Instagramers, I was talking about photojournalists here, not you. If your work brings you joy, carry on. There’s nothing to see here and I fully realize you can’t learn anything from an old man like me (but thank you for continuing to point this out).
Photojournalists, photo-editors and those higher up in the editorial food chain, it seems I’ve offend you also. Sadly, this could not be avoided. The Hurricane Sandy images you published weren’t very good and it was important for someone to say so.
Oddly enough, the last time I wrote about this also had to do with hurricane coverage.
You can read that post here.
--To sum it up... People get bored. You have a small window of opportunity to make an impact on your audience. You must present the highest quality of work possible when you have your viewer’s attention. You owe it to them and the people affected by the storm.
(I don’t know if it’s you or me Big Media, but one of us isn’t right in the head. We both keep doing the same thing and expect the outcome to be different. Yeah, you’re right. It’s probably me.)
Knowing it wouldn’t change anything (and it would do me more harm than good), I took my shots. Mainly at Time Magazine for their silly editorial decision to assign photographers to cover the storm using Instagram.
Normally, I’d be happy to move on but then this little number by Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici crossed my laptop.
Here’s Bercovici’s opening sentence;
“If there was still any debate about whether serious photojournalism can take place in the context of camera phones and cutesy retro filters, it’s over now.”
Really, Jeff? Just when I thought I was out you pulled me right back in. Thanks buddy.
There’s nothing in the article to support Jeff’s claim, but the piece is illustrated with Time’s new cover using an Instagram by Ben Lowy of the storm. Evidently, cover of Time equals game over.
To be sure, the cover of Time is a big deal. Lowy should feel proud and it does look good (at least at 405 pixels across). I’m not sure how it works now, but in the past every cover of the magazine was collected by the Smithsonian. Which is way cool. The extra $5,000 licensing fee also helps to pay a few bills.
However, I’m not sure the cover of Time can be used as an example of “serious photojournalism”. Nor as a closing argument for a debate that has just started.
Let me just kill two birds here and answer a tweet I received today.
“If a merely “good” photo can get the Time cover (one that many hobbyist could make) is PJ as a livelihood and pro(fession) dead?”
No dear tweeter, photojournalism is alive and well, it just means Time magazine is dead.
Here’s the deal. People subscribe to magazines to get unique content which they can’t find anywhere else. By unique I mean great. Stuff your dentist, neighbor or fourteen year old with a cell phone can’t produce. Magazines then sell these subscribers, or at least their eyeballs and wallets, to advertisers. That’s where the real money is. The subscription money just pays for (hopefully) ink, paper and postage. The content that attracts the subscribers is paid for by advertising money. This content is expensive and it takes creative people to produce it.
The flow chart looks something like this...
egg - chicken - chicken - egg
It’s confusing I know. Just think of it as a never ending Kickstarter program where you don’t have a million friends you can guilt into giving you five bucks each and every week.
What it means is this, if you don’t give people something great. You die.
Remember that movie “The September Issue”? That was supposed to be Vogue’s last fat magazine (something like 960 pages) because it came out right before the interwebs and whatnot killed the print industry. Well, this September’s issue was (honestly, I’m guessing here) just as big.
Why? Because consumers have decided they still want the printed page and advertisers have discovered they can’t sell stuff on Facebook.
It no accident that Conde Nast still spends big on it’s editorial content. Meanwhile, Time/Warner/CNN (are there more companies to list, HBO maybe), thinks they’ll impress people with Instagrams.
Later in Jeff Bercovici’s piece, Time Magazines director of photography Kira Pollack threw some numbers out regarding traffic to Lightbox's collection of Instagrams. She says it was responsible for 13% of the sites traffic during a week when Time.com had its fourth biggest day ever. She also says Time’s Instagram account attracted 12,000 new followers during a 48-hour period.
Hmmm. Could this be because there was a monster storm heading towards the most populated part of the country?
I wonder if these visitors to Time were satisfied with the content they received there. I mean, where else are they going to find this kind of stuff? If only there was some type of electronic device, a service one could subscribe to or something.
Content made by cell phones and already seen by anyone with a cell phone, doesn’t count. Gaining readers/viewers who have no skin in the game doesn’t count either. Get back to me a month and share the number of new subscribers you’ve generated and then we can talk.
Work in Time magazine is (or was) meant to inspire. It, along with a few others, was the place where the greatest journalist, photo or otherwise, strived to work. To paraphrase Nigel (the Stanley Tucci character in the Devil Wears Prada, yes I’m going there) Time Magazine was a place where great artists and legends walked the halls. Now it seems the players there are more concerned with appearing on MSNBC then producing a great magazine.
Listen, Instagram is a tool (not a “tool”, but a tool... oh you know what I mean). It’s great for photographing half eaten burritos, potential wedding dresses or your own feet, but it’s not the tool to use when making great, lasting, or important photographs. It’s the wrong tool for that job.
In my last post I said this;
“The worst of the offenders has to be Time’s Light Box. Normally I love this site, but sending photographers out to purposely shoot Instagrams is the journalistic equivalent of stringing together an essay from a bunch of tweets. It's shameful and you should be embarrassed. Not to say these shots weren't well seen (which is the hardest part), just that they were poorly executed. Which is to say they fail as photographs.”
Let me say this more clearly to the photographers that accepted this fool’s errand. You saw the photographs. You were standing in the right place at the right time, but the tool you decided to use failed you and more often than not you missed the image.
Digital cameras are not that hard to use. If you don’t have access to a high quality digital SLR, or if using one somehow gets in the way of you making pictures, you probably shouldn’t be accepting assignment from Time magazine.
Ask yourself, what would Jim do? If an editor asked him to shoot an important assignment with his iPhone do you think he’d do it? Do you think he’d risk his credibility like that?
You can put it in historical, pre-digital terms if you like. If Life Magazine asked Henri Cartier-Bresson to shoot a hurricane with a Brownie, what do you think he’d tell them? Yeah you’re right, and it doesn’t sound any better in French either.
Photographers, if you don’t give people something great, you’ll die too.
One more thing (I know this was long and most of you have stopped reading, still).
Time Magazine’s cover was once considered the face of the entire Time/Life corporate brand. The magazine demanded the copyright of images used on it’s cover (agencies like Contact Press Images negotiated a dual copyright agreement) and paid nicely for it. They did this to protect their brand (among other reasons). This changed several years back when they used a micro stock composite image on their cover. Now anything goes, which is best illustrated by Instagram’s Terms of Service.
" By displaying or publishing ("posting") any Content on or through the Instagram Services, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channels, except Content not shared publicly ("private") will not be distributed outside the Instagram Services."
Yes, according to their TOS, Instagram could license Time's cover image to anyone they like. How does any magazine (or any photographer for that matter) agree to these terms?
Let me take this one step further, being so many publications are hungry to publish Instagrams now. As a photo editor, the curator (if you will) of a major newspaper or magazine, what’s keeping Instagram, which is now owned by Facebook, from hiring their own editors and marketing their own branded content directly to your publication?
Haven’t you put yourself in a precarious position? If Instagram, which received something like 10 images a second during the storm, were to cut that fire hose down to a digestible stream of free and juicy content and offered it directly to your publication free of charge, where does that put you?
What’s keeping them from doing this every day? Say for Thanksgiving, or a local football game? Don’t think they’re not working on this right now.
Just a thought.