The Fetishism of Medium: Neoliberalism and the Self-Employed Photojournalist

The deregulated and globalized networks that the field of photojournalism exist in are causing an ‘implosion of meaning’ and leaving photojournalists self-employed in the neoliberal gig economy.


The Fetishism of Medium: Neoliberalism and the Self-Employed Photojournalist

The anxiety of endlessness echoed off the damaged brick walls of the dismal factory where the production of commodities took place. The windows glowed, not as portals to the outside, but as practical light sources for the spinning room. We can only see the side of these windows, one illuminating an eleven year old, tools in hand, body positioned at a moment of vulnerability towards the window. Fully aware that this brief moment could lead to punishment, she glances out of this source of light, knowing that she must return to the repetitive task that consumed twelve hours each day of her past year. This brief moment of daydreaming exists as a stark contrast to other images of child labor; she’s now forever known for this one rare moment of youthful contemplation in a reality of grueling underpaid labor¹.

Lewis Hine’s images show workers in their unsafe and grim environments in which any hints at individualism are left at home and the only connection to other laborers is the act of the exchange of products. However, outside of daily work life we only see workers as being in relation to each other through the presentation of images. While they are depicted in their environment as isolated, we only see them next to other images of workers. They’re not just socially connected by things exchanged, but in the images sequenced next to each other, whether it be through books, newspapers, websites, etc.. Marx’s theory of alienation contrasts the very medium of presentation in photography, creating a tension for us as the viewer to not exclusively see the alienated private individual, but a pseudo (or hyperreal) depiction of laborers of society as a group working abstractly together. While this group is not connected and the individual images display no connection within themselves, the presentation of a series of images adds a social relation that only the viewer can create. This is then amplified through news, social media, and most cultural mediums.

Using this as a foundation to not simply examine the visual or political aspects of an image, but the fetishism of the medium (in this case, the presentation) similar to Marx’s fetishism of the commodity (observing the transcendent nature of commodities and not allowing the separation of the attachment of the labor involved in the production of these commodities) to illuminate not just the transcendence of photographic subjects or the labor involved behind commodities involved with photojournalism, but also the attachment that the industries and the larger systems they exist under have on the medium. In this sense, commodity fetishism is not limited to prescribing capitalist production as “a relation between men assumes the form of a relation between things”, but as Slavoj Zizek describes:

…it consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belongs to it outside its relation with other elements. Such a misrecognition can take place in a ‘relation between things’ as well as in a ‘relation between men’… (Pg. 19, The Sublime Object of Ideology)

To call for this recognition of the network in relation to elements, specifically in applying it to a medium, one can start generally and then apply this more specifically with depth. I see this as absolutely necessary in photography where there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement of such networks.

Hine’s images accelerated an already existing consensus at the time that children should not work in these environments. Today, although child labor² (and essentially slave labor³) still exists to fuel consumerism (there hasn’t been any photographs or videos to act as a catalyst for effectively combating this like Hine’s), the shift in industries shrank these fields and grew/gave birth to others. The photojournalists today exist in a new context, not just because of technology, but because of the networks that created the symptom of technology. I’m going to examine some of these larger networks that have been acknowledged in affecting other fields, but not as much in the critical writing within field of photography and photojournalism. I’ll start by looking at capitalism and more specifically neoliberalism and the ways in which they’ve changed the industries that photojournalists work within and how they’ve affected the career specifically, leaving other perspectives for later work. Although some of the ideas discussed are somewhat universal, much of my specific applications will be limited to the US.

The New Workplace

With one hand on the mouse pad, the other gripping a plastic fork, the eyes briefly glance away from the screen as the employee transfers a piece of a microwave meal into their open mouth, illuminating the contrast to images of the workplace in the 19th and 20th century. The images by Brian Finke¹ show the average workplace in the US today. Although the alienation is still present, perhaps even more so in that the decrease in work involving production ends the social connection of exchange of commodities (there’s sometimes no physical product to feel apart of or the job is too disconnected from the product), the mediums that present a society as connected (starting as individual portraits presented together, now social media, TV, even online video games) create a tense relationship between alienation and perceived social relations. The New York Times article accompanying Finke’s images points out how eating alone at a desk while continuing to work or watch Instagram stories creates a less social work environment and even decreases productivity. Whereas lunch breaks might’ve been the one time of day in which laborers would meet (think of the staged 1932 photo of construction workers on the skyscraper in Manhattan), lunch in the workplace now reflects the alienation of labor. While the images are presented together and technology distorts alienation, alienation stays alive and increases as social media undermines the subjective experience of places and non-places.

