Society

The Inevitable Death Of Professional Photojournalism

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.

Hundreds of potential concert photographers
Hundreds of potential concert photographers
Michel Guerrin

PARIS â€" 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 â€" it’s easy to make the sky blue with digital photography â€" 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.

Invisible profession

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 â€" perhaps the world's premier photojournalism event â€" 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 …

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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

Community rules

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 â€" 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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