‘My number is up’: Photojournalism as a game of chance and why it’s still worth it

James Estrin describes photojournalism in conflict zones as a lottery. When photojournalist João Silva stepped on a mine in Kandahar while on assignment in Afghanistan in October 2010, the first thought that came to his mind was, My number is up. (Silva lost his legs to that mine. He continued to shoot after the blast.)

Estrin is the founding editor of the New York Times’ Lens Blog, so he has many stories like this to tell. When he assigns a photojournalist to cover conflict, he sends them so that they may bring back a fuller picture of the situation, a portrait of the country that tells more than just the violence at hand. In the decades his career has spanned, however, the cost – counted in dollars as well as in lives lost – has risen to prohibitive levels.

That cost has been as evident as ever in the Arab Spring, the topic of Estrin’s talk at Dawson College on Thursday, part of the World Press Photo exhibit on display at the Marché Bonsecours. Although by nature of my chosen field of study I spend a lot of time monitoring and discussing (not to mention worrying about) changes in the news industry, this is when I realized for the first time how deeply those changes affect the lives and livelihood of the photojournalists on the ground in these places. That in turn affects the coverage delivered to the audience at home.

For one, Estrin noted that there was an influx of inexperienced photographers in Libya. Many were unprepared and showed up without assignments. As he explained, going to a conflict zone without the backing of a news organization means a photographer can’t benefit from the support such a publication can provide. Without the security and transportation organized by publications like the New York Times, these journalists are placing themselves in dangerous situations, sometimes with only an iPhone to attempt to capture events and make their name.

He believes that photographers need training, knowledge of first aid, and war insurance when they go out to cover conflict, as well as a support system for mental and physical injuries once they return. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer publications have the resources to send staff to these areas.

As magazine and newspaper budgets for these types of assignment are cut, working photojournalists today are even more at risk, as they venture out without assignment in the hopes of making a name for themselves. They are also targeted by opposing forces today in ways that they never would have been 20 or 30 years ago, because they can be looked up online and identified.

Of course, Estrin pointed out, even the smartest and most experienced journalists, like Silva, Tim Hetherington, and Chris Hondros play that lottery.

While Estrin’s talk wasn’t exactly upbeat, and while he did not underestimate the seriousness of all these setbacks, he did not seem fazed by the challenges at hand.

That’s because there are people like Miguel Angel Sánchez who, through his stately portraits of residents of Cairo, do bring that nuance that is so often lacking in war photography. (Not that I am placing blame on the war photographers – I imagine nuance is not the first thing on one’s mind when one is being shot at.)

That is also because photojournalists have been empowered by the Internet just as much as they have been endangered by it. When I say they have been empowered, I mean that they have the ability to tell stories through photos, incorporated into multimedia, in a way they never were before.

And those thoughts give hope to the first-week photojournalism student! Please tune in next week to see whether all my hopes have been dashed by that point.

Good night and good luck.

– Girl Friday

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One thought on “‘My number is up’: Photojournalism as a game of chance and why it’s still worth it

  1. mattmulligan says:

    Reblogged this on Matthew Mulligan and commented:
    The New York Times Lens Blog is a brilliant photo-journalistic blog and account of global issues, well worth a look.


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