The portraits of employees eating at their desk replace the grim portraits of factory workers as a representation of American workers. Offices have replaced the factories. The stern and “evil” bosses of the 19th and 20th centuries are replaced by those who pretend to be your friend while monitoring your daily work life through security cameras, data analysis, email monitoring, website blocking, and GPS tracking². The full-time job model is increasingly replaced by the contractor, freelance, and part-time models³ (assuming automation hasn’t replaced the jobs). In photojournalism we see that the more affordable freelance and citizen journalists replace the full-time photojournalist model. The shift went from industries focused on production (farmers, foresters, manufacturing jobs), to technical, professional, and service jobs. The percent of the labor force in farming went from 38% at the beginning of the 20th century to less than 3% by the end, with manufacturing, mining, and construction going from 31% to 19%. The labor force in service went from 31% to 78%.

It’s become a trope to argue how much better off we are today in response to any negative critiques of our current condition and more specifically critiques of capitalism. This seems to be the case in the photo community for the most part as well. We consider ourselves far better off, the positives outweighing the negatives, the negatives being better than the negatives a hundred years ago. Unsafe jobs have been automated, education has risen, Social Security and Medicare has helped Americans retire and be insured. Of course there is also just as much to be pessimistic about when reflecting on inequality, climate change, the accelerated automation of jobs, the coexistence of mass obesity and starvation, rise in suicides, and the looming future financial crises’ we’ll face. On top of this, the changing and destruction of current industries is more accelerated than in the past and we might not have enough time to adjust.

The symptoms that have resulted from economic, political, technological, and social variables have caused drastic changes of industry. Drastic changes in industry are essentially unavoidable in the pursuit of profit, which is why capitalism specifically can be identified as the driver for the evolution and destruction of industries, more specifically the rate at which these changes occur. This is claimed by many as being natural and even a good thing, as Guy Sorman observes:

This ceaseless replacement of the old with the new - driven by technical innovation and entrepreneurialism, itself encouraged by good economic policies - brings prosperity, though those displaced by the process, who find their jobs made redundant, can understandably object to it.

However, in the destruction and evolution of industries, many are left behind or forced to move to other lower paying industries. Industrialization replacing farmers, automation replacing manufacturing jobs, and more profitable alternatives replace less profitable ones. Where the past shifts in industry have had rough transitions, there are usually enough new jobs created to replace the old ones (Lewis Corey in The Decline of American Capitalism points out that unemployment actually rose after industrialization, but eventually absorbed those displaced). The transitions aren’t smooth and there’s also no guarantee that such absorption will take place. We see this in photojournalism today as technology and market driven news media companies destabilize the position of full-time photojournalists. Technology and market driven news media both owe their implementation (and rate of implementation) into the workplace to capitalism.

While there are different economic, political, and social models that contribute to the condition of industries, these of course exist in the network of capitalism. The post-fordist neoliberal model we find ourselves in today has superseded the paternalist, fordist, and taylorist models of the 19th and 20th century. Any reflection on the state of the photography industry, specifically photojournalism, has flirted with addressing the context in which they exist in, but has largely kept the focus on symptoms, specifically technology and the Internet. On top of this, there has been a lack of consensus in establishing goals. For example, does the photojournalist community want full time jobs to stay? Is a unionized freelance model preferential (something like Magnum)? Is the popularization of a demonetized model to be utilized or resisted?

The decline of career photojournalists is often addressed as being driven by technology or limited to specific bad business practices. While there might be some acknowledgement of permanence in change, the way in which the photo community reacts, or doesn’t react, communicates a consensus that these are just temporary speed bumps and display conformity to whatever happens (there are no big reactionary groups calling for any kind of large scale change).  If we are to believe that these networks have largely gone unacknowledged in the photo community then the ideology still falls under Marx’s “They do not know it, but they do it…” (in reference to abstracting material things simply to value), which is what photographers do when debating about symptoms or elements of larger networks without acknowledging the place of these elements in larger networks.

Both views (technology/bad business) are undoubtedly involved, but both are elements under a structured network and one must consider what causes these symptoms as well as how the symptoms affect an industry to better understand the state of an industry. It’s natural to see technology as the main driver, but a technological deterministic view comes up short as these developments could’ve been utilized in a manner that continues a model of hiring full time photojournalists or creating a model in which freelancers are paid fairly. It therefore requires a contextualized explanation that can help explain the direction in which technology is utilized. To say that the firings are due to bad business and don’t mean anything about the current and future state of career photojournalists also falls short as one would have to ignore the consistent firings, overall increases in freelancers in the gig economy, and the shifts in the industries which photojournalism exists under. Both technology and bad business contribute, as do many other factors, but they are elements of networks, which one should take into account in confronting the current and future state of photojournalism. Photojournalism and other careers exist under the neoliberal form of capitalism and perhaps it would be beneficial to examine the effects to better understand the past, current, and future state of the field.

