A set of pictures which surfaced on the internet recently caught my eye. Or at least, the context in which they were published did. They were photographs of the fight against ISIS in Mosul, shot on spec by an American freelancer and ultimately published on the PetaPixel website under the headline “No One Would Buy My Photos, So Here They Are For Free...”. The photographer explained in his introduction that he had tried and failed to sell the images and he clearly felt bad that the people in them “very rightly expected” that he would tell their story. He went on: “The worst uncertainty for me as a freelancer in conflict isn’t that I won’t be able to pay my rent; it’s that no one will see the story, and then I will have failed to give a voice to the voiceless. So I have tried to share them where I can, and hopefully people can imagine some of the human tragedy and triumph playing out in Mosul.”
There were a few things about this that troubled me, aside from the photographer’s self-regarding reference to his precarious finances. Firstly, I don’t really see how showing some pictures on a website, or in a magazine, is giving a voice to the voiceless. The people in them, courageous though they undoubtedly are, remain anonymous and largely isolated in their struggle. Secondly, though I’m sure they would like to have their story told, I suspect many of them are sufficiently media savvy to realise that the chance of the pictures ever seeing the light of day is a coin toss at best. But the most obvious problem for me was that the photographer, in contrast, seemed to have a sense of disappointed entitlement, as though the mere fact of these pictures’ existence, coupled with the risks he took in getting them, ought to somehow be enough to ensure their publication. At the same time he seemed oblivious to the crucial fact that the images just weren’t very good. A few were strong, but many were badly composed and the majority were repetitive and cliched, depicting in the most predictable and pedestrian way the kind of scenes that have become all too familiar to us. As a set they lacked any kind of cohesive narrative. Let me state for the record that I really don’t mean to throw this guy under the bus here. I feel very uncomfortable singling him out. But the point needs to be made. The battle for Mosul has been exhaustively documented by several top photojournalists and experienced pros from all the major wire services. Every picture editor on the planet would have seen hundreds of similar images on their screens in front of them. Add the fact that major news outlets are understandably averse to using images from unsupported freelancers for the simple reason that if a photographer were injured or killed they would likely feel complicit, if not outright responsible, and it's clear that for these pictures to be of any interest they would have to be extraordinary. They’re not. So it’s really no surprise that nobody wanted to buy them.
I mentioned all this recently during a long and enjoyable chat for A Small Voice podcast to a man with many years of experience covering war and conflict all over the world - ex Reuter’s photographer Finbarr O’Reilly. He echoed my own thoughts: “With the explosion of social media and the various players in these conflicts now also contributing their user-generated content, there’s no lack of imagery. So what that means is a more imaginative approach from the photographers who are going to document them, independently or for an organisation. You need to bring your own eye and approach to these stories, because if you don’t it’s going to look like everything else. And the value in anybody’s work is not that they are there. You’re not just documenting the fact that you were there. It’s not enough just to say ‘I have a picture of this’. You need to put your personal imprint on the story. And that’s what all the best photographers are able to do… And that can be done. I think that’s something for photographers to keep in mind.”
In other words, in this age of image saturation, Weegee’s famous description of his photographic technique as ‘f/8 and be there’, later adopted by photojournalists as a kind of self-deprecating summary of what the job entailed, is no longer anything like enough. When British photographer Roger Fenton photographed the Crimean War in the 1850s, and Matthew Brady did the same in the American Civil War a few years later, the medium was in its infancy and people were no doubt fascinated to see images of war for the first time. That fascination remained strong for another 100 years or so throughout both world wars and even into the war in Vietnam during the 60s and early 70s, when the American public's attitude towards that conflict was famously influenced by the images they were confronted with in their morning newspaper. All that is ancient history. The culture has changed; the digital revolution has shifted the media landscape unrecognisably; and photojournalists have to respond accordingly. They must be more imaginative, smarter and better at cutting through the white noise, information overload and compassion fatigue by finding new and more effective ways of telling the story.