When everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer, what happens to the professional news photographer?
On Saturday morning, the award-winning photo-journalist, Prashant Panjiar, posted on his Facebook page, “What is wrong with us Indian photographers?” As the co-founder and creative director of the Delhi Photo Festival, he had looked through hundreds of submissions from across the world. But there were very few from India. Exceptions aside, most pictures were ‘pathetic’, and as Mr Panjiar told The Hindu later in the afternoon, “Not a single photo-journalist from the Indian mainstream media has submitted any work.”
The veteran photographer was exasperated with his fraternity. Others are more sympathetic. But across the board, at a time of unprecedented churning in the industry, many more are asking similar questions about the present and future of Indian photo-journalism. For news-photographers, more has changed in the past decade than in the half-century before that. Digital technology has transformed ways of seeing, ways of documenting, and ways of exhibiting. It has blurred lines between the subject and the object and democratised photography. Everyone with a basic mobile phone is an equipped cameraperson. A tourist in Thailand during a tsunami, a participant at a political rally in interior Bihar, an onlooker at the marathon in Boston can capture images and post it online in seconds, for readers or viewers to have unfettered access to the image.
A decade ago, a professional photographer would reach the location, take shots, get back to his office, develop his film in a dark room, submit it to the editor or desk, and wait for one image to be approved and used in the next day’s papers. Today, he can shoot, upload, and send images almost instantly. The change may have made their jobs easier, but photographers are quick to point to the flip side.
T Narayan, a senior photo-journalist who has worked with India’s leading magazines, says, “The digital revolution has desensitized all of us. Anyone can take whatever picture they wish. The need to understand what one is shooting, be sensitive to issues of representation has disappeared.” He adds that there are real, negative, tangible effects of the technological revolution. At a time of economic slowdown, the first victims of cost-cutting are often photo-journalists, since managers see them as dispensable, and feel pictures can be found through some ‘jugaad’. “You give the reporter a camera and ask him to take a few pictures and then crop it, or you find a local stringer somewhere to supply a picture at low rates.” An established freelance writer may still have to be paid Rs 4000 for an 800-word piece, but a centre spread picture can be purchased for as little as Rs 500, despite the high costs photographers have to incur in developing their craft. This is linked to the fact that many editors treat images as a ‘poor cousin’, an ‘add-on’ to the text, rather than seeing the image as telling a story on its own.
Arko Datta, a celebrated photo-journalist who now runs a photography school in Mumbai, says the core issue is that it is now a ‘buyer’s market’. “Why will I pay for something when I can get the image free? How is my salary justified when images have already been captured by amateurs?” He believes that the market cannot sustain the number of news photographers currently at work. “Only a few, and only the brilliant, will survive.” With documentation no longer an issue, the task of photographers has become more challenging since they have to now add to the depth and understanding through their images.
Ishan Tankha, the young and dynamic photo editor of Tehelka magazine, feels that there is a resurgence happening, but away from the traditional media. “There is a lot of good work happening, by young people, in alternative spaces, particularly online. But older employed photographers seem frustrated with the lack of opportunities in news organisations, and they are stuck in repetitive news cycles.” Mr Panjiar has been a part of the Indian photo-journalism story for decades, and asks fundamental questions – why is it that at a time when print continues to grow in India, the primacy, importance and space of news photos is declining? Why is it that out of India’s top 10 photographers, none are from the news media today while 20 years ago, seven of the 10 may have been photo-journalists? Why are mainstream news photographers never seen at a single photo exhibition in a city like Delhi?
“The problem is that 95 per cent of photo-journalists are backward-looking, and have not evolved with time. They have given up on themselves as photographers. They have given up the ambition to be great photographers. They have given up on the medium.” He admits there are systemic problems too, but the community is no longer ‘motivated enough’. At a time when information is no longer at a premium, a photographer would be rendered irrelevant if he is merely representing the physical moment and reality. Mr Panjiar says, “Through images, photo-journalists must explain, must add to our understanding, must interpret reality, give it a personality. If they have nothing to add, they will be left behind.” Paradoxically, at a time of the greatest democratisation of Indian news photography, photo-journalists are facing their most severe test.