It might be misinterpreted that this is somehow presenting an oversimplified metanarrative by looking at capitalism and neoliberalism. One should of course be careful of exclusively presenting a metanarrative as the causality of all encompassed within a field. It’s not enough to say neoliberalism is responsible for everything. Many of the trends were already in a certain direction before neoliberalism, however the acceleration and changes in industry and culture are not seen prior to neoliberalism’s implementation. One should be aware of the networks at play and not ignore them in piecing together a more complete picture. In this short essay I will present an introduction to what neoliberalism is and the ways in which it has affected photojournalism. Starting general, addressing neoliberalism then zooming in closer, looking at the industries photojournalism exists in (news media and photography), and then establishing the state photojournalism as it relates to making a living. This is specifically addressing photojournalism as a way of making money; I will address photojournalism through other lenses in different work. There are themes that will come up that I will only briefly touch on here, this will simply address the larger networks at play in the current condition of photojournalism as a career. Most of what I’ll be discussing has been laid out in reference to the news media industry, but I’ll be specifically tying it to photojournalism. In doing so, I hope to expand the critical conversations and debates within the photo community.

Neoliberalism

If our era is dominated by one hegemonic ideology, it is that of neoliberalism. It is widely assumed that the most effective way to produce and distribute goods and services is by allowing instrumentally rational individuals to exchange via the market. State regulations and national industries are, by contrast, seen as distortions and inefficiencies holding back the productive dynamics inherent to free markets. Today, this vision of how economies should operate is what both its critics and proponents take as a baseline. Neoliberalism sets the agenda for what is realistic, necessary and possible. (pg. 51, Inventing the Future)

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams go on to explain the inception and implementation of neoliberalism pointing out that this economic model is one that was meditated, slowly built up, and in it for the long-term. Neoliberal movements, although existing before, organized during the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in 1938. At the time, Keynesian economics was the mainstream, the bipartisan idea that the private sector needed the government to keep the macro economy in check, especially during recessions and depressions. These thinkers wanted a new liberalism.

After World War II the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek started the network of intellectuals known as the Mont Pelerin Society. They formulated their ideas and began to implement them through think tanks, universities, policy proposals, and working their way into influencing “”second-hand dealers” in ideas”(pg. 58) (journalists, academics, writers, broadcasters, and teachers). The idea was not only to incorporate a new system, but also generate a subtle consensus; to “change political common sense”(pg. 55). Through publishing books, releasing pamphlets, and utilizing the news to sway public opinion (although the goal of changing the minds of elites was more important at the start), they developed ideas of dismantling trade unions, vilifying welfare instead of poverty, and zero-tolerance policing/workfare. At first, this was rejected, thought of as a rebranding of the system that led to the great depression, but as neoliberalism had established a solidified base in the 1970s, the foundation was set and ready for the right conditions.

When the stagflation of the 1970s erupted, neoliberalism was ready to present their case. This led to the Thatcher and Reagan era, spreading throughout Europe, South America, post-Soviet countries, and slowly took over the global consensus. “Piece by piece, trade unions were demolished, finance was deregulated, and the welfare state began to be scavenged for profitable parts.” We see this today in services that are privatized in the US (healthcare¹, prisons², education³) and although global trade has raised many out of poverty, it has also had many downsides including increasing inequality.

It’s important to point out that the government is in no way absent in neoliberalism. Neoliberalism’s lucidity is a part of its effectiveness, allowing for countries to establish their own versions, evolving when needed. For example after the 2008 financial crash, it was made abundantly clear that the government should be utilized to both save the private sector that operates with minimal government intervention (bailouts) and maintain the lack of government intervention (corporate welfare, tax breaks, lobbying, donating to campaigns, revolving door between private and public sectors).

After the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union, the neoliberal system had declared victory. Francis Fukuyama controversially declared the “end of history”. With no actually existing socialism left to challenge capitalism, neoliberalism had accomplished the goal of changing common sense, creating a new hegemony. Mark Fisher’s term ‘capitalist realism’ describes this consensus that capitalism is the only option, which isn’t just a mindset held by politicians, but a message heavily ingrained in all aspects of our culture. Generations (millennials and gen z) are now raised in a post-Cold War world branded with Thatcher’s proclamation “There Is No Alternative”. We’re seeing mistrust in this system after 2008, but there’s a struggle to present any alternative other than the former Keynesian one. So capitalism and its neoliberal form continue to grudgingly evolve. The context we find ourselves in today exists under this neoliberal shift from the 70s onward and is where we need to begin to help understand where photojournalism is today.

