Resolved: The Pro-Am Photo Gap Is Closing Fast

Debate

Welcome to our virtual debate about the relative value of amateur vs. professional photojournalism. Although it’s not an actual face-to-face argument between two opponents, our side-by-side presentation of two separate talks from TED (see videos, below) helps illuminate some key tensions between the people who control traditional media outlets—and those of us who don’t. Our hope is that by addressing these issues honestly and openly, we can help the Editor of National Geographic realize the untapped potential of the Society’s members — millions of whom have digital cameras of their own.
~

Resolved:
The gap between professional and amateur photographers
is closing fast.

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky

Arguing in the affirmative: Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, and a faculty member at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His video presentation is called “Institutions vs. Collaboration” — but it could be called: The High Priests in Our Old Photographic Temples Should Be Trembling In Their Shoes.

David Griffin

David Griffin

Arguing in the negative: David Griffin, Director of Photography for National Geographic magazine. His presentation is called “Photography Connects Us With The World,” but it could be called: All Hail The High Priests of Professional Photojournalism, For Only We Ministers of the Media Can Reliably Lead The Rest of You to The True and The Beautiful.

Some listening tips….

In David’s talk, you might pay particular attention to the structure of his presentation. He begins with Let’s look at some great photos…. He segues to: One of these photos was taken by an amateur, and amateurs sometimes produce some amazing pictures…. Which leads to his key rhetorical pivot — the big But: … But to be a great photojournalist….” David then offers a spirited defense not of collaborating with amateurs, but of professional photographers — and, by extension, a defense of his own institutional authority (and of his job).

In Clay’s talk, you’ll hear why he believes there’s enormous value to be found in the tsunami of images produced by amateurs. Also: Pay particular attention to his critique of Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft. Ballmer once belittled the thousands of amateur computer programmers who created Linux — a hugely successful open-source operating system — because each programmer contributed a tiny bit of code compared to what’s produced by the highly-paid professionals at Microsoft. According to Shirky:

[Ballmer] said, oh, this business of thousands of programmers contributing to Linux, this is a myth. We’ve looked at who’s contributed to Linux, and most of the [security] patches have been produced by programmers who’ve only done one thing….

new-coca-cola-bottleFrom Ballmer’s point of view, that’s a bad idea, right? ‘We hired this programmer, he came in, he drank our Cokes and played Foosball for three years and he had one idea.’ (Laughter) Right? Bad hire. Right? (Laughter)…

[But] the fact that a single programmer can, without having to move into a professional relation to an institution, improve Linux once and never be seen again, should terrify Ballmer. Because this kind of value is unreachable in classic institutional frameworks, but is part of cooperative systems….

First on stage with his opening argument, please welcome a senior representative of a “classic institutional framework” — Mr. David Griffin….

(To view the videos, please click on the thumbnail images at the bottom of the frame;
if you click on the big image at the top, you’ll jump over to YouTube.)

__________

In closing, we’d reiterate one of Clay’s points:

Institutions hate being told they’re obstacles.

But the good news for National Geographic is: We don’t have to be an institution controlled by a few of photography’s high priests. We could be a Society of members instead.

~

Special note to David Griffin & Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns: What’s your take on Clay Shirky’s presentation? Do you plan to engage the members of our Society in any type of “cooperative system” that extends beyond the tired old divide of Your Shot & Our Shot? (You want labels for who takes the pictures — pro or amateur — but most of us out here are simply interested in seeing great pictures.) If you’re interested in collaboration, what do you have in mind? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, below.

__________

Image credits
≡   graphic of debaters via Dewey21c
≡   photo of Clay Shirky via ted.com
≡   photo of David Griffin via ngm.com
≡   photo of Coke bottle via doobybrain.com

  • The pro-am gap in journalism at large may be closing:
    http://gawker.com/5350415/twitter-investigative-journalism-101-the-syllabus

    • Breathtaking stuff, Greg. Funny too. I especially liked this line: “But unlike a traditional j-school course on, say, magazine layout, this one [on using Twitter] actually might eventually provide students some return on their precious tuition dollars.”

      Thanks for posting the link.

  • The pro-am gap in journalism at large may be closing:
    http://gawker.com/5350415/twitter-investigative-journalism-101-the-syllabus

    • Breathtaking stuff, Greg. Funny too. I especially liked this line: “But unlike a traditional j-school course on, say, magazine layout, this one [on using Twitter] actually might eventually provide students some return on their precious tuition dollars.”

