“Photojournalism’s 2020 Vision”

Happy New Year! I am pleased to contribute to 2020 Vision: Forecasts for the year ahead from Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture with this post:

With allegations of ‘fake news’ continuing to spark acrimony across the breadth of public life, photojournalism’s privileged status in the pictorial mediation of the world around us is increasingly open to question – indeed, some would say it is poised to unravel in the weary, cynical swirl of ‘alternative facts’ associated with a ‘post-truth’ society. Accordingly, this blog post aims to encourage efforts to revitalise the visual authority of the news photograph – and with it the photojournalist’s claim to reportorial integrity – in the search for positive ways forward.

In considering several factors at stake, it is necessary to first recognise the harrowing personal risks confronting photographers in crisis situations – professionals and ordinary citizens alike – striving to capture and record imagery of newsworthy significance. Acutely aware they may well be deliberately targeted in warzones, imprisoned for documenting human rights abuses or, closer to home, forced to cope with intimidation, legal censure or fear of arrest, she or he will likely set forth an impassioned defence for visual truth-telling in the public interest. Placing themselves in harm’s way to bear witness is a demand consistent with their role, particularly when media freedoms are being violated.

Turning to more everyday news environments, photojournalism’s once sharply cast priorities are blurring under intense commercial pressures, its social responsibilities in danger of succumbing to the chimerical charms of click-bait infotainment. To the extent an ethical commitment to dispassionate relay is deemed to be an impossible achievement, the professional may well stand accused of imposing a selective, self-interested narrative to advance a prefigured editorial agenda. Impartiality will be derided as a contrivance in the eyes of some, a deceptive pretence which fares badly when compared with the raw honesty of the smartphone-equipped amateur who happens to be on the scene.

At the same time, we are all too aware of how the shifting, uneven imperatives of a ‘photo-saturated’ lifeworld engenders its own perils, with the glut of compromised images streaming through social media feeds inviting a corrosive scepticism regarding what can be verified as credible or authentic. Familiar platitudes that ‘seeing is believing’ because ‘the camera never lies’ seem anachronistic, if not touchingly naïve, even when the ‘acceptable limits of Photoshop’ are being respected rather than transgressed. Meanwhile the algorithms driving sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat, Pinterest or Tumblr are inscribing new visual sensibilities, the participatory logics of which embedding an ethos of acquiescent consumerism over active citizenship.

Identifying these and related factors is the first step in reversing them. Quality journalism demands proper investment, yet most news organisations deny it the resources required to foster cultures of experimentation and innovation. This when public trust in ‘mainstream’ reporting appeared to be reaching a crisis point even before the scourge of ‘fake news’ rhetoric began contaminating perceptions. Photojournalism has not been immune from sustained criticism, making it all the more important lessons are learned (the partisan manipulation of visuals by the popular press during the recent national election campaign being a case in point).

Now is the time to create alternative conditions of possibility for new forms of dialogue and debate over how best to recalibrate photojournalism for a digital age. We need evidence-led analyses bringing together diverse, challenging perspectives to inspire progressive change. To rethink longstanding responsibilities will not be easy, particularly when engaging publics less inclined to believe photojournalism is fit for purpose than previous generations, but all the more necessary for its future viability in 2020 and beyond.

About Stuart Allan's personal blog

Stuart Allan is Professor and Head of the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University, UK.
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