What is a professional photojournalist in the digital age? This question was posed by Fred Ritchin at a New York University forum and it wasn’t met with a definitive answer, the closest response was the speculative idea that the professional is the photojournalist a photographer that can be trusted not to fabricate their images. Perhaps we can define a professional photojournalist by looking at the definition of a professional in other genres of photography such as art or sports. In this instance it would appear that the professional photojournalist is to be the employed photographer; however due to the funding complications, the employed photojournalist is in danger, usurped by the masses of free imagery being generated by citizens everyday. The digital age has introduced many complexities to the practice of photojournalism, as a result the parameters of the professional are fluctuating, yet to be pinned down to a definitive characterisation.
It has been suggested that a professional is the photographer who whilst horrific scenes are taking place, remains behind the camera and documents it; their responsibility is to depict the event. However this ideology was challenged by photographer Kevin Carter who took the photograph of vulture watching a starving Sudanese girl. This image was met with criticism by the members of the public who believed the Carter should have participated in her rescue rather than maintaining his role of observer. Therefore it appears an impossible task to define the professional as the role is constantly under analysis and criticism.
In addition to this the role of the photographer extends past the primary function taking the photograph, Marcus Bleasdale demonstrated the drive to make change in all aspects by adapting his photographic work to engage with different audiences. Perhaps the professional photojournalist is the photographer who takes control over their own work and influences the manner and form through which it is published and distributed.
The idea of ownership has become increasingly prominent in the digital age, as the hacker culture professes the right to free information, the challenge to the photojournalist is remaining in control of their photographic work. In an attempt to create imagery that will engage with the digital natives, photographer Benjamin Lowy used a smartphone camera and the digital application Hipstamatic to produce his imagery. The success of which has inspired the application to create a photographic filter named after Lowy which means the audience can replicate the aesthetic seen in his imagery. However head of a photojournalist festival Jean Francois Leroy stated that the use of the app removed the element of control, forming the idea that the technology behind the aesthetic actually owned the image. Leroy discussed this idea further, stating that photographers like Lowy were working to ‘standardise’ photojournalism.
Linked with the practice of photojournalism is the concept of ethics, the National Press Photographer’s Association has publicised a set of ethical guidelines to which their photojournalists must comply. In the process of representation, responsibility must be taken to ensure that the subject is represented effectively and accurately to avoid the notion of exploitation. Perhaps a professional photojournalist is the individual who complies to these ethical guidelines when producing imagery, in that case it would mean that any person with a camera, who produces an accurate representation of a subject can be defined as a professional. If we then deem these images to be the standard by which photojournalism should be judged, perhaps issues such as exploitation and misrepresentation will be vanquished. In addition to this perhaps the same ideology can be applied to the role of the photo editor, in order to maintain the quality of the imagery produced.
Overall it appears that there is no instant solution to be offered to the question of what a professional photojournalist is in the digital age. There are many speculations over what a professional photographer might resemble but these can be easily contradicted by one individual, or one single image. In addition to this there will always be financial influences, Stephen Mayes describes that the desire of the photojournalist to make change will always be challenged by the need to generate an income in order to survive. As the digital age progresses perhaps the main principle should be not the status of who has taken the photograph; but the content and the quality of representation.