      Thanks for posting the link.

  • jeff dinunzio

    The question searing holes into the wallets of publishers the world over (except for, perhaps, the Economist): pro vs. am.

    David Griffin, while lauding the story telling and narratives associated with the photos by the likes of Paul Nicklen, etc, didn’t make a coherent argument for why professionals are better than amateurs—or why only professional photogs should be employed to craft such stories. (Is the “institution becoming incoherent?”) There’s something about the approach that only pros can produce quality media that reeks of elitism. Griffin, while recognizing the brilliance of the comet over New Zealand (?) image, almost writes the photographer off—at least that appears to be the implication of his attitude. So is his argument that, just because you’re not paid stupidly by the likes of NGM, you can’t take great pictures repeatedly? That’s weak, and presumptive, no?

    Clay Shirky, meanwhile, seems to understand that in this resulted chaos of the institutions, where direction and meaning are becoming increasingly unclear, once-and-done “contributors” can be of value. At NGM, they already have been, obviously, via the Your Shot feature. They can also be budget saviors; NGM has allowed interns to write department pages before. (But not other staff members; they must not be amateur enough!)

    Yes, the role of the aging print media, professional journalists and photogs is diminishing and jobs decreasing, but there is still room for them—still room for cooperation and collaboration. There has to be, or the institution will become no more.

    (There’s some incoherence for this discussion. Good topic, Alan.)

    • I agree with much of what you say, Jeff, but I especially like your observation about interns. They write copy for Departments—which, we’ve been told, is the most important part of the Magazine—yet their contributions are not shunted off to a ghetto called “Your Text.” Why not draw a “Your Shot”-like distinction between professional and intern on the word side, just as they do on the picture side?

      Well, for one thing, no one outside NGS headquarters cares about the CV behind the byline; all readers care about is good writing and good pictures. Second, the word people at NGM don’t have as much authority as the picture people—so even if the staff writers and editors wanted a “Your Text” section, they’d never get it. Third, and perhaps most important, the only people with a vested interest in keeping photography’s pro-am line clearly defined are the pros whose livelihood depends upon keeping the riff-raff—that Army of Davids—as far away as possible. Heaven forbid the rabble gets inside the Yellow Rectangle to tell Chris Johns and David Griffin what they think makes for a good photograph.

      (P.S. Thanks for your comment.)

  • jeff dinunzio

    The question searing holes into the wallets of publishers the world over (except for, perhaps, the Economist): pro vs. am.

    David Griffin, while lauding the story telling and narratives associated with the photos by the likes of Paul Nicklen, etc, didn’t make a coherent argument for why professionals are better than amateurs—or why only professional photogs should be employed to craft such stories. (Is the “institution becoming incoherent?”) There’s something about the approach that only pros can produce quality media that reeks of elitism. Griffin, while recognizing the brilliance of the comet over New Zealand (?) image, almost writes the photographer off—at least that appears to be the implication of his attitude. So is his argument that, just because you’re not paid stupidly by the likes of NGM, you can’t take great pictures repeatedly? That’s weak, and presumptive, no?

    Clay Shirky, meanwhile, seems to understand that in this resulted chaos of the institutions, where direction and meaning are becoming increasingly unclear, once-and-done “contributors” can be of value. At NGM, they already have been, obviously, via the Your Shot feature. They can also be budget saviors; NGM has allowed interns to write department pages before. (But not other staff members; they must not be amateur enough!)

    Yes, the role of the aging print media, professional journalists and photogs is diminishing and jobs decreasing, but there is still room for them—still room for cooperation and collaboration. There has to be, or the institution will become no more.

    (There’s some incoherence for this discussion. Good topic, Alan.)

    • I agree with much of what you say, Jeff, but I especially like your observation about interns. They write copy for Departments—which, we’ve been told, is the most important part of the Magazine—yet their contributions are not shunted off to a ghetto called “Your Text.” Why not draw a “Your Shot”-like distinction between professional and intern on the word side, just as they do on the picture side?

      Well, for one thing, no one outside NGS headquarters cares about the CV behind the byline; all readers care about is good writing and good pictures. Second, the word people at NGM don’t have as much authority as the picture people—so even if the staff writers and editors wanted a “Your Text” section, they’d never get it. Third, and perhaps most important, the only people with a vested interest in keeping photography’s pro-am line clearly defined are the pros whose livelihood depends upon keeping the riff-raff—that Army of Davids—as far away as possible. Heaven forbid the rabble gets inside the Yellow Rectangle to tell Chris Johns and David Griffin what they think makes for a good photograph.