Industry

In attaching the labor of production to commodities, there’s a relationship to the commodity’s past that applies to photography as well. It’s natural to do this for commodities involved in photography (cameras, film, etc.), but to apply this line of thinking to a medium is to look at more than just the labor of commodities. To apply this more generally to a medium is to expose every step of a process to the examination of the aspects that transcend the levels of critique within the confines set by the medium. Not simply looking at composition, conceptualizing the subject, or asking about the photographer’s background or intent. While this includes the commodities involved in the process of shooting, it also includes the process of shooting and commodification of the images after shooting. Cameras, film, and other photographic commodities are manufactured and sold at competitive prices, making it possible for individuals with certain incomes to be able to afford a variety of equipment before starting the process of shooting. On the flip side, after an image has a somewhat final state, it is essential to present (or not present) the image to clients in order to generate capital. To examine the commodification of images, which affects the process of shooting as well, is to examine the industries involved in the production and distribution of information or news.  In the case of career photographers, they are then reliant on the healthy (profitable) state of clients and equipment manufacturers to continue generating capital. This is usually something only addressed when faced with a decline of capital (photographers feel little control over the state of the industries they work for, therefore only confront larger issues when in trouble). The reactions are often to find ways to continuing a flow of capital, to keep going. The structures that exist outside of shooting might only matter to photographers if price, quality, or income fluctuates, but these structures nonetheless exist and impact their industry. In both cases (the production of the essential commodities for shooting and the presentation of images in exchange for capital) there is an essential reliance on other industries. In examining the state of the career photojournalist it’s important to acknowledge that photojournalism exists under two essential industries: the news media industry and the photo industry.

The News Industry

While there was already an upward trend of news media becoming big business in the 20th century, the 1980s saw a drastic acceleration caused by deregulation. “This trend toward greater integration of the media into the market system has been accelerated by the loosening of rules limiting media concentration, cross-ownership, and control by non-media companies.” (Pg. 8, Manufacturing Consent). For example, Reagan’s administration strengthened the control that existing television-station license holders had by increasing the term from three to five years and making the renewal almost automatic. The FCC and Department of Justice under Reagan ignored takeovers and mergers that concentrated power and decreased competition. The administration also increased the maximum amount of TV and radio stations media owners could own (pg 20, 336), setting the tone for the future of the media. Fifty companies controlled 90% of media in the US in 1983. In 2011, six companies controlled 90% of media ¹.

This race to global market domination is a result of neoliberal deregulations. This market incentive expanded and then became necessary as McChesney observes in his essay on neoliberalism and media²:

Second-tier corporations, like those in the first-tier, need to reach beyond national borders. “The borders are gone. We have to grow,” the Chairman of CanWest Global Communication stated in 2000. “We don’t intend to be one of the corpses lying beside the information highway… We have to be Columbia or Warner Brothers one day.” The CEO of Bonnier, Sweden’s largest media says that to survive, “we want to be the leading media company in Northern Europe.” Australian media moguls, following the path blazed by Murdoch, have the mantra “Expand or die.” As one puts it, “You really can’t continue to grow as an Australian supplier in Australia.” Mediaset, the Berlusconi-owned Italian TV power, is angling to expand into the rest of Europe and Latin America. Perhaps the most striking example of second-tier globalization is Hicks, Muse, Tate and Furst, the U.S. radio/publishing/TV/billboard/movie theater power that has been constructed almost overnight. Between 1998 and 2000 it spent well over $2 billion purchasing media assets in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. (Pg. 8-9, Global Media, Neoliberalism, and Imperialism)

The way that corporate CEOs make these statements seems troubling, as their product/commodity is information, painting a grim picture on the structures attached to the articles we read and the images we see. Small online publications are thought to escape this hyper domination model, however the global model is already ingrained in small online publications whose existence is inherently global as they exist in the matrix (the internet). Whereas physical newspapers are constricted by their quantity and distribution - and to start a global TV channel is financially unrealistic - online publications cut out the need for an unattainable investment, but retain the potential to gain viewership worldwide (if not directly then through advertisements and features on larger sites). While there is not as much of a fight to eat other companies - if anything they want to be bought out to survive - there is nonetheless an inherent market driven strategy, doing whatever they can to last, which includes implementing the most effective modes of presentation of information (click bait, “TOP 10” lists to boost engagement numbers (readers click through ten separate pages which shows ten views instead of one to investors), conforming to whatever the data points to). This is a point I’ll come back to in later work, as these drives become a part of what Bourdieu calls the journalist’s (and I argue, photojournalist’s) “lens”, which filters out ‘non newsworthy’ angles and subjects. The issues discussed here affect this lens.

