“This could be the Golden Age of photojournalism,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John Kaplan.
But it isn’t, he said, because in spite of all the new technology at photojournalists’ disposal, newspapers are using lower-quality photos from the public and reporters instead of their higher-quality work.
That is why photojournalists aren’t finding a golden age, but an age of uncertainty.
Due to significant job losses at newspapers, photographers are having to turn to alternative methods of revenue, like freelancing. This means newspapers are getting their photographs from reporters or outside sources who are not trained to the same standards.
Only 66 percent of photographers are happy with their jobs, according to a study by Reuters, and 75 percent of them are making less than $40,000 a year. Photographers at newspapers have seen a job loss of 43 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors and The Pew Research Center.
However, this doesn’t mean the hunger for quality visual journalism has declined.
According to Sara Quinn, who did research with the National Press Photographers Association about how people engage with photojournalism, people can tell the difference between user-generated and professional content 90 percent of the time, and she found that the photographs by professional photojournalists were rated as having better quality and were more likely to be shared on social media.
But this still leaves the professional photojournalist in a precarious position, if they’re lucky. Just because professional photographs are more popular doesn’t mean newsrooms aren’t making cuts.
Melissa Lyttle, recently appointed vice president of the National Press Photographers Association, was laid off from the Tampa Bay Times in 2014 after working as a photographer with the publication for 10 years.
“It scares the shit out of me to see kids coming right out of college, knowing there aren’t jobs for them,” Lyttle said. “I don’t know how I would do it if I were a year or two out of school.”
Most of Lyttle’s time is now spent working on her business, promoting herself and dealing with her business and personal finances. She said only 10 percent of what she does requires picking up a camera, so finding a sense of purpose outside of a news organization is difficult.
Lyttle said trying to get funding to do projects that matter is hard, and she shoots mostly headshots and portraits to keep herself afloat financially.
After a year of freelancing, she attributes her success to the connections she made while she was in news and her tenacity once she got out of the business.
Not all photographers are equally successful in their freelance efforts.
Fred Bellet worked for the Tampa Tribune for 26 years as a photographer and was laid off in 2011. He ended up homeless after his house was foreclosed on and lived in a tent in his neighbor’s backyard.
“I was good at photojournalism,” Bellet said. “I didn’t know what else I would do.”
Bellet used his severance pay to buy a computer, camera and lenses. Four years later, he still does not have a full-time photojournalism job.
“After the layoffs I went crawling back to them two weeks later for a stringer’s job, back where I started out, because I could not bring myself to do anything else,” he said.
“Photojournalism is my life. You come in my house, I have nothing but awards on the wall. I only put them up to remind me who I am.”
Bellet said there is work to be had for good photojournalists, but has found that the work is only part-time, which means no benefits and less pay.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Boyzell Hosey, the director of photography and multimedia for the Tampa Bay Times for the last 10 years, said things are looking up.
“When I look at the work we’re doing here at the Tampa Bay Times, I wouldn’t say that we’re in a decline at all. The journalism is just as strong, maybe even stronger than it has been in a long time,” said Hosey.
According to Hosey, the Times has not seen a round of layoffs for at least a year and this has allowed the morale to come up in the newsroom. It has also allowed them to focus on more short- and long-term projects.
Hosey said he does not believe photojournalists are stretched too thin, but that the times are changing and the profession is not for the faint of heart.
“The skill set of the photojournalist has gotten so much better, so much sharper, so much keener, and we’re better for that,” Hosey said.
Photojournalists may be getting better, but more talent does not mean job security.
Al Diaz, one of only seven photographers left at the Miami Herald, has been working for the publication for 32 years and was part of the Herald’s Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal-winning team coverage of Hurricane Andrew.
Despite his tenure with the paper, he still fears for his job.
“If I lose my job, I lose my house,” Diaz said. “It’s gotten to the point where we’re all concerned: Are our paychecks going to continue?”
Diaz said this concern takes away from his ability to give 110 percent to the paper because the idea of “plan B” is always in the back of his mind.
Diaz said there is a lack of credibility when there are not trained professional journalists covering news events. If a photo is sent in from a business or a citizen journalist, there isn’t a way to prove it is undoctored.
But perhaps more importantly, with the loss of professional photojournalists, there is a loss of purpose in news photography.
“Reporters are shooting pictures and they’re getting great reviews because they’ll do an animal story and they’ll get this video and it’ll go viral,” Diaz said. “They’re getting clicks and everybody is excited about it, but it doesn’t address social issues or issues in society today that are important.”
Tom Burton, who worked for the Orlando Sentinel for over 30 years and left his position as director of photography and video last year, said this predicament is not new.
“The concept of photojournalists being threatened is at least [a] two-decade if not three-decades discussion,” he said. “Basically, my whole career have people been asking ‘Is photojournalism dead?’”
There are two reasons for this conversation, according to Burton: the perception of managers that visuals can come from the public or the reporters themselves, and technology changing to allow for this to be acceptable.
In the last year, Burton has turned to freelancing as well.
“One of the biggest issues [with freelancing] is the steady paycheck, to be able to know you’re going to get a certain amount of money and not worry, not parsing your work out too much,” Burton said, “and some people are better at that than others.”
The one thing that Diaz, Lyttle, Bellet and Burton agree on for the next wave of photojournalists is that multiple streams of revenue will be the key to being financially successful.
Though freelancing photojournalists who have achieved success show there is a life beyond news, Hosey has not given up.
“There is nothing more satisfying than being a visual journalist and working for a good news organization,” he said. “The industry still has a pulse. It’s still alive.”