Photojournalism in crisis

To ride an avalanche

PHOTOJOURNALISM is in crisis. "Pictures, whether from the carnage in Iraq or the floods in Norfolk, have helped to open a window on the world," NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear told the second NUJ Photographers' Conference. "They are the epitome of public service journalism," Dear continued: "yet that window is one that growing forces are determined to shut."

Commander Bob Broadhurst; © Paula Geraghty
Commander Bob Broadhurst

Dear was speaking to nearly 200 photojournalists at the "Photography matters" conference at the Institute of Education building in London's Bloomsbury on 18 May.

Attacking photographers from one side are publishers and broadcasters determined to cut costs, as NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner and other speakers made clear. "Because of the false god of digital technology," Toner said, "there is a belief that amateur pictures are good enough. The professional response to that is simple enough. 'Good enough' is not good enough."

On the other side are Parliament and the courts imposing growing restrictions on anyone taking pictures - from frequently-misapplied anti-terrorism legislation to a mysteriously growing law of privacy.

Commander Bob Broadhurst, in charge of Public Order at the Metropolitan Police, came to offer a commitment to "improve relationships between police and photographers." There was outcry from photographers when he asked: "I don't know what the vetting is for holding an NUJ card. Can anybody apply for an NUJ card who has a camera?"

Commander Bob Broadhurst (left)
Commander Bob Broadhurst (left) listens to photographers, with solicitor Emma Hulme and photographer Jeff Moore

But, one photographer protested, "you can have the most left-wing anti-police member of the press there and they have a right to get their work published as much as the most right-wing."

"We reject entirely his false argument" belittling the NUJ's checking that applicants are in fact newsgatherers who earn their living as journalists, Dear responded concluding the conference: "We will fight not just to keep the window open but to open it wider and let more light in".

Commander Broadhurst promised to reply in writing on further moves to train and inform all officers of the guidelines agreed by the Association of Chief Offices on dealing with the media, and on whether the Met was keeping details of photographers who were themselves photographed by the police.

Members are encouraged to report incidents when they have been hindered - or indeed assisted - by police, via www.londonfreelance.org/policing

On the challenge to the business of earning a living as a professional, veteran David Hoffman noted that there are three ways to survive an avalanche: "You can not be there - you can diversify into other fields. You can dive into a crevice and let it pass over you - specialise in a niche market. But the most fascinating way is to run with the avalanche and go with the flow." That's not easy: "There are plenty of visually illiterate people buying pictures," Hoffman said, "and they like pictures like their friends take - professionals may laugh at those pictures, but professionals are rarely buyers."

The 60 members attending the conference session on copyright expressed unanimous opposition to an idea floated by the UK government to deal with "orphaned works". This would deal with works whose authors cannot be identified as if they were abandoned bank accounts - the Treasury would take effective ownership. They also unanimously opposed US proposals that would leave use of orphaned works illegal but effectively to prevent any parents of the alleged "orphan" suing.

"From the protest at Kings north power station to the Israeli embassy, from the Greek embassy to the City of London," Dear concluded, "the NUJ has made the treatment of our members a key political priority."

  • The conference took place at London University's Institute of Education on 18 May 2009.
  • A very complete report is available to members only - contact the Freelance Office
Last modified: 18 May 2009 - © 2009 contributors
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