An Overload of Images
My train of thought on this topic started off with pondering the future of photojournalism. I realize this is a dead horse flogged quite thoroughly on many occasions. Received opinion is that a serious lack of funds with newspapers and magazines has led to the decline of slow journalism, long assignments and in-depth articles. And yet, this is too simplistic a picture. In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies brilliantly postulates that contemporary news gathering is shaped by a number of factors. These include shorter deadlines; decreasing resources; a declining number of qualified and trained journalists; a collapsing network of local contacts and hacks feeding information bottom up into the news food chain; an economy of scale, whereby the number of newspapers as well as wire agencies has gone down because of closures, mergers or take-overs; the growing influence of the PR industry, lobbyists as well as proprietors; and perhaps most importantly, the prejudices of the reading public. As a result, Davies states that journalism has turned into churnalism, whereby a limited number of stories and editorial angles do the rounds in all the publications.
The picture painted above seems true as well for photography in general and photojournalism in particular. Alan Sparrow, executive picture editor of METRO UK told the audience of the National Photography Symposium in London last April that he has to take his daily pick from 50.000 images. He also explained how the number of images for consideration has grown from 300 a day at the start of his career to this phenomenal 50.000. It is an unintended consequence perhaps of the digitization of the medium and the penetration of the Internet in all spheres of life. Even with the help of a ‘browser’, whose sole purpose at the newspaper is to reduce this number to a mere thousand pictures a day for consideration by Sparrow, the executive picture editor still looks for images that ‘fit’ both the news as well as his audience.
This echoes what Davies says about the prejudices of the reading public shaping news-gathering. It sounded to me that Sparrow would visualize in his mind’s eye what he was looking for, looked for it, and then printed that. In other words, it seems that there is little scope to be surprised by pictures that are somehow different. Images that show an unusual angle or composition, that change focus, or simply show an event that does not have a story line and angle already attached to it. But can Sparrow be blamed for this approach to selecting images? Can anyone imagine what it is like to have to work through 50.000 pictures every single day?
The sheer and overwhelming amount of similar and banal images in the world today was made explicitly clear last November by Erik Kessels’ presentation at Foam in Amsterdam. Kessels had produced an installation in which a million images that were uploaded onto Flickr on one particular day were printed off and simply piled on top of each other. The experience was overwhelming, but also disheartening. At first glance, so many of the images looked the same. But then again, there were so many photographs lying around that one could not possibly look at them all. Who knows how many mind-blowing pictures were overlooked?
Let me add some other hard to envisage statistics to drive the message home: photo stock agency Alamy now offers 31 million images for sale.1 iStock, currently part of Getty Images, which in turn cannibalizes Flickr, started off in the year 2000 with two thousand free images. Ten years later, at least 100.000.000 files had been downloaded from the website. Allegedly, a picture is being downloaded every second.2 Facebook then, supposedly hosted ninety billion photographs in January 2011. Two hundred million pictures were uploaded each day that month, which equals six billion per month.3 This has gone up from over three billion per month in September 2010.4 Hard as it is to verify these figures, I believe them to be not wildly off the mark.
How on earth will important and necessary, and above all, different images attract attention? How will they float to the top of this massive and growing ocean of photographs? Being technically proficient is not enough any longer. Being at the right place at the right time is not sufficient either. Not only do more and more aspiring photojournalists travel like packs to a limited number of the world’s hotspots, as was already ironically shown in the early 1990s by Paul Lowe’s Fellow Travellers: The Media in Bosnia. This work assembled a series of photographs from Bosnia, which chronicled the work of other journalists reporting on the conflict, and reflected on the construction of events and the necessity of being there. Needless to say, the number of photojournalists going to certain newsworthy places has only grown since. Is this happening at the expense of not covering other, equally newsworthy events? As Davies points out in his book, certain news stories get picked up, because they’re easier, leading to a sad lack of coverage on certain geographical areas,such as Oceania, and a decline in specialist reporting such as court journalism.
So despite the growing number of images and the growing number of photojournalists, the photographs tend to stay the same visually. This is apparent for example in the annual World Press Photo Awards. Every year I anticipate the results eagerly. And each year I am quite disappointed by them. The prize winning images may depict a different war, or a different natural disaster to the years previously, but the pictures stay the same visually throughout the years. Of course, this is also a natural consequence of selecting the winners from images published in the press. But if the press, as becomes clear from the stories of Davies and Sparrow above, is running around in increasingly smaller circles, then it goes without saying that there is less space for visual renewal. So despite the huge number of submissions, or perhaps because of it, the process described above is repeated during the judging of said submissions. To demonstrate: in 2012 5.247 photographers of 124 different nationalities submitted 101.254 photographs, leading to 350 images being awarded in nine different categories.5 So the quantity is certainly there, but whether the awarded photographs represent the full range of photojournalism out there can be disputed.
But notwithstanding the growing ease with which photojournalists are able to travel to newsworthy locations, they are more and more beaten to it by so-called citizen journalists. After all, technology permits them to make decent images with mobile phones and upload them straight onto the Internet. But what they produce, is influenced aesthetically by visual imagery they have absorbed previously. This was shown clearly in Mauro Andrizzi’s Iraqi Short Films, a compilation of films that were mostly shot on mobile phones by different participants in the Iraq War, be they fighters, soldiers, or bystanders. What’s more, the footage was gathered from all the different sides involved in the Iraq War. And interestingly enough, without any contextual information, one could not distinguish visually between who produced it, to what intent and with which audience in mind. In other words, the films reference existing imagery of war, thereby reinforcing that imagery and providing a very easy, general and shallow visual understanding of a very complex and unique situation. But this simultaneously leaves it wide open to misinterpretation.
So without context it seems to me that pictures provided by citizen journalists are not the answer either. But does that mean that all these images in and of themselves do not serve any purpose at all? According to Pauline Hadaway, director of Belfast Exposed, the vast legacy of photography by photographers, anonymous or otherwise, creates an important visual and social memory. But who will be looking at this legacy? How is it preserved? How does it become accessible to others? The problem with memories is that they can easily be forgotten, misconstrued or repressed. And so whilst we are putting out all these images, often as a way to be seen, a way to get noticed, a way to change things and have them remembered, it seems that we are incredibly ill-equipped for dealing with them adequately.
4Internet World Stats September 2010.