While the top level of corporate ownership has followed this route of oligopoly, the actual publications have to deal with remaining profitable and influential. The news industry today is being forced to evolve with an acceleration of demonetized, decentralized, and globalized forms of content and presentation. The Internet provides an affordable and endless platform to consume and generate free news. Companies have been able survive by continuing their reliance on advertisements. “Disable ad-blocker” is always the first thing seen when trying to read an article on a computer as online ad revenue generates billions³.

The Photo Industry

As photography becomes more accessible and the industry that presents photography is not only losing influence, but also losing an incentive to hire trained photographers, the future of career photojournalists appears to be a grim one. The photo industry has also been changing. As camera sales drop¹ and smartphone sales increase², there is a market shift away from cameras altogether. Camera manufacturers are trying to adapt by pushing smaller mirrorless cameras, but the overall trend is moving away from cameras and towards smartphones. The mass consumption of cheap technology has undermined the necessity for a trained operator and caused a demonetization of visual content.

To highlight the difference between a fordist and post-fordist work environment in cameras vs. smartphones, one could compare and contrast the differences between Eastman Kodak and Apple (as Etana Jacobi does in her thesis³). It’s the perfect contrast to point out Kodak’s livable wages and investment in their workers to Apple’s low paid factory laborers. Apple initially stayed in the US, but was forced to make the switch to maintain competitive prices, as Jacobi quotes an Apple executive: “We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries… we don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible” (Duhigg and Bradsher, 2012). For cameras to become available to the masses, there has to be demand (use value) and the product, affordable. The brownie was still too expensive for much of the lower and middle class Americans in the 20th century, just as the newest DSLRs of today are financially out of reach. While publications are looking to cut corners, camera phones have presented a way of saving money as so many now have the technology to visually document events. Both Sontag and Ritchin acknowledge this lack of skill needed to photograph events that the media uses and both are optimistic about the ethical and overall implications outside of the career scope (which I will address in later work). This is becoming more prominent as media continues to utilize this method with little backfire.

It would appear that there are two results in reactionary thought in the photo community from an increase in camera phones and decrease in cameras. The first being that if there are increasingly more low quality cameras and less high quality ones, the industry is shifting to a more exclusive field where it’s easy to differentiate between the professionals and phone shooters, therefore continuing a market for skillful (and those who can afford high quality cameras) photographers. This was a popular view in the early stages of Instagram and matched the relative reality of past advancements (while there were increasingly more photographers, there was still a hierarchy of photographic skill/style). The second being that the number of photographers spread out the market, giving less jobs to the pros or consistent individuals; as the options increase, the jobs are spread out. What results are: less value (cultural, social, and overall impact on society) in a business based on this process, a demonetization of the medium, and more importantly Baudrillard’s diagnosis of an implosion of meaning. Therefore the act of debating hiring practices is taking place on a sinking ship as the market for images altogether shrinks. Whereas other jobs are being replaced by automation that can replace a skilled worker costing companies less and increasing efficiency (the skewed predictions for the future of automated jobs estimates millions of jobs being replaced in the coming decades), photojournalists are facing technology that still needs an operator, but one without skills.  

The lack of demand for content created by a skilled worker is causing images to become more informational and less aesthetically appealing, but there is no market incentive to change this. The lack of demand has coincided with what Baudrillard calls “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media”. As the faceless force of neoliberal accelerated automation replaces jobs, leading capitalism to its slow death (less jobs/more inequality/unsustainability), the increase and commodification of information through media has led to the media’s demise and the stripping of any meaning that information held. The medium itself has destroyed the value of it’s product. I’ll expand on this in later work. In the case of photojournalism, the meaning that in-depth photo series held in media has imploded with a desensitized and overburdened audience, no longer moved to the same degree as they used to be (if at all), leaving no market incentive to continue assigning expensive photo assignments.

Instead of all of this sparking a new wave of photojournalism (although it’s starting to shift), it’s created a hauntology of tropes; for example photographing poor third world sensationalism, whatever has sold in the past. Even if the subjects are new, the medium stylistically seems frozen with other cultural mediums. This is what postmodern thinkers see as strongly connected to this stage of capitalism. Mark Fisher refers to this as “Hauntology”, Fredric Jameson “Nostalgia for the Present”, Baudrillard as “Simulacra”, Augé as a product of “Supermodernity”, etc. (more on this in later work). In 2010, former head of Magnum Neil Burgess pointed out that magazines and newspapers have largely abandoned funding in-depth projects, creating an environment in which most projects rely on grants, commissions by NGOs, or are funded by the photographer (sometimes crowd funded). This of course led Burgess to famously state: “I believe we owe it to our children to tell them that the profession of ‘photojournalist’ no longer exists.”  

