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The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo department this week. Every single photojournalist employed by one of the most recognized newspapers in the United States was shown the door. Some were relatively green, some were “photogs” there for decades, countless years before the death of the darkroom, and the burial of film. Some of the most talented photojournalists in the country, if not the world, who deliberately and repeatedly threw themselves into harm’s way for the sake of truth, the sake of reporting, and the sake of informing, found themselves lost today, as the Chicago Sun Times made the inconceivable announcement that true photojournalists, real “press photographers,” were no longer needed to illustrate, to broaden, or to add humanism to the words that we, as the public, are asked to take as truth.
This is a truly dark day – Not just for the photojournalists who were let go, but for journalism, for media, for the trust proffered by you to believe the story you’re reading is in fact true.
The Chicago Sun-Times redefined the value of a photograph and a news photographer this week. What was once “worth a thousand words,” has been callously downgraded to no worth at all, cast aside in a knee-jerk attempt by the Sun-Times Media Group to “stay relevant.” In fact, they’ve short-sightedly doomed their flagship newspaper to a guaranteed death.
I graduated Boston University’s College of Communications with a concentration in photojournalism, in May of 1994. Two years earlier, in 1992, I was working for The Patriot Ledger, a daily newspaper outside of Boston on election night, when the first digital photo was transmitted over the AP wire. We all knew this because it had a special caption – “DIGITAL PHOTO – NON-FILM” – As if the lack of TMAX-100 running through the camera made the photo any less of a documenter of history. I remember the photo editor had posted the photo on the wall – “Look at the future,” he said, before disappearing into the darkroom to develop another roll of film.
I kept shooting for several years – Landed a few AP wire photos, usually of spot news – a fireman in Allston, MA, rescuing a newborn baby from a burning house, an apartment groundskeeper fighting a losing battle with his plow against an incoming blizzard. I learned from seasoned, hard-nosed photojournalists on the job – First, they’d push me out of the way to get their shot, and after the frenzy died down, would talk to me – Not apologize for pushing me, but teach me how to get a better shot, and also how to stay the hell out of their way. And I learned.
I wound up taking a different trajectory, working in the newsroom of AOL as it was just starting, but I always stayed true to my “PhotoJ” roots – To this day, I keep a police scanner on my desk in my apartment – When I hear sirens, I cut it on and see if I can figure out what’s going on.
I learned to be a photojournalist, to understand what makes a photo and why it’s relevant. As digital replaced film, and the choice of what mobile phone to buy became not about call quality, but camera megapixels and data transfer rates, every press photographer knew the times were changing, and some adopted these new tools into their repertoire, some even with great success.
But in the end, there has been, is, and always will be, a difference between taking a photograph, and simply grabbing a picture. It doesn’t matter how good the technology gets, the latter will never be as paramount as the former. But perhaps that doesn’t matter anymore. Perhaps the audience who used to read the New York Daily News for their amazing photographs has completely died off. (You know that original logo in between “Daily” and “News” on the paper? It’s a camera.) Perhaps the audience who looked forward to being amazed by their weekly delivery of “Life” Magazine is no more. Perhaps these were a few of the reasons cited in the meeting of the board of the Sun Times Media Group when they voted to kill one of the last remaining links to an era of quality journalism. Perhaps they were thinking “well, everyone has a cameraphone, and citizen journalism is free!” Maybe they actually believe what they wrote in their press release, “we believe our audience of today prefers video to photographs.” Or perhaps the board is simply made up of younger people now, people who don’t remember when a real news photograph could change the world.
Whatever the reason, it’s the wrong decision, and not one that can rely on “things change as time goes on” as a defense. Journalists and photojournalists have always relied on each other to create a symbiotic telling of the news. Replace that with a shaky, vertical iPhone video? I’d rather move back to the days of radio.
For journalism, it was a sad, sad week.