This article first appeared in Amateur Photographer in December 2017
WHEN MY BROTHER DIED unexpectedly at the age of 40, my family was distraught. Like others struck by grief, we flapped around searching for ways to celebrate a life cut short.
A faded newspaper cutting celebrating his non-stop bicycle ride from Yorkshire to London and back, years earlier, provided one cue. The crumpled newsprint clipped from Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus featured a monochrome shot of him, with his bike, holding a map and checking his watch. It is a classic newspaper feature: the image communicates the gist of the story, the caption provides the details.
Hoping that a better print might comfort my mother, I contacted the paper. Its picture editor promised to check the archives.
A couple of weeks later, I was amazed to receive a large, full-colour print; it has occupied pride of place in my parent’s home ever since.
Wasted talent and lost incomes infuriate me, as do tumbling standards in well-loved titles. But photojournalism requires more than competence with a camera. My picture was accessible only because it had been properly titled and archived. Today we take millions more photographs than we did 30 years ago, but few are properly captioned in the style that is second nature to newspaper photographers.
The photographic databases of community life that newspapers accumulate are priceless troves. They provide granular evidence of important events, the composition of committees, what cases came before the courts and how built environments have evolved.
Some documentary work continues. A friend who spent decades as a local newspaper photographer tells me that since redundancy and a move to freelance work, he has photographed much the same people as before and been published in the same paper. Now, however, the schools, health trusts and football teams pay his bills. As a result, organisations with budgets are recorded; individual enthusiasts, like my brother, are not.
Newspapers have had a torrid time over the past decade, exacerbated by owners that prioritise profits over standards. There is some evidence, however, that the tide may have turned very slightly. Some local newspaper groups appear to have realised that stealing images from the internet can create problems that outweigh the ostensible cost savings. The days when a team of professional photographers documented life in every town and city are unlikely to return, however.
The NUJ will continue to pressure newspaper groups like Trinity Mirror, Johnston and Newsquest to recognise professional photography’s value. We will also call for local newspapers to be treated as community assets whose destiny should not be abandoned to remote, often foreign, holding companies that care little for community.
For those of us who for whom photography is a passion rather than a profession, the lesson is to put as much effort into captioning as we do composition. Who knows what comfort today’s split-second exposure might provide in the future if we do?