From America with Love has asked me to write about the state of photojournalism in the United States and what the future might look like (or at least that is what I am going to pretend that I have been asked to write about.)
We live in uncertain times; I am sure that we are all aware of this and I am very sure that people having being saying this since time immemorial. A recent story about a photographer with a formidable reputation being involved in some Photoshop shenanigans has made me numb to the cycle of what people will do, feel pressured to do, or do to seek fame or recognition. The ancient Greek theater understood this far better than our current culture.
If your dream was to make photographs for the ever disappearing news-on-paper organizations that used to set the tone for our communities, you will be fighting for ever diminishing and disappearing ‘slices of pie.’ At the end of the day, that model is on life support and I am sometimes amazed that it lasted as long as it did and that many of us imagined that it was where we wanted to wind up.
So, if you are still reading at this point you are either a glutton for punishment, a former newspaper photojournalist, someone looking for some good news or encouragement. The last time we experienced a ‘sea change’ in the dissemination of information in our world we saw the reformation of the Catholic Church. Yes, I am referring to Guttenberg and the printing press and what happened in the 16th century. Print has been dominant for that long.
What do I see in the crystal ball before me, nothing short of the reformation of our world(s).
We started to see the disruption (I know a VERY trendy word) of print with radio and then television but it wasn’t until the internet really took off that we started to see the genesis of the digital reformation. What is new or different this time is that the move to digital and hand-held is disrupting film, television, music, news and retail sales to name a few areas of impact. Add in some other societal trends in our country including shifts in the political parties, a decline in mainline churches and a serious hiccup in the entire business market of our country and there are a lot of people very nervous and searching for empty seats on lifeboats. Other folks, probably management, continue to rearrange deck chairs and encourage the band to keep playing.
What happens when all of these things collide? We get a ‘confused sea’ where the ripples from different areas of the market, society, and culture produce an ocean where we cannot discern a clear pattern or rhythm. Not unlike mariners, we have three choices in such a situation. You can ‘run before the storm’ and work to keep the energy of the storm and seas driving us forward. The second choice is to meet the largest and strongest waves head-on. Our third option is to ‘heave to’ which means that we position ourselves so that we stand nearly stationary in the water.
At this moment in my own career I think I am trying to ‘run’ before the storm and used that energy in my own work, what I am focusing on, and what I am ignoring. The response to the ‘short’ version of my first feature-length documentary film about human trafficking has been nothing short of amazing including a young lady telling me that the film, ‘Saved my life.’ I have more ability to tell the story, advocate on behalf of the trafficked, work with organizations combatting human trafficking, and I have more freedom to do the work.
What I have also enjoyed is gathering a team of core people that I can collaborate with on different projects. I have found and utilize an amazing web developer, an fantastic graphic designer, project organizers, additional photojournalists and cinematographers, a sound person, and a recording studio all of which I can mix and match for each project.
I even found my film being used as Mile 1 in the Tour Against Trafficking where we screened the short version of the film up and down the San Joaquin valley in California prior to a bicycle tour, Mile 2. And yes, this photojournalist got in shape and rode the almost 800 miles. More importantly we raised awareness as well as over $50,000 to help survivors and aid anti-human trafficking organizations. We are already working on Mile 3, what comes next. We filmed Mile 2 to be the next documentary film I will be working on as my team and I cover one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, human trafficking.
There are tons of projects waiting, and more importantly NEEDING, to be covered. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how to pay for everything I want to do with film. That being said, self-financing film #1 led to a job and bare bones funding for film #2 and we still haven’t gotten film #1 in to festivals yet, we just started submitting. And, by the way, in the middle of all of this I also had a book published on iPhone photography.
So, as Kevin Smith and Wayne Gretzky would tell us, ‘Skate to where the puck is going to be.’ What does that mean in today’s ‘confused sea?’ It means that you probably need to build, assemble and create your own audience in the short-term. It also means doing personal projects to keep your eye and vision growing. I am ‘banking’ on quality and good storytelling not going out of style in the long run because otherwise I would rather sell real estate than continue to create lowest common denominator work. I now think about not only layers in my visual work, but also in trying to accomplish different things at various levels with projects, films and events. I push really hard to associate work with an event so there is something very tangible for people, for an audience, for backers to touch or experience. The sky is the limit if we think beyond a gallery show or online presence.
So where does the money come from to do all this Michael? Isn’t that what you have been thinking the entire time? The short answer is we will have to get creative. The longer, more realistic answer is that there is much value in being able to tell stories with a single image, with multiple images, with multiple images and sound, and of course with film/video. The difficulty in this uncertain time is connecting the communicators with the clients who need and value the abilities that we bring to the table. It used to be there was a steady newspaper gig and additional clients on the side or magazine and advertising work that paid all of the bills; that world has disappeared, sorry. However, with the changing market comes opportunities that are only limited by our imagination, connection to other artists and experts, and our vision.
I would argue that we are helping form the building blocks and language of the new medium in its infancy. What a responsibility as well as what opportunity. The photograph with a caption underneath has not been around for a long period of time. What cinema techniques can and should we use in documentaries. What is the line between a doc and a narrative film? How should you distribute your work? Is the studio or distributor model still working? What kind of gear do you really need? The number of questions can be overwhelming to say the least.
So, what is my suggestion for action in the face of not knowing all of the answers? Go out and tell more stories, what are you waiting for? No one has to give you an assignment, no one has to write you a script, no one is going to give you permission unless you ask. Is this scary? Yup. Take a breath, take another. Now go out and tell a story. Today.
Confused Seas: http://www.nap.edu/read/11635/chapter/10
Tour against trafficking: http://touragainsttrafficking.org/
Trafficked life trailer: http://thetraffickedlife.org/
Kevin Smith video link about skating to the puck: https://youtu.be/9uZtOF2zjmg