In Defence of Photography

6th April, 2012


We always struggle to find the right questions to ask. if we get the right ones, usually answers rapidly become apparent. I assume none of us are sclerotic Luddites and consequently, there is unity in embracing technological change. In many ways, digitalisation of the machinery most of us use is of contradictory benefit: modern cameras are mostly heavier than film ones, electricity is now required on location, instant initial editing is possible and rapid transmission of images is common. Another result of change is that we pass through airports with greater security for the work we’ve done because it’s no longer with us.

We now suffer back and shoulder injuries that were almost unknown when we carried lighter film camera bags. The wide range of agencies have disappeared, replaced by huge multi-national businesses whose interests mostly diverge from the independent working lens journalist. We now have to absorb hours spent in Photoshop in much lower sales rates. Controlling the work we produce through changes in copyright law threatens the livelihoods of all self – employed journalists.  We’re nearing the point of the disappearance of the “hard news” photographer. Editors often send writers to cover a story with a mobile phone, doing two jobs for the price of one and sending another photographer to the dole queue. Newsrooms, where several staff photographers sat around waiting to to cover several stories in a shift, are gone. More than ninety-five per cent of London based photographers are now self employed. For more than two hundred years, since the rise of industrial factory production (as opposed to home work and workshops) there has been a steady de-skilling of crafts and now, just about anyone, amateur or writer, can submit an acceptable image and quality is of no importance. Paid less, work more is the bosses motto in their incessant drive for greater profits!  Many working journalists look at the world and simply ask: “what can be done?”.

The owners and controllers of the media frequently see the work many of us produce as threatening when we question authority in whatever form. The London Photographers’ Branch has collectively agitated against sexism, xenophobia, and racism. We are internationalist, we agitate against the general privatisation of public spaces and we organise to defend and to extend our ability to photograph where we decide. Sometime opportunities come our way that offer big chances of change: Irish prisoners in English jails, Dale Farm, BBC industrial action, MP expenses and now, the Leveson Inquiry. There are certainly many other examples that are thrown up and we, as trade unionists, enthusiastically use these opportunities to better organise, to better build our Union and better agitate for change. The extraordinary successful Phnat (I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist), organising outside the NUJ, but with support from the Union,  has shown us all that we can reach out and bring people into our Union through pertinent activity.

Do we reject technology?  Is it to agitate for more staff lens journalists? Is it to guarantee no doubling up of jobs so no writer goes out intending to use a phone or camera?  Do we advocate original and investigative journalism and oppose PR filled media? As trade unionists, we always want change and we spend our collective energies agitating for change. We don’t want anything to remain as it is!  Journalists are not disconnected from society as a whole. We are not fighting a losing battle to defend our interests. And, at the moment, Leveson is allowing us to publicly discuss issues that were closed off just a short time ago.

There are many dangers for us lurking behind the investigative facade of Leveson. This Inquiry must be analysed within the context of society as a whole. We all know that money exchanges hands for “inside” information and people eat lunch and drink wine to get “stuff” and we are aware of very long lenses used by relatively few photographers hiding in bushes photographing people hiding in bushes. We also know the real abusers of photography are the police and various councils who have installed tens of thousands of CCTV cameras on tall poles and sides of buildings all over the place. Leveson potentially threatens us with further restrictions on our ability to work where we want. A member of the NUJ Paris Branch, at a recent LPB branch monthly meeting, explained how stringent French law has rendered, what’s generally called “street photography”, virtually impossible . The scapegoating arrests of several Sun journalists aims to portray that Fleet Street is in good and respectable –  even liberal, hands. The arrests are meant to divert us from the real issues and is ominous and we all should take heed! The liberal media join the chorus of indignation, demanding retribution from greedy bankers, more tax paid by the rich. We, as trade unionists, must not be fooled by any Murdoch hand wringing repentance or be dragged down into envy and scandal mongering. Trade unionists should not involve ourselves with questions of who is taxed, but who does the taxing.

The majority of journalists collude with their paymasters in suppressing truths and underpin our repressive governments. The Sun is not a comic book but a potent propagandising weapon used by those who constantly seek to better defend and extend their control of our lives. The current resolute presence of the media debate and the publicity around the Leveson Inquiry, hands us an opportunity to intervene in this important time. The LPB has had many discussions and reports about the Inquiry and our members have contributed to developing and strengthening the NUJ’s testimony.

While it’s always important to agitate against repressive laws, the relationship of forces in the country offers very little opportunity to force the withdrawal of the many laws restricting our ability to work. There are two broad issues here, one legal and the other ethical.  Ethics are expressed by where we choose to point our cameras and what images we release. We ask ourselves is our work based on the humiliation or dignity of those in the image. Our ethics are also expressed when confronted by police or courts ordering access to unpublished material. The Union is right to currently defend working journalists who have drawn that proverbial line in the sand, showing us all how to work ethically.

On the agenda for all of us should be to build a Union predicated on the ethical use of journalism. There is much more we can do about enforcing the NUJ’s Code of Conduct and seeking equal space rights of reply in all media outlets, whether print or broadcasting. The LPB should consider doing a pamphlet, perhaps with a title: “In Defence of Photography”, where we can cover various aspects that affect our lives from earning a living to ethical working and the privatisation of public spaces. There are, of course, many other topics. Producing a pamphlet would give the Branch a project that might draw into activity those of our members who have been reluctant to get involved.

Larry Herman

LPB joint secretary / treasurer (PC)


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