Out Of Stock

Photo courtesy of Jesse Winter

A decline in staff photographers has left many newsrooms turning to stock photography in their absence

By Lucas Jornitz

One day when freelance photojournalist John Lehmann was working as a staff photographer for The Globe and Mail, he took a simple close-up photo of yellow police tape hanging up at a crime scene. Lehmann estimates that over the next six months, the photo was reused 20 times a month for its ability to apply to any story about a police incident.

“The problem now is that every story needs an image because of social media and clickability, and because of how people consume the news,” says Lehmann, who left the Globe in 2016 after 14 years with the newspaper. “Organizations are desperate for images, but don’t have that budget to make sure there’s an image with every story, and that’s why there’s a boom in stock photography and archived photos.”

If a reader were to click through the home pages of B.C.’s various online-only news sites, they would see the vast majority of them filled with photos pulled from stock photography websites, Twitter, archives and email submissions. This is due largely to a decline in newsroom budgets over the decades. According to the Forum for Research and Policy in Communication, by 2020, the CBC’s government funding had been cut by nearly $700 million from the budget it was receiving about four decades ago. Budget cuts like these continue to affect many newsrooms’ ability to pay for trained staff photographers.

Jesse Winter, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of United Photojournalists of Canada (UPOC), has seen photojournalism decline rapidly over the span of the decade he’s been working in the field.

“There’s probably only 100, or fewer than 100, full-time working photojournalists or freelance photojournalists left in Canada,” says Winter. “There may be 25 or 30 more photojournalists who are staff [photographers]. That’s it.

“We’re talking about a whole industry that’s less than 150 people, and it used to be thousands.”

Winter, using the Toronto Star as an example, says its photography department has been cut in half since the start of his career in 2011. With the decline of the industry has come a rise in the use of stock photography from sites like Getty Images and Shutterstock.

“Photojournalism in particular—we’re in the middle of a collapse. We’re seeing an overreliance on stock photography, but something that I think is actually even worse is an overreliance on handout photography,” says Winter, describing photos which are supplied to the media by the organization being reported on. 

Winter says that during the coverage of recent Fairy Creek logging protests, certain smaller publications were using handout photos created by the police.

Lehmann likens news publications using unoriginal imagery to a journalist fabricating a quote.

“It’s no different than when we use a photo from a source that we do not know, right?” says Lehmann. “We don’t know what’s happened to that photo in its previous life, or how it’s been manipulated.”

Many national photography associations have strict guidelines on the extent that journalistic photos can be edited before they are considered an inaccurate representation of the news. The Associated Press’ code of ethics for photojournalists states that “the content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means.” It also forbids adding or removing elements from images, and making extreme changes to saturation, contrast and other image qualities.

Violating these ethical codes can damage a photojournalist’s reputation—and in an extreme case, cost them their job. Lehmann says that stock imagery often flaunts these codes.

“A lot of stock photography, they’ve used filters, they’ve added stuff, they’ve removed stuff,” says Lehmann. “You know, they’ve added a sun to make it a more dramatic sunset. And that stuff is just not acceptable at all, at any level.”

Winter says that if a reporter uses an image from an unknown or untrusted source, the accuracy and quality of its content is brought into question.

“Anything that looks like a photograph needs to be a piece of journalism,” says Winter.

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