The death of photojournalism?

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(This is the complete, unedited text of Pohl's letter.)

March 17, 1997
From: Otto Pohl (
Re: The Death of Photojournalism?

Time magazine sent Chris Morris to Albania last summer to get pictures of the election there. Everything worked out fine, they had the page all set and laid out. At the last moment, the editors pulled the article, opting instead for an article about a restaurant opening in New Orleans.

To hear Christopher Morris and Tony Suau tell it, that's the story of the U.S. photojournalism market. Everywhere, budgets are being cut and publications are turning U.S.-centric and isolationist. At the same time, their profits and circulations have never been higher.

As a manager of the only professional photo lab in Russia, I get to talk to a lot of the world-class photographers when they have a job in Moscow. They come by and we chat about how difficult it used to be to get film processed in Russia, how we all stood at Sheremetyevo airport begging departing passengers to take a bag of unprocessed film back to London or New York so we could meet some publishing deadline, how we processed film in hotel bathrooms before reserving time at Associated Press to wire images back on primitive fax machine-like devices. It's nice now; we can have a coffee and I can show them output from the latest digital devices and talk about our Q-Lab standard slide processing and have a laugh about old times.

During the big events of the early 90s in Moscow there were always the same crew of photographers--Chris was pretty much the last person I spoke with before being shot during the 1993 coup, and Tony would regularly crop up at May Day events or for Mafia stories.

These people were my photojournalism heroes. They had the big shots from the hot spots, and when one part of the world calmed down they flew to the next place that was heating up. They had great stories and great pictures, and for me represented the ideal job in the career I had embarked upon.

But the story Chris and Tony told me in separate visits over the last few days have really made me realize how the market for photojournalism has changed since I quit in August 1996. Although both have contracts with Time Magazine for something like 50 days of photography a year, they consider the U.S. market for photojournalism dead. Tony has not had a picture in domestic Time since 1996, and Chris, after relating the Albanian election story, ignores the U.S. market and has only marginally good things to say about European Time, a publication he only had a few pages in for all of 1997.

Life magazine has fired most of its staff and all of its photographers and is becoming a wimpy human interest vehicle. Big names like Joe McNally, who was among those fired from Life and in town this week on other assignment, are doing just fine even with a few contracts less. But these are the absolute cream of the business and even they are feeling the pinch.

Budgets are being cut, photo editors are being fired, and publications are making do with wire or stock imagery. It's cheaper, news wire images are often more timely, and no one really notices the difference anyways. The main lesson a magazine like Time has learned in the past few years is that when Princess Diana dies and they put her on the cover, they sell more issues than they ever have before. And they figure that there are a hell of a lot more readers who might get hungry in New Orleans than wonder about the Albanian elections.

One of the negative aspects of the unprecedented boom in the U.S. economy seems to have been the growing confidence of the American public that they have all the answers. The Soviet Union collapsed because they had the wrong ideology, Eastern Europe got stuck on the wrong side of a losing battle, and Europe and Japan are looking lethargic and hidebound with their high taxes and large social programs. The reasoning appears to be, hey--if you live in the best country in the world, with the best economy and the most opportunities, what do you need to know about the rest of the world, other than maybe the snow conditions at a few ski resorts in Switzerland?

Europe is little better; the publishers there wonder about the economics of paying a potentially fallible photographer top dollar to scramble out to a story when they can sit back and have the pick of the crop when all the photographers start pouring their images onto the news wires and syndicating them out to the big agencies. The editor only has to pay for the actual images they want to use. Where a story could be sold in ten different countries five years ago it's lucky to have any resale at all.

Other photographers have chosen various paths out of this dilemma. Some have gone corporate, shooting advertisements and annual reports. James Nachtwey and David Turnley sold the rights to their pictures to Bill Gates' Corbis photo bank for a stack of cash a year or two ago, and now spend their time fairly unconcerned about any change in day rates. Others have turned to making movies, or have moved out of the image market completely. But this isn't just a story about U.S. isolationism, or stupid editors working for greedy accountants. What I think we're seeing here is a world dealing with images as a newly devalued currency. Until recently, the world was a huge unknown and our only glimpses came through the eyes of those intrepid enough to venture out and return with the goods. It was a symbiotic relationship--the magazines had the readership and the clout, but needed to pay for the appropriate material. Now the readership and the clout remain scarce while the images are so plentiful that I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of photographers would give their work for free in exchange for the exposure.

Even when I moved here in 1992, a fresh picture out of Moscow had an innate value just because it was a fresh picture out of Moscow. In just the past few years, the economics of the situation has completely changed. Images are free and bombard us from all sides; it is now your attention that has become the commodity. It's becoming clichë to refer to this as the emerging attention economy, but in this case it really appears to be the case. In the market of imagery, at least, your attention is just about the only scarce thing out there. And in a world where you're not expected to dwell on any one picture too long anyways, not with all those images out there that need viewing and only 24 hours in a day, there isn't much reason from a publisher's perspective to put too much money into creating yet another new image.

So we've got publishers convinced that readers don't really want to know about the gritty truth about faraway lands, and whatever grit that does make it into a magazine can be purchased from the lowest seller.

The stock photo industry (stock photos are any photos that are not shot on specific assignment--they exist in huge photo banks waiting for someone to develop a need for just that picture) has gone through an interesting change recently as well, with CDs and networks facilitating the rapid duplication and distribution of millions of images. You can purchase an essentially infinite number of pictures of, say, the Eiffel tower, and therefore there is no reason to either pay a lot of money for one, nor is there a reason to hire a photographer to take yet another. In fact, CDs full of them are on sale, royalty-free, for only a few dollars a disk. After much hand-wringing the economics of the business began to emerge.

The prime value of an image now lies in its exclusivity. There are still occasions of companies paying $10,000 or more for a picture, but now they're primarily paying that to purchase the right to the exclusive use of the image. It's estimated that 80% of all image uses do not require any exclusivity, and therefore 80% of the market is more or less economically uninteresting. At least that last 20% should be immune to any further changes in technology, because exclusivity will always be valuable. Photojournalism is somewhat analogous. The whole news segment of the market is like that 80% of the stock business--the pictures are becoming, to use the bygone rallying cry of the nuclear power industry--too cheap to meter. Feature work is somewhat the same, largely due to the ocean of good feature work out there, except for when exclusivity comes into play and the subject is desirable. Celebrity paparazzi shots are good examples of extremely valuable commodities, but again only as long as the competing tabloid can't get its hands on them.

Probably the most enduring and profitable market for images will be photographers marketed through vehicles like Vanity Fair. They need marquee names for their covers like Hollywood needs stars, and they've got the budgets to make almost any shoot a huge marketable event. Annie Leibowitz can marshal hundreds of thousands of dollars to get famous people into huge sets and create images that impress by their sheer bombast. The astronomically expensive movies of Hollywood not only guarantee audiences that they will see big stars and big special effects, but the price also keeps would-be competitors out of the game. Anyone can make a movie. Not a lot of people can make a $250 million movie about a boat that sinks, and that's the one that makes the headlines.

So there I sit in my white shirt and listen to my heroes from my photojournalism days talk about the hard times. When I quit the New York Times I always had the feeling that I wouldn't be able to stomach competing for free-lance assignments after the cushy life with guaranteed assignments. Now it seems like its become a hobby only for the well-to-do, who can self-finance their trip to the next Rwandan massacre. And how many well-to-do are there out there that want to do that?

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