Citizen Journalists as Content Creators

Photojournalism is susceptible to the same effects that neoliberalism and its symptoms have imposed on other industries: the gig economy, zero hour contracts, freelancing, and deeper effects that are market driven. While journalists and news media were utilized to promote neoliberalism as “second-hand dealers” to plant and grow neoliberalism, the Reagan shaped free market has grown to consume all jobs that are deemed disposable to prolong the survival of industries (whereas it can be speculated that a Keynesian system would’ve prioritized maintaining jobs and higher standards of income/benefits for as long as possible). When news reached a certain caliber of commercialization, the expectation and requirement for both quality and informative content were only as effective as they were profitable, eventually taking a backseat to more profitable presentations (news anchors as celebrity sports casters, 24 hour news cycles, clickbait, continuously shorter, more heated, and oversimplified interviews and debates). This sets up an experiment for the place of photojournalists: If there’s a more profitable alternative to paying full-time photojournalists, news companies will explore them and likely shift to them. This is of course what we’re seeing with journalists using their smartphone cameras and publications seeking out images from citizens.

Many newspapers use photographers for front page stories, then the ‘low tier’ stories utilize informational and less aesthetically pleasing images made by non professionals or the journalists writing the story. In doing so, there is a shift away from the full-time photojournalist model and towards utilizing citizen journalism when possible and using photographers mainly in a freelance model. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a continued decrease in employed photographers and an increase in self-employed, outlining the current and future state of the field¹.

The citizen is then increasingly essential in producing news. Every citizen becomes a citizen within the Matrix, living generally mundane lives until a tragic event takes place. It’s only then when the citizen is mutated into an agent of the press, possessed by the companies waiting to present and commodify the event to consumers. If that sounded a little over the top, it’s to highlight the conflict that market driven news has on presenting news. While there still might be a glimmer of optimism among the citizens who hope that the content can be used to spread awareness, the implosion of meaning has severely damaged the path of information leading to change. While those who want to learn about these topics undoubtedly benefit from coverage of events, one cannot ignore the systems discussed earlier. Citizens living in conflict zones are used as content creators until the conflict passes then photographers can shoot series on “life after the war”. The cycle of potential content doesn’t stop (although the consumer interest does, leading to editors turning away stories saying “We already did a piece on this, it’s not the right time”). While citizen documentation should undoubtedly be used to tell these stories, the more ethical option than paid photographers, it’s important to observe how everything becomes questionable when there’s such a large profit based system behind it. How all methods are utilized as survival mechanisms to support the global corporations that own them. This isn’t saying the oversimplified “you’re a puppet”, but exposing the networks that these elements exist under make it hard to give publications and specific cases the benefit of the doubt.

The only breaks on TV or online are for advertisements. This isn’t just the big news channels. The shift from newspapers to TV and TV to onlines has led to a huge increase in online publications who utilize photographers in the same way, both big and small relying heavily on ads to stay afloat. If anything, the smaller online publications rely more on citizen journalists as they’re less likely to have big budgets for images. Whereas a centralized full-time position was the 20th century model, the 21st is a decentralized self-employed one.


The News as the Other

I want to touch briefly on ‘the objectivity of belief’ that Zizek draws on, which involves the phenomena of the Lacanian idea of our feelings being acted out for us. Zizek uses the example of TV audiences laughing on the show, relieving us of a duty to laugh, but then “we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time”. To connect this to the news, let’s look at Marc Augé’s three figures of excess in supermodernity: the overabundance of events, spatial overabundance, and the individualization of references. These three excesses highlight what brings us to watch the news as the shrinking world (in the sense that transportation worldwide is more accessible) is increasingly abstracted by a complex globalized world, our screens comforting our individual need to ‘recognize’ this world.


..the screens of the planet daily carry a mixture of images (news, advertis­ing and fiction) of which neither the presentation nor the purpose is identical, at least in principle, but which assemble before our eyes a universe that is relatively homogeneous in its diversity. What could be more realistic and, in a sense, more informative about life in the United States than a good American TV series. (Pg. 32, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity)


