In an age when the visual image has become a ubiquitous commodity, a photojournalist's visual aesthetic isn't enough, writes Jason Cone, Doctors Without Borders' communication director in the US. Instead, what NGOs are now looking for is a photographer who already has an established audience
Every day, I’m inundated with friend requests on Facebook and LinkedIn from photojournalists the world over inviting me to review their portfolios. They offer to provide free photos to work with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the field in return for helping them get to cover international stories.
Over the past 40 years, MSF has partnered with hundreds of photojournalists to document humanitarian crises ranging from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the epidemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis.
But in this age when the visual image is a ubiquitous commodity – when the barriers to entry for the newest photographers have been nearly eviscerated with smartphones and social apps like Instagram – the photojournalist’s visual aesthetic, artistry, and style are a given and what really separates a photographer from the crowd is the network he or she brings to the negotiating table.
As communications director for a medical humanitarian organisation, I’m seeking to advance various objectives, for example, like putting the health crisis in the Central African Republic on the figurative map of political agendas or overhauling food aid to better address childhood malnutrition. Visual storytelling can play a critical role in drawing attention to an otherwise neglected issue.
Yet, what is essential today is the ability of a photojournalist to bypass the uncertainty of the conventional news cycle and the vagaries of for-profit news outlets to reach audiences with their stories. I’m looking to hire the networked photojournalist. And their network needs to take all shapes and forms: from old (Time, The New York Times) and new (Huffington Post, GlobalPost) media clientele to social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and other distribution channels) and access to influencers (policy-makers, funders, activists, other NGOs).
Many in photojournalism have viewed these as dark days, fretting over the Hipstamatic and Instagram-algorithm-driven assembly line now churning out an unprecedented body of imagery. Others have noted the power of these violent shifts in the imagery ecosystem to change the modes of communication and interaction with images.
But with every industrial revolution there are trade-offs – individuality and custom artistry sacrificed at the altar of efficiency and supply-chain management. Armed with smartphones people are streaming their lives and “citizen” journalists are documenting some of the most dramatic events of our time, whether revolutions in Cairo or mass murder in Syria.
One of the reasons that I’ve chosen to partner my organisation with VII Photo, besides its roster of talented photojournalists and commitment to reportage on crises of the 21st century, is that Stephen Mayes, its former managing director, had the foresight to transform the agency into a media company.
In an age of diminishing space for international reportage – when Time is commissioning powerful essays that never make it into its domestic edition – it is all the more critical for photojournalists to bring their own audience to stories. And today that is more possible than ever.
Ad agencies are hiring Instagram photographers (some who have never published in more traditional media outlets before) to shoot their product launches for pure brand visibility reasons. These “smart-phonographers” are instantly distributing their images to hundreds of thousands of followers. Few have the talent of the best photojournalists but they have fundamentally grasped how social media can level the playing field.
Just like e-books have transformed everyone into potential publishers, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms have created a powerful ability to influence political discourse with marketing savvy playing a central role.
Photojournalists need to understand how the power of the network is rapidly evolving and changing the economies of influence before our eyes. A recent study by Waggner Edstrom Worldwide and Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact found that social media is the number one source of information (48 percent of respondents) that provoked individuals to support a cause – even when the support came in the form of offline line actions like a donation or joining an advocacy action.
With a highly fractured audience landscape, even the most established conventional media outlets reach smaller and smaller numbers of readers or viewers. I need photojournalists who can penetrate the news feeds of a wide array of audiences with a few clicks.
It is not only the size of the network that a photojournalist can leverage that is important, but the strength and diversity of the connections within the network. Today, there are simple tools – LinkedIn has one – to map out individual networks, visually illustrating the strengths and weaknesses in connections.
Does this network help the organisation penetrate powerful interests or strategic audiences? Is it a bridge to communities untapped by my organisation? These are all becoming even more relevant questions for NGOs to ask of photojournalists before entering into partnerships.
Taking these questions a step even further is the capability of photojournalists to motivate their networks to become a base of support through crowd-sourced funding models, like Emphas.is and Kickstarter, for their reportage. Whether it is to help underwrite the costs of covering under-reported stories or mobilising their base of followers to take actions on their behalf, this is the kind of value that can exponentially bolster the power of the image.
Photojournalists’ ability to “own” their images, not in the sense of copyright, but to push their work into conversations of influential voices, has the potential to further upend the fast evolving power dynamics in the modern image economy.
While the portfolio will always be important to the credibility and professionalism of photojournalists, the digital Rolodex may now be the difference between a passion becoming a career or just another hobby.
Jason Cone is the communications director for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the United States. As executive producer of Starved for Attention, the MSF-VII Photo, Emmy-nominated documentary series on childhood malnutrition, Cone oversaw the production of eight documentary films, social media strategy, exhibits, and public actions in over a dozen countries aimed at pushing the world’s top donor countries to improve the quality of food aid for malnourished children. He can be followed on Twitter at jtcone1977.