There’s been quite a lot of talk over the last couple days about the Chicago Sun-Times laying off their entire staff of photographers. When media writer Robert Feder posted on his Facebook Page , he was flooded with nasty comments about what the paper was doing.
“Sun-Times reporters begin mandatory training today on “iPhone photography basics” following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.”
There has been general outrage amongst professional photographers on listservs and social media channels adding to the extreme angst that already exists in this demographic. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, not only over the last couple of days but over the last decade as technology has thrust enormous change on my industry. If I allow myself to look at the state of professional photography as an unsustainable profession because of these technological changes, than that’s what it will be – an unsustainable profession for me. But if I turn the “problem” into an “opportunity” and realize that technology has brought me a lot more possibilities in how to monetize my craft, then I will have a profession that I will be able to sustain.
Biggest Mistakes that the Sun-Times Made when they got rid of their staff photographers:
- Cheated their readers. Their readers will see the difference in the photographs that their paper is running. A professional photojournalist doesn’t just take a picture – they capture a storytelling image. They are visual communicators and they are good at it. They make the viewer feel, empathize or connect with their images. I don’t think it will take a long time before their readers see that the paper’s photos aren’t any better than theirs or their friends and have no reason to get the story from the Sun-Times.
- Focused on the technology – the iphone. How many times have I said “It’s not about the tool”? Do I think that the iphone isn’t a viable tool for taking good photos? No, in fact if it is the only “camera” you have on hand when a story is breaking – then it becomes the best camera for the job. On the other hand, the same day the paper sent the memo out to their staff about the layoffs, their front page was covered with images that one wouldn’t have a chance of getting if all they had was an iphone.
- Burdened their writers with another job. Let’s face it, something is going to suffer. Just like when I try to shoot both video and still images on the same job myself, I always feel like I have the wrong camera for the wrong moment. A lot of my writer friends can take pretty good photographs, and some merely make a “reference” shot of what’s happening, instead of an image that captures a story. A writer’s workflow is different than that of a photographer. Writers go out in the field and gather facts and write the story for the most part, back at the office. A photographer does pretty much everything in the field. Nowadays, many times that includes the edit. Something will suffer, when one person sets out to do two totally different types of jobs.
- Made their “cuts” in the wrong place. They undermined what a professional photojournalist brings to their paper. You can’t find a more passionate, committed group than photojournalists. They work long hours, under terrible conditions – many times dangerous ones, receive a lousy pay, but will go above and beyond to deliver “the story”. Some say this was a “union busting” move and that after a decent amount of time, the paper will begin to hire photographers who will work for less and no benefits. If that’s the case, then shame on them for cutting out health benefits for such a committed group of people. In the long run, that is not a sustainable business model.
- They forgot that technology works both ways. Let’s hope that photographers don’t forget that they can use technology to their advantage – that is if they can get past their fear. Alex Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, writes in a blog post: “Fear is the worst and greatest enemy of photographers. Why? Physiologically, fear triggers the fight or flight complex. You can’t think creatively, imaginatively and proactively when your entire body is pumping blood and adrenaline to the parts of your body necessary to fight barbarians at the gate. It pushes your body into a reactive-about-to-become-a-victim state of mind. The very creativity that is your unique selling proposition as a photographer is crippled. Your body become’s your mind’s worst enemy.
We no longer need a publisher to publish our images. With technology we can create and publish with a variety of platforms and portals. Just take a look at Issuu a portal for digital publishing. With a modest amount of effort, I put together a test for a new magazine called “The Back Story”. Future issues will be composed of my image outtakes from the dozens of commissioned assignments that I’ve shot over the years. Maybe, down the road it will include other photographers’ work and give the readers an opportunity to see the images that never ran and get “the back story.”
Fear not, my fellow professional photographers. We are in a position of opportunity if we begin to realize that and make a conscious effort to change our mindset. We don’t have control over the choices that the Sun-Times or any other newspaper makes. We only have control over how we react to those changes. If we think and act smart and not from a position of fear, maybe one of the best business decisions we can make is to take control, and create and publish story telling images that the public will want to see. And the public won’t be finding those kinds of images in the Chicago Sun-Times.