      (P.S. Thanks for your comment.)

  • David Jeffery

    You would not send all the amateur photographers of Coney Island’s mermaid parade to the coast of Antarctica to photograph leopard seals. The costs would be too high, the results (if any, given the requirements of experience and equipment ) too random, and a fair number of the amateurs might be eaten by seals–of interest, perhaps, in a ghoulish sort of way and a high scorer on YouTube. There amateurs rule, and there, for instance, you can find the video categories “dog turds” and “cat pee,” subjects largely ignored by elitist professional journalists.

    • DJ, you always make me laugh. And don’t be surprised if the NG Channel runs with your Dog Turds & Cat Pee construction. Maybe a big Tentpole event—with all NG divisions in sync—that explores the colorful world of animal waste. If someone can write a kids’ book about it, then why not a Magazine cover story plus a two-hour TV special?

      But seriously, folks….

      No, I wouldn’t send amateurs to Antarctica. And yes, I agree, there are certain types of photography you’re not going to get from amateurs. Pictures of the surface of Mars, say; best to rely on the pros at NASA. Or the Nicklin/Doubillet niche of underwater photography. Or pictures from inside the womb. This is all specialty stuff. But to write off everything short of that as YouTube “turds and pee”—well, you’re missing a lot a great photographs in between.

      Pick up any issue of NGM, and as you flip the pages, ask yourself: Could an amateur have taken this shot? A boy kicks a ball down an alley in Romea Buddhist monk in a bright red robegrim-faced farmer stares out at drought-stricken field… and, of course: the wedding shot. Do you really think the only people who can deliver those images are the professionals who are summoned for service by Chris Johns and David Griffin? I don’t.

      I should add that I’ve never suggested that my objective is to blow up professional photography. There’s real skill involved in taking good pictures, and much of what you see in NGM is excellent work. But there’s LOTS of great work out there—by pros and amateurs—and the Society needs to find a way to embrace them all not as consumers, or eyeballs, but as creators. The message from Chris Johns should be: What we do here at National Geographic isn’t brain surgery. It’s not an arcane science. It’s not a sacred rite that only my priests can perform. You can do this with us—and we want to help.

      Such a declaration would be a game-changer, especially if he said it out loud, in public on his Editor’s Page. But he won’t because the moment he did, he’d be stepping off his pedestal. He’d be removing the velvet rope that keeps him safely ensconced in his corner office on the 9th floor (at $500,000-plus per year). He’d suddenly be transformed back into Chris Johns, Cheetah Shooter (a job for which he was very well suited). It wouldn’t exactly be The Emperor Wears No Clothes. But it might be The Emperor Doesn’t Look Quite So Imposing In His T-Shirt, Gym Shorts, and Flip-Flops.

      Thanks for writing, Dave… and for making me laugh.

  • David Jeffery

    You would not send all the amateur photographers of Coney Island’s mermaid parade to the coast of Antarctica to photograph leopard seals. The costs would be too high, the results (if any, given the requirements of experience and equipment ) too random, and a fair number of the amateurs might be eaten by seals–of interest, perhaps, in a ghoulish sort of way and a high scorer on YouTube. There amateurs rule, and there, for instance, you can find the video categories “dog turds” and “cat pee,” subjects largely ignored by elitist professional journalists.

    • DJ, you always make me laugh. And don’t be surprised if the NG Channel runs with your Dog Turds & Cat Pee construction. Maybe a big Tentpole event—with all NG divisions in sync—that explores the colorful world of animal waste. If someone can write a kids’ book about it, then why not a Magazine cover story plus a two-hour TV special?

      But seriously, folks….

      No, I wouldn’t send amateurs to Antarctica. And yes, I agree, there are certain types of photography you’re not going to get from amateurs. Pictures of the surface of Mars, say; best to rely on the pros at NASA. Or the Nicklin/Doubillet niche of underwater photography. Or pictures from inside the womb. This is all specialty stuff. But to write off everything short of that as YouTube “turds and pee”—well, you’re missing a lot a great photographs in between.

