A Brief History of Photojournalism

The photograph has affected the way many cultures throughout the world understand and learn about their world. One of the main fields responsible for this paradigm is photojournalism. Photojournalism is the use of photographs in conjunction with the reporting of news in media such as print newspapers, magazines, television news and internet reporting. The incorporation of photographs into news reports is so ubiquitous that a story without photographs to a contemporary audience feels incomplete, as though they were only getting half the story. Consumers depend upon photojournalists to bring them the images that allow them to feel connected to far-away realities, and to be educated about those realities.

Photojournalism distinguishes itself from other forms of professional photography by its adherence to the principles of journalism: timeliness, accuracy, fair representation of the context of events and facts reported, and accountability to the public. While a wedding photographer may be documenting an actual event, his or her responsibility is to the client and the presentation that client would like to see. A journalist, on the other hand, cannot be held to the demands of the photographic subject, but rather he or she must be concerned with producing accurate news for the public.

In addition to accuracy, the photojournalist must be careful not to exclude important parts of the context of the event being photographed. A shot of an individual rioter breaking a store window can look like an isolated act of criminality if the photojournalist does not show it in the context of a larger social event whose significance goes beyond the individual act.

The emergence of photojournalism, along with its current trajectory, depends a great deal upon technological developments in the camera. As early as the Crimean War in the mid-19 th century, photographers were using the novel technology of the box camera to record images of British soldiers in the field. However, the widespread use of cameras as a way of reporting news didn’t come until the advent of smaller, more portable cameras which used the enlargeable film negative to record images. The introduction of the 35 mm Leica camera in the 1930’s made it possible for photographers to move with the action, taking shots of events as they are unfolding.

Newspapers quickly took advantage of this portability, and publications like Life, Sports Illustrated, and The Daily Mirror staked their reputation on fresh, timely images of matters of interest to their readers. In the first golden age of photojournalism, which lasted from the 1930’s to the 50’s, photographers such as Robert Capa and Alfred Eistenstaedt became household names for the news-consuming public. Capa would later go on to found, along with three other photojournalists, the Magnum agency, which supported photojournalists and negotiated to get them copyright of their images, as opposed to letting copyright revert to the publication.

In the late 1970’s, the cultural importance of photojournalism began to be recognized by the art world, and photojournalists were given exhibitions and retrospectives at museums and galleries. Photojournalists like Don McCullin received wide attention in retrospectives across the country. Today, most major museums will devote a showing or more a year to photojournalists and documentary photographers.

With the introduction of digital cameras, photojournalism has greatly augmented its capacity for reporting up-to-the-minute news from around the world. Not limited by exposures on a roll of film, digital chips can store up to a thousand images, and are less sensitive to airport x-rays and exposure to light. With a wireless internet connection, a photojournalist can send images from the field to his or her editor within seconds of their initial capture. As a medium, the digital photograph has opened up new venues for gathering news, from small, self-published newsletters, to the online blog. These new venues mean an increased market and an accelerated pace for the transmission of news through photographic images.