It is not just the economics of the media that is putting traditional news photographers out of business. It is our troubled relationship with images themselves.
PARIS — One good thing about the world of photojournalism is that you never get bored, with all the debates and arguments always swirling around it. We bang around ideas and insult each other, especially on social networks these days. The steady stream of accusations of manipulations and forgery are like doping cases in sports.
Last February, Italian photographer Giovani Troilo's reportage on the Belgian city of Charleroi was awarded a World Press Photo prize, only to face accusations by the mayor that the images were distorting reality to make the city seem grimmer than reality. Other photographers lambasted Troilo for having staged the scenes.
Edited photographs of all kinds have been proliferating — it's easy to make the sky blue with digital photography — leading to fits of rage. During the summer of 2014, there was another debate: Can an Indonesian monkey, which, in 2011, took an astounding selfie with a camera taken from an animal photographer, be considered the author and copyright owner of the images?
This summer's polemics came from a former New York Times journalist, A.D. Coleman, who cast a chill over the legendary images taken by Robert Capa during the 1944 D-Day landings. For the past 70 years, the official story is that a lab operator damaged almost all the film rolls during their development. On his blog, Coleman says these film rolls never existed: Capa got scared and quickly deserted the Normandy beaches.
These endless and irresolvable debates, colored by the pointless notions of truth and lie, through morals and not reflection, are no doubt in the air at this year's "Visa pour l'Image" festival — perhaps the world's premier photojournalism event — in Perpignan, France, which runs through Sept. 13.
These arguments are further proof that, through the fragility it holds and emotions it stirs, the growing blur between the notions of professional and amateur authors, as well as its dependence on technical revolutions, press photography continues to say a lot about our society. But these debates are also, paradoxically, a sign that the professional photojournalist has virtually disappeared.
Photojournalist used to be a well-established occupation. You don't hear about it now. "We've become invisible," says Christian Ducasse, of the French Union of Professional Photographers.
In France, 36,000 people currently hold a press card, of which only 800 are photographers. And yet, there are still as many photographs in the media. The difference of course is that they now come from all over. The full-time photojournalist has been replaced by the many multitasking photographers, immersed in multimedia, communications, art, fashion and press. They can approach any topic, show work in museums, publish articles in Le Monde or in a woman's magazine, write books, answer orders from brands and companies, hunt down private grants and money from institutions, teach, work another job altogether â€¦
In today's world, we are everywhere and nowhere all the time. But it's not the best place from which to defend an occupation. Take the concert photographer, for instance, whose task is to inform through images as others do with words. He makes most of his living during summer, with the numerous music festivals. Arnaud Robert, in the Swiss daily Le Temps on July 25, and Cécilia Sanchez in Télérama on July 29, looked into the matter.
What they wrote is astounding. Photographers spend their time begging to be able to spend a few minutes in front of the stage. They're humiliated, despised, "put into cages" 100 meters away from the show, sometimes physically threatened — when they're not altogether banned from concerts, like with the Guns N' Roses or Bob Dylan at the Vieilles Charrues Festival, in northwestern France.
At a Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett concert, on July 6, during the Montreux Jazz Festival, their managers accepted the presence of one photographer, who, by the way, was a member of the festival staff. They sent only one picture to the press — after editing it: "They slimmed down the diva's right arm, smoothed out lines on her neck and toned down Tony Bennett's wrinkles," Arnaud Robert writes.
Some musicians also force photographers to give up their copyrights on the sales of photographs after the first publication (a newspaper in Washington decided to send a cartoonist to a Foo Fighters concert rather than signing such an agreement, Arnaud Robert adds).
No one says anything. The festival organizers don't want to quarrel with the artists, nor the photographers with the festival organizers. As for the artists, they intend to control the money generated by concerts at a time when the recording industry is dying. They see the professional photographer as a nuisance separating them from their fans: The audience can take thousands of pictures of their idols and post them on social networks two minutes after the beginning of the concert — there's nothing better to keep a community alive.
We can also link this to the latest photojournalism debates to emerge. After the foiled terror attack last month on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train, images were diffused of Ayoub El Kahzzan, the accused gunman with handcuffs, which media are barred from showing to maintain presumption of innocence. (The Sept. 2 picture of a drowned Syrian refugee boy raised other questions about the limits of what the media should or should not show.) These debates are a reminder that we live in a society that prefers to deny reality by banning pictures; that seeks to blame the person who shows rather than questioning what the image reveals; that reassures itself in the mirror of manipulated images whose sole purpose is communication for the sake of communication.