My dear friend and fellow photog of many years, PF Bentley, recently shot me a super solid and sent me a beautiful 16×20 rendition of the moment of the transition of power, from January, 2001. Framed it, and it’s about to go up on the wall. Shot from an unusual angle, it wonderfully, monochromatically shows the inauguration of George W. Bush. Terrific photo, from a terrific photographer, working in consort with an important publication. It’s a reminder of our long-held tradition of the peaceful inaugural process, a hallmark of our democracy, a tradition we have long taken for granted, and one that teetered on the brink this past January.
Storytelling pictures. Moments in time. Photographers, I would submit, are more important than ever, even though, along with the rest of the world, we have taken it on the chin of late. Truth be told, our profession has been under assault for many years now, long before COVID, with the diminution of rates paid for our services, and the evisceration of rights to the images we create. Many newspapers have abandoned the notion of maintaining a staff, deeming it too expensive. Most magazines are a shell of what they once were, if they continue to publish at all. Bleakness abounds. A photo editor of a major publication, in an interview not too long ago, offered sobering advice to young, would-be photojournalists. Basically, she counseled that it would be advisable to have a trust fund, should you try to do this job.
In the face of all the daunting headwinds photographers face, what do they do? What they have always done. They retain passion and excellence. They continue to find a way, creating new and unique paths to continue to shoot and report effectively. Long time Contact Press Images photographer Ken Jarecke has launched The Curious Society, a group dedicated to supporting photojournalism. Which means paying photographers. They are going after this by supporting grants, advocating for fair licensing fees for usage of photos, and trying to create an environment where photogs can feel sustained as they do their work. It’s tough to concentrate on the story at hand when you can’t make the rent.
Young photographers, such as the very talented Maranie Rae, are opting for funding via grants, and partners, or sites like Patreon, Venmo amongst others. Malike Sidibe has combined art and photojournalism in extraordinary ways, shooting searingly important pictures in the streets during the Black Lives Matter protests, at the same time pursuing interpretive, dreamlike portraiture and fashion. Mark Peterson continues to work for publications, but also creates revealing, powerful books, unflinchingly showing us to ourselves.
Ami Vitale has become a powerhouse voice, creating the awareness that so many creatures of the natural world teeter on the brink of extinction. Polly Irungu is both photographer and activist founder of Black Women Photographers, a community that offers a powerful and persistent advocacy for black female photographers. An advocacy that includes listing and promoting photographers to clients, so they can work, and get paid, and therefore sustain.
And there is a continuum! Photographers who have passed on continue to influence. Witness the Gordon Parks Foundation, talking to all of us via Instagram, reminding us of how Mr. Parks’ boundless creative spark would not be quenched. He left a gift for all of us, a gift which speaks today, in compelling ways. Sir Donald McCullin, now in his 80’s is also on Instagram, reminding us all of the power of the camera. As he says:
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
The Monroe Gallery continues to celebrate historically important photojournalism, and relentlessly advocates for the photographer. All these forces remind us, whether they come from the traditional world of ink on paper, or have grown their voice on the Internet, the basis for it all is a good photograph.
The list goes on. Alicia Hansen has created NYC Salt, an organization that supports the necessary creativity of young communicators, and helps them push forward for ongoing education, honing their skills in all manner of visual storytelling. My dear friends Liza Politi and Ari Espay have created Statement Arts which labors tirelessly in support of the stated mission described below.
Statement Arts is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing the creative visual & performing arts to underserved and/or low-income individuals. We channel creativity to educate, to enhance intellectual performance, to empower and guide, and to build self-esteem. Statement Arts is committed to giving our students an intercultural and interdisciplinary arts experience to which they do not have access. Statement Arts believes in the power of art to inspire social, cultural, and environmental education to further a legacy of responsible global citizenship.
These are just a few. But their efforts are a reminder of the persistence of the importance of the still photograph, of communicating visually, without screaming rhetoric and heated words. Pictures just are. They speak, powerfully, wordlessly.
Thanks PF. Not just for the print, but for reminding me all over again just how important this is.