May 8, 2014

When photographers were always part of the story at Fairfax

Photojournalists were once considered a part of the story. The decision to slash the ranks of snappers at Fairfax ends an era, writes former Age photographer Chris Beck.

Fairfax has decided to homogenise the photographic departments of its newspapers. Businessmen are squeezing the last drop of photographic creativity down the plughole in a bid for economic pragmatism. Under Fairfax's new photographic arrangements, news, life and business desks in Sydney and Melbourne would make greater use of external service provider Getty Images for photographic assignments. Some 30 Fairfax photographers from a pool of 40 will be made redundant. In my mind, no one is working for The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian Financial Review or The Canberra Times. The workers are all just ingredients in a big pot, stirred by management. I remember when I was a teenager gazing at the photographs in The Age, marvelling at the creativity. I always looked for the small photo credit at the bottom of the picture and had my favourites. As I began working on local papers, I told a friend who worked at The Age about my devotion to Catherine Tremain's work, and in particular a beautiful feature photograph that had been recently published. She sent me a copy. Photography lovers will probably never be able to follow the work of individual photographers at The Age again. The picture will be credited to an agency. Just as teenagers in the 1960s listening to the Rolling Stones became inspired to discover blues singers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, I looked deeper into photojournalism and discovered the momentous photography of Bill Brandt, Robert Frank and Bruce Davidson. Thanks, Cathy. When I started as a photographer at The Sunday Age in 1989, the picture editor impressed the importance of the images on me. Stories were discussed in tandem with pictures. Weeks later I photographed a coroner for the features section, and the picture took up half the page. The editors believed that it was the image that drew people to a story, and they wanted personality in the picture and a style that was coherent but surprising. That must mean nothing at Fairfax today. Photographers were paired with journalists half the time. We usually had a great rapport, as we travelled Victoria and interstate. We respected each other's input as we discussed the angle of the story and how that should be interpreted visually. On the way to a particularly sensitive story with now-football writer Caroline Wilson, she made it clear I was to be quiet and let her do the talking. I remained silent, and the subject of the story became slightly paranoid about this shadowy figure in the background. The photograph became an afterthought. I’ve met her three times since, and the first words that come from her mouth on every occasion are words of apology about the incident. She acknowledged my presence was of equal value. Those days are now gone. An agency will be sent a directive, probably an address and a name. The agency in turn will send a "faceless man" or woman to illustrate a story that has either already been written or yet to be composed. It’s economical. The age of the camera phone has probably bluffed media management into believing that photojournalism is a luxury. Blurry amateur phone video and pictures of fights and fires on the news and internet are becoming more pervasive because they are immediate. The great photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson famously coined the phrase "the decisive moment" -- that split-second of genius and inspiration that a photographer has to capture a certain moment. He wasn’t talking about just happening to be there to snap off a picture of a punch-up between two millionaires. There are countless areas in media images where a compelling portrait, a sensitive image of a distressing situation, a joyous scene or a powerful image to create discussion is required. You need a team to create the type of images you want. And that team needs to directly belong to the institution. I rubbed shoulders with journalists, subeditors and editors. I wasn’t just a photographer at The Age. I belonged there. I was inspired to care. What will inspire the faceless photographers? *Chris Beck was a photographer and writer at The Sunday Age and The Age from 1989-97, and freelanced for The Age until 2010

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2 thoughts on “When photographers were always part of the story at Fairfax

  1. zut alors

    An image can melt hearts or win an argument in a split second whereas the process is longer through words. An image is also powerful evidence in the way a written report is not.

    The art of photography is about to be homogenised by Fairfax. Why?

  2. puddleduck

    I have followed Chris Beck’s work for Fairfax for years, and have missed it since his departure.
    I applaud this piece, and mourn the loss of all that Chris and his fellow artists and former colleagues stand for.

    Fairfax may as well give up now – so debased is the product, in the drive to make it economical, they are just throwing money away because it’s no longer what we loved about The Age.

    Vale, photojournalism.

  3. Patriot

    Boo hoo! Technology has made your profession redundant. Bet you cheered for the NBN too, you goose. Never mind, the welfare state will take care of you. Might even be worth developing a case of PTSD and getting on the disability. Happy days!

  4. Chips Mackinolty

    Couldn’t agree more with Chris Beck.

    As a stringer for Fairfax for nearly a decade, I valued working with photographers at all times–in particular the indefatigable Dave Hancock, but others as well. Both of us would sweat over the mysterious results of the dark room; both would fret over the 8 minutes it used to take to gram an image to the picture desk. Both would shed blood if a single line in the transmission went wrong and we had to re-send. It was a symbiotic relationship.

    As all journos know, cracking the lead par to a story is the hardest part of the gig. Some times we get it, often not. Many times, it was the inspired work of the snapper that captured the crucial opening to a yarn, and makes our life easier come deadline. Other times, you would know precisely what you wanted, and the photographer would do the job.

    On the one occasion I had to double up as a photographer (the interviewee didn’t want anyone else to be present), I handed in a pretty crap pic, and found myself stumbling to write the story. The image scored a page 1, but was less than average.

    Photographers would often also be the source of stories: they are not mere agency automatons–they live, breathe and shit the news as well as the writers, and bring a vital dimension to journalism.

    And of course freelancers–not agencies–are critical. It was through our dark room, and The Age’s gram machine, that the first images of the Dili Massacre reached the outside world.

    Sure, the media landscape is changing in the digital era, but sacking photographers is sucking journalism of critical experience, talent, obsession and passion.

    And a commitment to news reaching the public, something Fairfax seems increasingly disinclined to care about.

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