It’s not just that news sources show us how to recognize the world - as ‘the other’ imposing a kind of worldview - but we instantly process these images as our own individual view. It’s not that I’m implying our duty is to research these events on our own while the news is acting as ‘the other’ by doing it for us, it’s that the medium of the news condenses the overabundance of events and spatial overabundance for us, creating a way of looking and recognizing ‘a world that we have not yet learned to look at’. The news is then ‘the other’ in the sense that they offer a universe to us that, while complicated, is understandable and simple enough to recognize by watching at least once a day. I can say that ‘while I didn’t go and feed the hungry, I became aware where the hungry are located globally and this is all one can be expected to do as I have to make a living and pursue my own life goal of becoming a famous writer’. This is the place the news holds. We see that there is an implied duty, not to act on all of these events talked about, but to be informed of them. Although “the individual wants to be a world in himself” and “intends to interpret the information delivered to him by himself and for him­self”, the news presents to us a worldview of a complex world to digest and a way to act on these events presented (to simply watch and digest). If an aspect of postmodern or late capitalist culture is a lack of a grand narrative, or what Badiou calls ‘a great fiction’, then the medium of news both maintains a lack of confronting this lack and inherently presents an ideology of its own by acting as ‘the other’ to individuals who are trying to relax after a long day at work.

Photography follows this same path, as a medium to act as ‘the other’ for viewers. While the photographer only visits the warzone for a couple of weeks, they create images that will create a digestible summary of the events for the individual viewers to consume and individualize. The photographer feels that their duty is done and the viewer feels that through their individual recognition, or awareness, their duty is then done. This highlights the increased gravity that awareness/recognition, or displayed awareness/recognition (posting online), has today, especially in relation to photography. This acts as a way to make sense of such a complex world and what medium could contest it (other than fictional movies and TV shows)? The medium of the news and photojournalism act as a bureaucratic force to prioritize individualized recognition in society acting as ‘the other’ without the viewers being aware.


The Future

Under neoliberalism, news companies have created a post fordist work environment for photojournalists that’s becoming increasingly unsustainable. To maintain workflow, photographers have to constantly pursue work, their job blurs together with their life as work is no longer a designated 9-5. “All that happens if you remove (social) security from people is… all of their creative energy goes into “how can I make money?” That’s the energy of the (neoliberal) society” says Fisher¹. Our social lives blend with our careers, every interaction is a networking opportunity, our social media needs to stay consistent and attract clients, meanwhile depression and suicide rates continue to grow². This model still might be preferable to some, eating at the desk seems better than laboring at a factory. The 9-5 factory environment, although stable, is mundane and painful, but we now know what the neoliberal response is: A daily anxiety-driven fight to get the next job. Even being employed today doesn’t guarantee stability as 62% of jobs no longer support middle-class life³. My intent in observing these symptoms and recognizing them as such is not to call for a time machine to the past, but to recognize this process of observing elements and networks as essential in addressing these issues.

As photojournalists move forward, the future can only be seen at small increments. To those with full-time positions, the uncertainty of their positions loom. To those already self-employed, the lack of stability, benefits, and any guarantee that they’ll have enough jobs to stay afloat crushes any anticipation of, let alone action to change, the future. If there is any long-term plan to develop, it must be made by first acknowledging the harsh reality (and future) set in place under the neoliberal model. Once these networks and elements are explored, certain points can be addressed and a plan made. The first should be the acknowledgment that news companies are globalized and market driven entities whose incentives are causing a shift away from full-time photojournalists (and journalists). While a reaction might be to object or unionize - although this hasn’t actually happened large scale - the demonetization of images is only going to get worse and such reactions, while they might work for small and local goals, would only be effective for so long if at all.

An optimistic reaction to this could be a long-term proactive plan, as Srnicek and Williams pitch in Inventing the Future, utilizing some of the methods used by early neoliberal thinkers. A plan that utilizes the democratization of photography and potentially even contributes to it. But first goals need to be set. Is the goal to create another model to make money in photojournalism? If so, this is a business pursuit and should be modeled in such a way, perhaps utilizing some of the ways news companies do (using ads as revenue, utilizing democratic nature of photography, and adapting to newest technology). However, this is somewhat troublesome, as photojournalism should question the ethics of being driven by profit. One could see how photojournalists as youtubers might not be the most ethical option for documenting tragedy, but might be beneficial on a local level. Another goal might not include profit as a means. This could only be pursued by those with disposable income or have another form of income, but perhaps the results could benefit the everyday photographers who are consistently documenting even without a drive of profit - for example making the goal to give everyone the ability to shoot like the skilled photojournalists (free courses, workshops, apps, etc.). However, if we are to believe McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message”, perhaps the intent behind these solutions is too reliant on the medium of presenting news, as this is only continuing the implosion of meaning.