      Pick up any issue of NGM, and as you flip the pages, ask yourself: Could an amateur have taken this shot? A boy kicks a ball down an alley in Romea Buddhist monk in a bright red robegrim-faced farmer stares out at drought-stricken field… and, of course: the wedding shot. Do you really think the only people who can deliver those images are the professionals who are summoned for service by Chris Johns and David Griffin? I don’t.

      I should add that I’ve never suggested that my objective is to blow up professional photography. There’s real skill involved in taking good pictures, and much of what you see in NGM is excellent work. But there’s LOTS of great work out there—by pros and amateurs—and the Society needs to find a way to embrace them all not as consumers, or eyeballs, but as creators. The message from Chris Johns should be: What we do here at National Geographic isn’t brain surgery. It’s not an arcane science. It’s not a sacred rite that only my priests can perform. You can do this with us—and we want to help.

      Such a declaration would be a game-changer, especially if he said it out loud, in public on his Editor’s Page. But he won’t because the moment he did, he’d be stepping off his pedestal. He’d be removing the velvet rope that keeps him safely ensconced in his corner office on the 9th floor (at $500,000-plus per year). He’d suddenly be transformed back into Chris Johns, Cheetah Shooter (a job for which he was very well suited). It wouldn’t exactly be The Emperor Wears No Clothes. But it might be The Emperor Doesn’t Look Quite So Imposing In His T-Shirt, Gym Shorts, and Flip-Flops.

      Thanks for writing, Dave… and for making me laugh.

  • David Jeffery

    One last shot. Amateur photographers can and do make great photographs. Individual photographs. Flying dogs, for instance. And amateurs in special circumstances–the aid worker in Sudan, the nurse in Mongolia, the backpacker in Nepal–may produce fine photographs that can be combined to make affecting narratives. It’s unlikely, though, that they could do comparable work if dropped into different circumstances. That’s what the best professionals do: not only make fine photographs in a large variety of situations–assignments– but do so based on their training, experience, research, transparent use of equipment, sense of narrative possibility, and so on. They shape their work so that photo and layout editors can select from it and shape it into coherent form that respects the work, the distinctive style of the photographer, and fits those selections into the limited space available. That is a cooperative effort, though not of amateurs.

    • I mostly agree. The guy who shot the flying dog is no Jim Nachtwey. I wouldn’t send the couple who captured the Banff Squirrel to China to shoot a 40-page country story, either. And despite what you might think, I sincerely hope NGM continues to have the resources to send professional photographers on assignment to distant lands.

      But my point is the one you made so nicely: “Amateurs in special circumstances—the aid worker in Sudan, the nurse in Mongolia, the backpacker in Nepal–may produce fine photographs that can be combined to make affecting narratives.” People who are on the ground, and who have a camera in hand, might be able to deliver photographs suitable for publication. In fact, they already are (as I’ve been noting repeatedly on this blog). The trick is not to send amateurs on assignment in remote locales; it’s to send the message that wherever they are, that’s their assignment — and then find a way to aggregate those eyes, those cameras, all those pictures into a coherent coverage. … If the mantra of photojournalists is: “f8 and Be There” — well, lots of people know what f8 is, and they’re already there. Why not give them some new ways to share what they discover?

      Here’s a challenge, Dave: If I put 25 Your Shots & 25 Our Shots in a box, mixed them up, and dumped them on the floor, would you be able to sort out which was which? If not, then 1/3 of NGM—that is, Departments, which are single frames that are purchased almost exclusively from stock photo agencies—could benefit from a pool of amateurs, 4 million people deep.

      Here’s another challenge: Imagine NGM assigns a story on, say, Immigration in America to [name of pro photographer here]. We also put out the word on the web that we’ll be publishing a story on immigration in America, and ask people to submit images, Your Shot-style, that cover a range of subtopics (e.g., housing, health, education, etc.) I grant you that 99.99 percent of what we’ll receive from the Crowd will be unusable—but so what? We only need that .01 percent. And remember: When pro photographers were shooting film, they often came home with 40,000 frames, of which we’d publish maybe a dozen.

      I’m not saying this approach is guaranteed to work. But I am saying the landscape has changed. People have tools they didn’t have 10 years ago. And the line between the pro and the amateur is shrinking. Question is: What is National Geographic going to do about it?

      P.S. What would you think of a new NGM department called Your Text?

