Where is the “New Generation ?
The same week that NEWSWEEK announced that it will be ending it’s paper edition, another festival dedicated to photo journalism is being launched in Saint Brieuc, France. « Photojournalism : A Profession in Crisis » is the title of the festival’s first year. The organizers have given themselves the task of finding answers to this professional crisis that we photographers have been experiencing for the last fifteen years. I applaud the initiative of Didier Rapaud, Alexander Solacolu, and the Saint Brieuc Agglomeration. It would seem that as we sink ever more into this professional crisis, there are more and more photographic festivals.
Formerly with Sipa Press in Paris, I am of the generation of photojournalists that found their principal source of income in the press, the so-called « golden years ». Its true, it was easier to make a living then than now, but the business was never easy. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, I was already seeing the writing on the wall, I understood that the business model of the magazine agencies, ie : Gamma, Sygma, Sipa, was not viable, it was only a matter of time before our agency economy would collapse. I decided that I had to inform myself about my rights, author’s rights and workers rights. I began attending meetings of the ANJRPC*. I was one of the rare agency photographers to adhere to this professional association, probably because the agency photographers had it pretty good, we were the aristocrats of the profession (or at least that’s how we thought of ourselves), unions and professional associations were not part of our culture or social milieu. The labor union mentality was not « cool », obviously, it was not encouraged by our bosses. Photojournalists, I believe, have a very pronounced Darwinian vision of survival, professional unions and associations were for the weak and therefore of little concern to us.
Today, our profession is indeed going through a profound crisis : the magazine agencies have virtually disappeared, the transition from paper to a web based media has destabilized the whole industry and placed photographers in tremendous precarity. Authors rights, working conditions and tariffs are all under attack. We find little respect, except perhaps during photo festivals, otherwise, it seems, photo editors no longer want to talk to us.
A few months ago, during a memorial ceremony dedicated to our fallen colleagues, the photographer Remi Ochlik and the journalist, Marie Colvin, both killed in Syria, the so-called new generation of photograpers was abundantly present. It was the first time I saw this younger generation in such large number. The following week in Paris Match’s on-line edition, esteemed photographer, Eric Bouvet, wrote a eulogy, full of passion and anger, dedicated to Remi and Marie but also this whole new generation of photographers, where he spoke of the poor and disrespectful conditions underwhich freelance photographers work today to cover the news. He was right, except, I asked myself, where is this « new generation » of photographers when it comes to defending our profession ? Why is it that we don’t see them in our professional organizations or journalist unions ? We kow that the professional situation is rotten, we hear the endless laments, but where is the committment? What are they doing to ensure that the social security system, which is beneficial to us in France, or authors’ rights as we know them in France, are not dilapidated ? What are they doing to confront the new forms of distribution and sale of images on-line, (ie. Fotolia), that are up-ending photographers’ incomes ?
I am shocked to see that my young colleagues, as well as many of the older ones, are so terribly absent from any organized form of defense of our profession ; as if that is the work for others to do. When I express this frustration, my colleagues respond, « But of course, you must understand that French photographers are very individualiste. » I respond by saying that they are so individualistic that they prefer being screwed all alone in a corner. ORGANIZATION is the key word and if there is no organization or collective attempt on our part to combat those who would like to see photographers relegated to a position of skilled laborers, then we, as a profession, are finished. I know this is a difficult pitch in a profession where the ego is necessarily over-sized.
Admittedly these organizations are not perfect, they can be slow and suffer from tedious internal politics, but they exist and they can be improved. At least they provide a structure for opposition to those who would dismantle the profession. Most importantly we need new stakeholders, new energy, and new ideas. I am not a proselyte and although I have my own opinion, I am not interested here to promote one or another of the professional organizations that exist. I am simply saying that today it is the younger generation that has the greatest stake to protect and to orient this profession as best they can and yet they are almost invisible from our efforts in organizing a resistance to those who are trying to diminish or eliminate our rights. Its not only a matter of signing petitions or clicking the « Like » button, no, I’m talking about personal and financial engagement because the opposition is increasingly demanding. Everybody likes photography. There are conferences and ministerial « round tables », festivals and photo prizes to encourage the profession but if we do not do the work ourselves to ensure the sustainability of our profession, nobody else is going to do it for us. We like to think of ourselves as « concerned photographers » but it seems that we are incapable of committing ourselves to the defense of our own profession.
*Association Nationale des Journalistes Reporters Photographes & Cinéastes, founded in 1962 in France, l’ANJRPC was a professional association, not a union, it did not have collective bargaining capacity, but it specifically dealt with issues that concerned photographers. It fused with FreeLens in 2003 to become l’ANJRPC-FreeLens which ultimately evolved into Union des Photographes Professionnelles ; UPP.
Thomas Haley, photojournalist with Sipa Press for 25 years, is a member of the administrative council of UPP.