Less optimistic reactions should abandon the pursuit of causing change through media in its current form. A way to abandon market drives is to take up a kind of hyper-intent. Setting specific goals that photography can help complete, most likely small local goals. While political goals might need to develop large scale alternatives, photojournalism might benefit from first localizing. This can also consist of very personal goals, both avoiding the intent of maximizing audience and generating capital. This approach is founded on distancing oneself to the pursuit of audience and capital. Avoiding mass producing prints, books, or posting all over the internet are things that photographers tend to only do if the work doesn’t seem good enough to sell, however, these methods can be a starting point for localizing. Alec Soth has made a specific body of work that roughly subscribes to this process. This being a single book he made with a young girl named Cherish in which only one copy was made (just for her). This is an extreme example of personal and localized intent, with no expectations of the photographs changing public opinion or generating capital. This highlights a shift of documentary crossing into fine art, with its own forms of commodifying through presentation, but this specific case is still a good example of presentation eluding certain mediums of presentation. Even with charitable intentions, most artists use their work to generate money to benefit certain organizations or individuals (which is of course effective and important), but there’s an authenticity in constraining the medium to a simplified and local form escaping the pursuit of profit. This is a good example of ways in which photographers can utilize photography as a medium while bypassing the mediums of presentation and market drives. While Soth of course makes a living as an artist, these kinds of specific projects show what photography as a medium in itself can directly do. There’s no story about how this book changed her life forever or ended global conflict, only a pleasant experience shooting the images and creating a book. While larger goals can be set, expectations should remain realistic, which is why localizing can act as a good first step.

This essay was less about providing in-depth solutions and more about examining the context that future discussions can take place in. It’s not my intention to prolong the profitability of photography or prolong the life of capitalism. I’ve laid out an introduction into the role neoliberalism has played in changing the news industry and photo industry, how they affect photojournalism as a career, a brief touch on the ethics of incentives in photojournalism (pursuit of audience and capital), an introduction into the implosion of meaning, and the exploitation of citizen journalists in conflict zones (as content creators). Unfortunately there’s no long-term equation as of now, but perhaps the first step is acknowledging the context that photojournalism exists in and starting conversations with a better understanding of the complex networks and elements at play. I want to follow Jameson’s line of thinking in regards to describing a system:


… it is certain that there is a strange quasi-Sartrean irony – a “winner loses” logic which tends to surround any effort to describe a “system,” a totalising dynamic, as these are detected in the movement of contemporary society. What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralysed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself. I have felt, however, that it was only in the light of some conception of a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm that genuine difference could be measured and assessed. (Pg. 5, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism)


Fetishistic Disavowal

The fetishism of a medium (in the Marxist sense) is to examine the structures and networks that the medium exists in and the networks and structures that exist under it, which is especially important to do so in fields where this misrecognition of elements as existing outside of networks or being their own network is common. This essay is by no means a complete exploration of the networks that photojournalism exist in, but hopefully acts as an introduction to the abstraction that exists when we don’t recognize elements and networks. To still be stuck in Marx’s “They do not know it, but they do it…is to be behind in the place of ideology on the larger scale. Zizek argues that we are now in a state which can acknowledge these networks and transcendence, however require a glazing over of such acknowledgements in order to continue functioning. Switching from “They do not know it, but they do it…” to “They know it, but they are doing it anyways”. I mentioned that photojournalists act as if everything will be ok; this is important because although I presented some potential practical ways to combat the direction photojournalism is heading in, to acknowledge the networks, while necessary, will likely be glazed over to continue without any taking any action. This glazing or overlooking creates the perfect amount of what Sohn-Rethel calls non-knowledge to continue going about reality. This is what Zizek considers the essence of ideology today. This essay is thus not a call to unionize or create a post-capitalist state for photojournalism to thrive, but to expose the systems which people can acknowledge then dissolve them through their actions as they continue going about their lives. In this way, I am simply getting the photo community caught up with what photojournalists (and everyone else) do in other aspects of their lives which is “the formula of fetishistic disavowal: ‘I know very well, but still…’”. We know that smartphones are created in terrible conditions, companies are damaging the planet, money has no real value, Trump doesn’t aline with Christian values, astrology isn’t real, however for our reality to continue we must act as if these are not true, or ‘repress’ the acknowledgements. To be able to watch the news or praise the ethical implications of using citizen journalism, one must disavowal the acknowledgement of the systems that exist. Even when confronting these issues, for example becoming vegan, driving an electric car, or photographing events, we know that this will do very little, however our actions communicate the opposite. This is of course not to say we can’t do these things, I don’t eat meat, drink almond milk, etc., but the process of disavowal is present and hopefully Jameson’s case for being aware of this can somehow benefit. While this is a pessimistic view of the impact that this essay will have, it’s nonetheless important to call attention to these ideas, especially in fields where these ideas might not be discussed. To end on an even more depressing note, which in my mind perfectly summarizes this essay: Now photographers can continue to act as if photojournalism is just going through a speed bump “although on the level of their ‘consciousness’ they ‘know very well’ that this is not the case”.

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