  • David Jeffery

    One last shot. Amateur photographers can and do make great photographs. Individual photographs. Flying dogs, for instance. And amateurs in special circumstances–the aid worker in Sudan, the nurse in Mongolia, the backpacker in Nepal–may produce fine photographs that can be combined to make affecting narratives. It’s unlikely, though, that they could do comparable work if dropped into different circumstances. That’s what the best professionals do: not only make fine photographs in a large variety of situations–assignments– but do so based on their training, experience, research, transparent use of equipment, sense of narrative possibility, and so on. They shape their work so that photo and layout editors can select from it and shape it into coherent form that respects the work, the distinctive style of the photographer, and fits those selections into the limited space available. That is a cooperative effort, though not of amateurs.

    • I mostly agree. The guy who shot the flying dog is no Jim Nachtwey. I wouldn’t send the couple who captured the Banff Squirrel to China to shoot a 40-page country story, either. And despite what you might think, I sincerely hope NGM continues to have the resources to send professional photographers on assignment to distant lands.

      But my point is the one you made so nicely: “Amateurs in special circumstances—the aid worker in Sudan, the nurse in Mongolia, the backpacker in Nepal–may produce fine photographs that can be combined to make affecting narratives.” People who are on the ground, and who have a camera in hand, might be able to deliver photographs suitable for publication. In fact, they already are (as I’ve been noting repeatedly on this blog). The trick is not to send amateurs on assignment in remote locales; it’s to send the message that wherever they are, that’s their assignment — and then find a way to aggregate those eyes, those cameras, all those pictures into a coherent coverage. … If the mantra of photojournalists is: “f8 and Be There” — well, lots of people know what f8 is, and they’re already there. Why not give them some new ways to share what they discover?

      Here’s a challenge, Dave: If I put 25 Your Shots & 25 Our Shots in a box, mixed them up, and dumped them on the floor, would you be able to sort out which was which? If not, then 1/3 of NGM—that is, Departments, which are single frames that are purchased almost exclusively from stock photo agencies—could benefit from a pool of amateurs, 4 million people deep.

      Here’s another challenge: Imagine NGM assigns a story on, say, Immigration in America to [name of pro photographer here]. We also put out the word on the web that we’ll be publishing a story on immigration in America, and ask people to submit images, Your Shot-style, that cover a range of subtopics (e.g., housing, health, education, etc.) I grant you that 99.99 percent of what we’ll receive from the Crowd will be unusable—but so what? We only need that .01 percent. And remember: When pro photographers were shooting film, they often came home with 40,000 frames, of which we’d publish maybe a dozen.

      I’m not saying this approach is guaranteed to work. But I am saying the landscape has changed. People have tools they didn’t have 10 years ago. And the line between the pro and the amateur is shrinking. Question is: What is National Geographic going to do about it?

      P.S. What would you think of a new NGM department called Your Text?

  • David Jeffery

    Maybe not such a bad idea at that. A long-ago Legends writer, Harvey Arden, longed to write a caption lead-in of a group of lions at a waterfall so that he could begin with “Pride goeth before a fall…” Maybe NGM could run a contest like the New Yorker’s: Odd pictures supplied by readers; odder captions supplied by readers.

    • Well, Dave, if NGM won’t launch Your Text, then I say we do it ourselves right here… but in reverse: First you write the funny caption, then we crowdsource a photo that will complement your text. Let’s make your first one Twitter friendly—no longer than 140 characters. (BTW: I heard a rumor that Twitter’s original slogan was “Brevity, Clarity, Bite” —but that’s just a rumor.)

      The editorial staff here at Society Matters anxiously awaits your first submission….

  • David Jeffery

    Maybe not such a bad idea at that. A long-ago Legends writer, Harvey Arden, longed to write a caption lead-in of a group of lions at a waterfall so that he could begin with “Pride goeth before a fall…” Maybe NGM could run a contest like the New Yorker’s: Odd pictures supplied by readers; odder captions supplied by readers.

    • Well, Dave, if NGM won’t launch Your Text, then I say we do it ourselves right here… but in reverse: First you write the funny caption, then we crowdsource a photo that will complement your text. Let’s make your first one Twitter friendly—no longer than 140 characters. (BTW: I heard a rumor that Twitter’s original slogan was “Brevity, Clarity, Bite” —but that’s just a rumor.)

      The editorial staff here at Society Matters anxiously awaits your first submission….

  • David Jeffery

    I say it’s a zebra, and I say the hell with it.

  • David Jeffery

    I say it’s a zebra, and I say the hell with it.

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