Photography isn’t what it was. Once a privilege, owning a camera has become unremarkable, almost expected.
The ubiquity of photography today makes it more difficult to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary, to differentiate a routine Instagram post from a Pulitzer candidate. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ubiquity inspires improvement; if a photo wants to be noticed today, it needs to be better. It needs to have a more interesting story. As supply and demand increase in the market of photography, the quality of images has to rise.
Anyone can take a photo at any point in their quotidian life. The internet has allowed us all to document existence as it happens, but are we documentarians?
Maybe, to an extent. We document the facts of our own lives, through our perspective — the smartphones we use are an extension of ourselves, a third eye. We’re all amateur photojournalists, visualizing our autobiographies.
But the role of the professional photojournalist is more crucial than ever; they must go beyond their own life, and capture what a human eye can’t — or neglects to — see. While personal technology enables us to find a comfort zone, photojournalists step into the unknown to allow us to discover new worlds, rather than the ordinary, almost repetitive world seen in Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories.
It can be easy to take photography for granted today. But a simple test can remind you of what truly great photojournalism is:
- Open Instagram.
- Scroll through the first 10 posts, looking carefully at what they’re presenting to you — a plate of food, a fashion statement…
- Then open an article like this, the Guardian’s 20 photos of the week.
This isn’t to say Instagram, or Snapchat, are unwelcome. They are platforms, neither innately good or bad, simply well-designed. Their popularity could have led to a decline in photojournalism, but it has allowed the profession to become vital, while enabling amateurs, if they wish, to take on this role themselves.
Smartphone cameras still can’t match the quality of a professional camera. Instead, once these apps gain millions of users, they have a quality that the individual photojournalist doesn’t: people power. Apps can concentrate and share the attitude shown by the masses in events like the Arab Spring in 2011, when the cameraphone became a tool of defiance and truth.
Though a single amateur couldn’t compare to a photojournalist, digital platforms can crowdsource images, allowing multiple perspectives to be seen of an event — a momentous evolution for photojournalism, which, in the current multimedia landscape, is now parallel to what you could call videojournalism.
Snapchat has adapted to this, in a way that Instagram hasn’t, with its ‘Live’ function. It is both ephemeral, as with anything by Snapchat, and historiographic, a 24-hour stream of geotagged photos and videos that is curated as an event happens.
These technological advances are crucial in continuing a journalistic attitude in a time when the rapid dissemination of information can make us miss what is important, the signal lost in the noise.
As consumers, we have to ‘curate’ the images we’re shown in order to tell a comprehensible story, deciding what is important and what is banal as we stay afloat in a sea of images. Photojournalists ease this process, their images identifying the moments that matter. Today, we need them more than ever before.