Five Reasons War Photographers Are an Endangered Species

You would think that in a world where technology has made the timely transmission of images simpler than ever, international photojournalism in all its forms would flourish. And yet, when it comes to conflicts like the Gaza war, the war in Sri Lanka, or the ongoing protests in Iran, just the opposite has been true.

A Witness to Conflict

Thirty years ago, it would have been unimaginable that conflicts like these would not be photographed. Now it’s the rule rather than the exception. Governments worldwide are successfully blocking any professional conflict coverage that they believe could cast a negative light on their regimes.

This didn’t start with the Iranian protests. The U.S. is guilty, too. During the first and second Iraq wars, our government initiated a partial blockade of imagery, controlling photographers’ movements by forcing them to be pooled (first Iraq war) or embedded (second Iraq war). It has been quite successful in preventing the American public from seeing the true human impact of these wars.

Israel was even more successful in completely shielding its theater of operations from the media. Sri Lanka has followed suit, and now Iran is doing the same.

Lamenting the news media’s silence on the war in Sri Lanka, legendary war photographer Don McCullin, 74, recently wrote in the Times (U.K.): “There is always a need to be a witness to conflict … We cannot afford to be shielded from what people do to each other in war.”

How We Got Here

So, how did we get to this place? We can’t blame it all on government censorship; the media have been accomplices in the decline of war photography. Here are five ways the media have contributed to the problem:

1. Lack of financing. Major media outlets either cannot afford to send photographers to these parts of the world, or they will not pay freelancers enough to risk their lives. The dwindling number of media outlets doesn’t help matters, as photographers can’t even count on volume sales to cover their costs. Trust me, if a news outlet offered $100,000 for any valid images coming out of Iran, Gaza or Sri Lanka, there would have be hundreds of photographers. But why risk your life for $200? Why bother getting arrested or wounded for your images to end up as a few frames in a bland daily wire feed?

2. “New” journalism. “New” journalists much prefer to set up Google alerts, check Twitter and log into Facebook than to lift their asses from their chairs and report on a story themselves. Twitter’s success is at least partly a result of how broadly the media are using it. You have a greater chance to be published these days if you have a Twitter account than if you send a video to CNN iReport. Why should these journalists bother leaving the comfort of their cubicles if everything is delivered in their desktop?

3. The disappearance of photo reporters. As a corollary to No. 2, gone are the days of Capa, McCullin, Adams, and many other photojournalists who simply could not live if an event were not covered properly. Today’s international photojournalists are too busy courting the NGOs and foundations for paying gigs.

4. The death of photo agencies. The Sygmas, SIPAs and Gammas of the not-so-old days would do whatever it took to support a photographer willing to go and cover an event. Since you can now make a hundred times more money with a picture of Lindsay Lohan leaving her hotel a few blocks away, why bother? (A notable exception is Polaris Images.)

5. The decline of news magazines. Great news magazines have vanished in the United States, and have not been replaced by an online equivalent. This is a huge void. And the reason is not because there is no audience. It’s because there are no great editors in chief, no great news gatherers.

It’s appalling to see, at least in the United States, that just because foreign journalists are being kicked out of Iran, the professional coverage stops. I fear things will only get worst.

13 Responses to “Five Reasons War Photographers Are an Endangered Species”

  1. Paul,
    This is inline with the trend of newspaper staff photographers becoming dinosaurs too.

    Eventually there will be fewer and those who remain as "staff" will be asked to multi-task, edit and shoot video as well.

    As bleak as it looks, citizen journalism will always have a credibility problem.

    Perhaps when the traditional news media outlets solve these issues of credibility and how they can monetize their content, there'll be salvation for war photographers.

    It's not a problem with lack of wars. It's how to support the folks who are willing to take the risks.

  2. Good point, Peter. I think we'd all be happy with the lack of war photography if it had resulted from a lack of wars 🙂

  3. Madia is the first enemy to the racist regimes.
    Regimes still get away with Blackouts and Genocide, like we saw in Sri Lanka.

  4. Good summary of the situation however where's the follow-up? What can we as photojournalists do to change/influence the situation?

  5. I'm not agree with number 3. Of course, there aren't photographer like Capa, Adams, McCullin. But there are other names.

    The main problem is the lack of financing. Nowdays It's more profitable for a maganize an editorial about Summer Resorts than one about Sri Lanka. It's about money, anyone cares about news.

  6. Why are there no great editors in chief?

  7. Well, I think there is a lot of truth in this five rules. But reality is also more complex than reducing it to a couple of punchlines.

    I consider myself a photojournalist from the heart. I quit good paying job, I moved to africa, I go through shitty conditions to take pictures and I was living of my savings for quiet some time. But in the end its the payment that makes the difference. I know so many young and hungry photographers but after a couple of months traveling and trying to work you into things its not that easy today anymore.

    We had that discussion about the wars and we came to the conclusion that actually in the late 2000's there arent as many wars and straight forward conflicts anymore around as it was in the early 90ies after the collapse of the eastern block.
    Back then you could go to almost any continent and you hade coutless conflicts where you could make yourself a name. Especially during the 80ies and 90ies many famous war-photographer today made their name. It was much easier. If you go to a conflict zone today, almost everyone is already there, making a sell as a non-staffer of one or the other newsservice quiet difficult.

    I see the problem with the "new" journalists, that just sit on their ass and reducing their picture of the world to a computer screen. But I cannot say out of my own experience that there aren't enough young and talented guys out there trying their best to get a foot into the door.

  8. Good summary... Peter Harris has asked - what can we do? We can still belive in humankind, the connections across cultures and the own ability to make a change. If there is a storie, just get out, take the risk and try to cover it.... somehow the media will flow and the news will come to an audiance... but the worst thing would be to give up and sit also back like the majority...

  9. Interesting articles. I have worked in Afghanistan with the United Nations, crossed borders, danced in women only prisons - and played with raw, stick opium as if it was a dough-ball.

    I´m currently planning to get out to several "conflict zones" and I do regard myself as a "conflict photographer" - but that can be conflicts between disgruntled students in the centre of Barcelona - throwing bottles at the local police - to suicide bombers blowing themselves up right next to my compound in central Kabul.

    I´m still carrying the torch, and to be honest - I really don´t give a damn if Im a dying breed - in fact it pushes me onwards - to bear witness to what is happening, what has happened, and what potentially could happen in the future...

  10. Hi,

    I would love to become a war or conflict photographer. I'm currently studying and majoring in Politics and Philosophy. I live in South Africa and my dream is to just get in there and document exactly what is happening, when and how it is happening. I am not afraid of the risks that it involves. My dream is to go to Sudan. Do you think it will all be possible? and how should I go about entering this field?


  11. Thank you for your entry. It has given me very much to consider. Thanks again!

  12. Hi

    i want to know about a photographer who mentally disturbed due to his photographs

  13. Sago- a photographer you might want to look into is Kevin Carter

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