received, but no money spent”
        apart from what it cost you to make the pictures in the first place.
        I’m as guilty as the next guy for occasionally giving away images although in my case its usually for an existing paying client as a gesture of goodwill. Truthfully, I’m sure I would give images to Lensblog but they are exploiting the fact that we perceive it as a shop window. We have allowed ourselves to become pushovers and as such are treated with very little respect. I bet their web company got paid for creating the blog site and I’m sure the vending machine company doesn’t put its machines in the NYT building for free so they can use it as a shop window.
        The long term problem is sustainability. Eventually all the photographers who the NYT won’t pay will be forced to leave the business because there is no income and just leave the part timer dross behind who don’t need to make money from images but the NYT won’t want to showcase that crap so the blog will die. This scenario doesn’t just apply to Lensblog obviously. I see it with some of my clients who are trying to spiral down fees while ignoring the fact that ultimately all the good photographers disappear and they end up with crap because of their short term thinking.
        The real question for me is how did we get to the point where we are regarded with such little respect? I think the answer is that we did it to ourselves by giving away our business.
        Regards. Patrick

  6. So is the lesson: economics dictates the path and technology the tools just add a “field operator” to fishnet video, stills and sound?
    The convenience and immediacy make it all really easy. Much like the microwave oven and frozen dinner make a chef. But is it a birdhouse or a dwell house?
    Writing? So now that we have computers you don’t have to use a pencil so anyone can now write stories? Novels? Why not movies? Why hire crews? You have the internet, you can google web md so now you can do your own surgery?….Well of course, if you can get a good scalpel.
    No Talent. Just tools. Probably seems that way from a corporate point of view.

  7. I heard this story on NPR radio–I think maybe it was just the audio portion of the video. In any event, the video part doesn’t add much, if anything at all. For things like this, we’re all pretty capable of creating our own visuals in our heads.

  8. It’s been heading this way for quite a while. Companies like Gannett and others have been pushing photo staffs for years to produce video. Photographers have to either embrace video or they could find themselves a statistic of the economic downturn. It’s the future right!

    On a positive note what I love about the new convergence is the quality of the in-depth story telling. It’s only going to get better as more and more start producing projects. It wasn’t to long ago that a newspaper printed a front page picture from a 2 megapixel blackberry image of spot news. It was a huge accomplishment and only the beginning of things to come.

    I love the medium, but what I fear for the local photojournalist is job burn out. Technology can be great but think of it, your editor say’s we need a slide show for web, we need two stand-alone photo’s for print and while you’re at it we need a short video. The photographer responds but I have 3 other assignments today!

  9. I’m not sure what the core issue is with photographers but this underlying theme of insecurity, the need to have our work seen, and the hopes of that better paying job down the road has turned many of us into whores. I find it a bit ironic that the video posted was about prostitution and giving yourself away for next to nothing.

    Why on Earth would anyone give away their images to anyone other than a charity or cause they feel passionate about? Can you really blame magazines and newspapers that are facing extinction for using images that are given to them with the only compensation being a photo credit? Really…If I owned a restaurant and someone was willing to supply me with all the meat I needed at no charge, of course I would take it!!

    This is the problem with a career in photography. There are too many people willing to give it away trying to support an expensive hobby that they hope will some day magically turn into a career.

  10. I think it’s a lot about using the tool that best fits the circumstances.

    I do photography for our local paper, and while most of it is strictly still photos, I often wish I had a newer camera that is able to shoot both still and video.

    There are some things that are better represented with a video clip than a still photo.

    There are some things better suited to still photos.

    The ability to capture each when appropriate is wonderful.

    Perhaps this is because I come from a video/television background.

    From time to time I’ve carried three cameras. One with a long lens, one short lens and a video camera.

    I don’t do it more often because it’s cumbersome, and often the video isn’t needed by the client.

    It would be great to have one camera that could do both well so I’d be able to both as needed on all assignments. (And one day, I hope to.)

  11. When you look at the quality of the reporting it is hard not to see that as the future of photojournalism, but ther will always be a place for the still image. Trends move and merge and the tools are always getting better, but the transcendent constant is the photojournalist’s eye and their ability to work in an environment that allows the subject to open themselves and share their story. I’ve always felt that this where a majority of the art and craft of photography lies – within the ability to connect.

    Great work by Stephen and Jacki

  12. A nice piece of reporting, but I’m struggling to understand the idea that “this is where journalism is going”.

    Aren’t we already here? Been here for a long time; it’s called television reporting. TV news. Even on the web, it’s still the same animal.

    Yes, as always, people are being squeezed to do more for less, but I see nothing new other than the better low light capabilities and shallow depth of field. Conversely, I do notice a growing acceptance of bad tripod moves, automatic apertures, and poorly synced sound.

    I feel we are still in a race to the bottom, and those who succeed in this “new” format only guarantee themselves more work for less money, with less support than a traditionally staffed TV news crew.