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.