The PJ Circle Jerk

Kenneth Jarecke
Nov 2, 2016 · 5 min read
“John and Karen, Two Lives Lost to Heroin.” by Bill Eppridge for Life Magazine. This is photojournalism.

The PJ Circle Jerk is not a punk band or a new dance craze. It’s what happens when a group of people decide to join forces in order to satisfy their own needs.

Photojournalism is costly. I takes time to produce and you need a talented person behind the camera. Time and talent costs money. Photojournalism isn’t like most editorial photography. It might take a week to witness what you’re trying to capture. It might take a month. News happens on it’s own schedule, not yours. When everything comes together it’s magic. There’s no better way to communicate to a world-wide audience. Of course, this kind of magic is rare, that’s why we (as an industry) reward the best of it.

The PJ world takes contests seriously. Careers are jumpstarted, unseen work is exposed to a wider audience, editors are validated, publications are honored, and publishers are less likely to fire the people who spent the money needed to produce the award winning content in the first place.

Remove the money and you lose the time and the talent. This is precisely what has create the crisis in photojournalism today It’s that simple. You don’t need a pseudo intellectual to explain it to you.

Although the money has dried up, there’s still advertising to sell and editors with mortgages to pay. Which means they need somebody to work the camera, risk their lives, and ruin all their personal relationships. In short, they still need someone to enjoy all the traditional perks that come with being a working photojournalist, only without the pay, ownership of one’s own photographs or the hope of ever creating a lasting body of work and becoming Jim Nachtwey.

To pull this off, they’ve got to rewrite a bit of history, prop up a straw-man or two, and demonize all those who disagree with them. I don’t know if this is learned behavior on their part or instinctual. I guess it’s just the difference between those who want to solve the problem and those who see it as an opportunity.

You need all three sides of the triangle to work together, that’s where the circle jerk comes into play. The editors have to convince the photographers that low or no pay is what they’re worth and that their copyright has no value. The photo contests have to reward and validate this work. The photographers, well, they just have to buy into the scheme and pretend that there’s not any photographers waiting in the wings to undercut the precarious position they’ve put themselves in. The message is clear to photographers, don’t make any waves and you might find yourself shaking hands with royalty.

Naturally, if you remove the money, restrict the time and force the talent out of the marketplace, you’re going to reduce the quality of the end product. That’s just an economic reality. When that happens, all you can do is hope that your customers don’t notice. Awards help in this regard.

I suppose winning the Indy 500 would still carry a certain amount of prestige even if the racing teams had their budget slashed by 90%. Of course that will never happen, the fans, the advertisers and the drivers wouldn’t stand for it. I wonder why photographers do? I also wonder why they celebrate and support those who try to undermine them and destroy their craft.

There’s no need for a new and improved photojournalism. It’s the Great White shark of visual communication. It doesn’t need to evolve, because when it’s done right there’s nothing that can compete with it. That’s why photographers working in other disciplines relentlessly try to associate their work with photojournalism.

Here’s an example, say you’ve got a controlled event that’s completely designed to manipulate you as a photojournalist. A good example would be the U.S. presidential elections. Campaigns spend upwards of $100,000 on a single event, a photo op. They tell you where to stand, they control the lighting, the crowd, basically every aspect of the little campaign bubble you find yourself in. For all practical purposes, it’s theater. Yet it’s also an extremely important news event. What happens on that stage will effect, on some level, everyone else in the world.

What if, as a photojournalist you said, this is all fake, the only way I can possible capture this event is to setup some lights, a little backdrop, and make a picture of a single balloon that drops at a campaign stop? Instead of rising to the challenge, which is what true photojournalists do, you try to swindle your viewers with intellectual hocus-pocus. The photojournalistic equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes.

“Panic in Needle Park” is a movie based on Bill Eppridge’s work. It’s not photojournalism.

Now let’s say your conceptual art project gained some traction in the photojournalistic world. Instead of being laughed at, you won an award or two, perhaps taught a few classes. The editors like this approach. You’ve broken new ground. Not photographically of course, but you’ve convinced the powers that be that you’ve pulled true insight out of meaningless fiction. I’m guessing there’s an eloquent way to express this mathematically, but the only numbers that matter are dollar signs.

What you’ve really done is broken the money, time, talent paradigm that is essential to producing great work. You didn’t need any of these three things. All you really needed was a cleverly worded artist’s statement.

Never mind the fact that there are still a few talented photographers working to create meaningful work in the exact same situation that frightened you. They’re old. Their days are numbered, you’ve seen to that. In fact, as you parade around claiming to have the solution to the crisis, you’ve only accelerated and profited from it.

The final piece of the puzzle is to change the rules of the game. After all, publications still need to win awards. Editors still need to validate what they’re doing. Photographers still need something to help them pretend they’re not just as disposable as those that came before them.

Careful now, we’ve got a lot invested in this brand, there’s value there so don’t monkey with that. Let’s just call it “new and improved”.

Now that I think of it, maybe the PJ Circle Jerk is a new dance craze.

Kenneth Jarecke

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I'm a husband, dad, photographer, a writer (sort of) and an occasional rancher.