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National Geographic

Is Photojournalism Dead? We Almost Hate To Ask

To be honest, the debate is pretty stale. We've been brooding over this for months (or even years). What's worse: No one really has an answer. But a few prominent voices have recently resonated on the topic, so perhaps it's time to rekindle the fiery debate — or at least poke it. A truculent Neil Burgess, former head of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency, said this in The Guardian:

We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether. Apart from a few old dinosaurs whose contracts are so long and retirement so close that it's cheaper to keep them on, there is no journalism organization funding photographers to act as reporters.

Magnum's reigning managing director begs to differ. In a very long interview, Mark Lubell argues that photojournalism is not dead, but that the model of distribution has changed. But what does that even mean?

It means that magazine and newspaper readership has plummeted. And without an audience to reach, advertisers have pulled the plug on funding. So those publications — the few that are struggling to survive — sure as hell aren't paying for the traditional long-form photo essays they once sponsored. And if they're not paying for them, who will?

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Lubell is be optimistic, but that's because it's his job. What's more telling is that his photo agency recently sold its entire archive to stay afloat. And while Magnum has adapted, yes, to publish their own content online, the waters of monetization are still murky.

After reading Burgess' fatalistic statement, Kurt Mutchler, executive photography editor at National Geographic, e-mailed his thoughts:

"Photojournalism dead? Not at National Geographic. A testament to this is Pascal Maitre's Madagascar story in our September issue. In today's ephemeral Twitter world, in-depth photojournalism has the power to slow the world down just long enough for viewers to gain a real understanding. It's what our readers expect."

As part of our ongoing weekly collaboration with National Geographic, we are featuring a sample from the magazine, hoping it might spark discussion. The Pierced Heart Of Africa, in National Geographic's September issue, challenges the "Madagascar" of DreamWorks, exposing the environmental toll of poaching, mining and deforestation. Burgess would have a hard time arguing that this is not photojournalism. But still — is National Geographic just one of the few lucky refugees amid wreckage of old-world journalism?

Is photojournalism dead? Photojournalists are certainly alive, but can they be expected to survive an economy of fast, cell phone news? In conclusion, there is no conclusion. But we're interested in your thoughts. Leave comments!


Update: Thanks to user comments, we noticed edge distortion in three of the images. We have inquired with National Geographic; in the magazine, the distorted parts of the images have been cropped out. The images have been removed from this gallery, and we are awaiting replacement files and a response.

Update: National Geographic has sent replacement files and an explanation:

Three of the six images in this slide show were pre-press production files sent to NPR by mistake. The additional image area on the three photos was added in order to allow the entire photo to be printed to the edge of the page [in the magazine]. After printing, that additional area was cut off when the magazine was trimmed and bound.