Adapting to a new era of storytelling
By Mathilda de Villiers
From film to digital. From digital to mobile. The world of photography has seen many changes over the past 30 years—changes that have shaped how photojournalists do their job and forced them to quickly adapt to technologies threatening their very existence.
Rich Lam is a Vancouver-based freelance photojournalist who has worked in the industry for over 20 years; previously he worked for Postmedia, Getty Images and Canadian Press, as well as private clients.
The age of social media has transformed how audiences receive the news. Today, competition for photojournalists like Lam is anyone with a smartphone who knows their way around Instagram. In this new era, veterans must adapt and young professionals must develop online skills in order to survive.
Lam remembers what it was like when he first started snapping pictures with film as a student. He says that during the summers, he spent days in the lab developing his film in the darkroom.
“[We were developing] on the bright sunny days, on the hottest days in the year, because no one was in the lab,” he says. Even though he missed out on days in the sunshine, that didn’t matter to him. “I was able to make prints, no contamination, no one to bother me. It was perfect,” he says.
His career has progressed from taking photos for the college newspaper at the University of British Columbia to being a part of the photography committee at the Vancouver Olympic Games. He is still involved with UBC as its official photographer.
Lam is well known for the photo he took during the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2011. He found a break in the police containment lines and captured an iconic moment of a couple kissing on the ground in front of a crowd of rioters. “He looked where no one else was looking,” Erica Bulman, former bureau chief of StarMetro Vancouver, says.
Even though the image circulated the internet and became one of the most viewed photos on the web, Lam didn’t realize the shot had gone viral until the following morning when someone asked him, “So how does it feel to be number three on the internet?”
When Lam talks about the moment, he’s humble. He doesn’t consider it a big break. “It’s more of a talking point,” he says. “It doesn’t even hang in my house.”
According to Lam, the days when a photographer would get work because of such an image are over. Today, if someone happens to be in the right place at the right time, they’ll get the picture that will circulate the internet—and chances are they won’t be the only one.
A photo like the one of the Stanley Cup riots would face fierce competition—especially in an age where more people get their news from social media than from traditional media sources.
The game has been changed forever thanks to the evolution of the camera phone, which has made photography more accessible. The first camera phones, released in 2000, only had enough memory to store 20 photos at a time with resolutions ranging from 0.11 to 0.35 megapixels.
While technology has steadily improved, it wasn’t until 2010 (and after) that phones were readily available with higher-quality cameras—cameras boasting upwards of eight megapixels, flash, autofocus and other features.
Social media platforms for photography expanded alongside these technological advancements. Launched in 2010, Instagram has been described by National Geographic as the “undisputable social network for visual people.”
In 2015, the magazine published a multi-part blog series titled “So You Want to be Successful on Instagram?” In it, the magazine urged photographers to bolster their presence on Instagram, telling readers that a high follower count is a “coveted commodity among artists.”
The platform is so pervasive that amateur photographers struggling to gain a following can hire “brand mentors,” often bloggers and Instagrammers with follower counts in the hundreds of thousands, to coach them on developing the perfectly curated content. In 2019, Instagram boasted a usership of more than one billion people.
Lam—with the experience and contacts already in hand—doesn’t feel as affected by the social media frenzy. Photographers who are newer to the field, by contrast, feel they have to work harder online to make their mark in the industry.
Rick Wilking is a renowned American photojournalist who is based in Colorado. He has photographed three U.S. presidents and was on the ground during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Wilking says the changes social media has brought to the industry have provided valuable marketing tools for photographers.
“News organizations and basically anybody who uses photography, they look at Instagram all the time to find images and photographers,” he says.
Still, the veteran photographer thinks that the way in which photographers are being evaluated today, based on their social media following, is bizarre: “Your qualifications are based on how many people look at you. I mean, that’s just ridiculous, but you know it happens a lot.”
One can easily fall into the trap of chasing likes and engagement on social media, according to Jesse Winter, an award-winning reporter and photojournalist who currently works for StarMetro Vancouver.
While acknowledging the limits of social media, Winter thinks that it has opened up many doors for people entering the field. He says that many of the best photojournalists he knows today have taken their talents and thrown them into finding good stories, taking documentary-style photos, and creating strong and compelling series online. Winter thinks that social media—and Instagram, in particular—is allowing and forcing photographers into a new world of storytelling, which is helping to shape them into different types of photojournalists.
On the downside, both Winter and Wilking talk critically about the rise of influencers on Instagram—where an individual has a million followers, for instance, and a brand or company pays that individual to promote their product on their page.
“That part of Instagram sucks up so much of the oxygen on Instagram that there’s very little left for photojournalists or documentary photographers,” Winter argues.
David Karnezos is a freelance photographer with over 13,000 followers on Instagram (as of April 2019). He says that his strong following makes finding jobs easier, because his social media profiles are the first places a potential employer looks.
“I think it’s massive,” says Karnezos, describing the drastic change he’s noticed in the last four to five years. Karnezos says that five years ago, Instagram wasn’t a place to show your work as a professional. “That’s changed
super rapidly,” he says—especially when it comes to social media marketing and photography. “If you have any kind of content [and] if you have a following, it definitely affects people’s opinion of you and what you can do.”
For Karnezos’ career, the growth in his Instagram following (which he started actively building two years ago) has been a positive thing. “I’ve got jobs because of people looking at my Instagram. But I also think people don’t realize that Instagram is definitely hackable,” he says.
Being a photojournalist is a tough gig, according to Lam: “If you work hard, people notice.” In the wake of so much being broadcast on the internet as well as social media, it’s more important now than ever to decide how hard you’re willing to work to break into the industry as a young professional. “You gotta figure out how bad you want it,” Lam says. “When I was a freelancer for the Canadian Press, you’re on call 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Because you don’t know when news breaks.”
One of the areas within news that has been most affected by social media is spot news photography, according to Lam and Winter. “Generally by the time you get there, there’s photos all over social media already,” Winter says.
To Winter, news photography in the traditional sense has been eaten up by cellphone cameras. When a plane landed on the Hudson River in January 2009, Lam notes how a professional photographer could never have caught that moment because people with cellphones got there first. “You can’t beat the citizen journalist,” he says.
Even though anybody on the streets could take a photo with their phone, only a professional behind the lens is able to capture the moment in a way that encapsulates the essence and emotion of the event, Winter says.
“If you give a camera phone to a professional photographer, they’ll come back with professional images. If you give a DSLR to an amateur, they’ll come back with amateur images.”