As a newspaper photographer, I had to make daily deadlines, I had to be ready for the unexpected. Always come back with a photo. This meant keeping a camera loaded, within easy reach, ready to grab a photo that you spot while driving from one assignment to another, it meant having to take a photo to go with the story (I liked the challenge of getting something different from the wire services), you had a few minutes to find the photo and then get back to the paper to develop film, edit, print and caption the photo. (Only enough time to cover the first 3-innings of the game then start processing, to make the 11 o'clock deadline.)
So I was assigned to cover the urban commune that had occupied an abandon home and was resisting eviction. The city was going to force them out and since I lived the closest I was called first, a staff photographer jumps when the editor says jump. We figured it would be in the middle of the night and I'd be lucky to get a photo with strobe of them being led into paddy wagon. Instead, the police sealed off the area and started moving spectators off the street. Other photographers had arrived with longer lenses, so they covered the front and I got into the apartment house next door to shoot out the manager's apartment window.
So it was interesting reading Mark Loundy's blog on newspapers laying off photographers because the word people felt the staff photographer was like a kicker on the football team. An interesting analogy, which I can relate to. Writers pitch the story to the editor, get the assignment and then maybe or maybe not write a request for a photographer. No input from the photographer, he/she simply gets an assignment telling them where to go and what to photograph.
Before coming to the Inquirer in 1975, I had been a freelancer in Paris, France. Working for photo agencies like Sygma and Gamma, I was also an Associated Press stringer. Shooting some news for the A.P. I noticed how newspapers in France didn't have any staff photographer, they used only freelancers. In the United States where ever pub had to have a staff the photographer, they worked with each others, to a fault. Ofter everyone simply took the same photo to insure that editors wouldn't fire them when the competition had something better.
But in France, if the freelancer was going to sell his/her photo to the newspaper it helped if there was less competition. They wanted to shoot up close and block anyone else from getting a picture.
Sort of like being a paparazzi shooting celebrities. I was use to covering a press conference and taking over-all with a wide-angle then closeups with the 85mm, but in France there was a someone with a 21mm right in front blocking my view. One assignment was a bank robbery with hostages, we were moved back and I didn't have a problem shooting over the head of another photog who was leaning on the barricade, but when the robbers emerged the photographer in the front row stood up to block as many other photographers as possible.
However, I was taken with the photo agency trend, it seemed better than being a staff photographer.
This was back in 1975 and I wondered why there couldn't be regional photo agency that covered the news like Sygma, Gamma, and Sipa, selling not just to newspapers, but magazines, trade pubs, companies, advertising etc.? Cover an event and then contact all the publications. I liked the idea because it gave the photographer more authority in picking the assignment and get more photos published. More freedom. Stay longer at events, better coverage and come up with ideas. We need mini Magnums, so photojournalists are free to do what they do best.
So don't see the loss of a photo staff as a problem, but where is the mini agency?
I've done some work for Demotix in London which was purchased by Corbis. Using technology they get the local photographer's photos out to the world. (Especially in war and natural disasters) Based in UK with selling price for mass market publications willing to pay for exclusive photos. The local newspaper will only pay $10. They might like a weather picture or coverage of a regional event in the weekly paper or website, There are still lots of weeklies and the small price multiplied adds up. But there needs to be a central cooperative to make sure they pay.
I wonder if a local agency could help former newspaper photographers get photos published? Thanks to the web it should be possible. This is where a group of photographers need to group together and start a cooperative, where everyone pitches in to pay for an office staff which would get assignments and sell the photos. Rather than everyone working independently, team up.
Photographers can find the story. I remember when electrical power to New York City was cut from the grid. Gary Haynes saw it as the main story for the day, but we couldn't get any photos. Phones service was intermittent, no train service, if a freelancer took photos how would they get them to Philly? He didn't want the story to run without a photo, it was a big story, so he decided on getting a helicopter. Imagining that he'd have a photo of a deserted Times Square, no electricity, no glowing signs. I was picked to come back with a photo.
Unfortunately, he thought up the idea around noon and wanted to make the 7 o'clock deadline. I was picked and rushed to the airport. Had to have a big helicopter to make the flight to NYC and back, so it was going to cost the paper a lot of money. But it was a big story.
Getting to NYC we headed to Times Square and it was quiet, and the light was terrible. Buildings cast shadows over half the square but it was a bright sunny on the other side. It looked simply like a Sunday morning, and from the air looking down you didn't see billboards on the sides. I couldn't find a good angle.
We hovered around looking for a moment . . . nothing said blackout and the pilot kept worrying about having enough fuel to get back to Philly. We didn't have much time. But I saw smoke rising over in Brooklyn. The pilot thought he'd be able to get there, but then we had to leave.
When we got there it wasn't a fire, we saw looters. Lots of looters. Now this was news!
I used my telephoto lens and shot down the street, I only had 30 seconds. We had to get back to Philly.
We didn't run out of fuel. I felt good and on the way back with the summer heat I fell asleep, landing I rushed to the paper with only a couple of hours till the deadline, I told them that we found something different. They were skeptical. Some crazy photographer, how did he know he was guessing. Nobody had reported looting, but they started trying to contact a reporter in NYC. The news editor waited to layout the front page.
But the reporter hadn't heard about any looting, old land line phones weren't working, no cell phones.
We made a print and showed the editors, still they didn't want to run the photo till a reporter could check and confirm it. But because of the photo they pushed the reporter to keep trying, she finally got through to a police precinct and confirmed it! We had an exclusive!
Unfortunately, the power came back on around 10 p.m. and television started broadcasting numerous scenes of looting in NYC. It was old news by the time the paper came out the next morning.
Today we can do it all with our cell phone and post it immediately onto Face book. Craig Mod in The New Yorker observes how photography has evolved from film to digital to the smart phone. "smartphones further squish the full spectrum of photographic storytelling: capture, edit, collate, share, and respond."
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