A Year in Review: Photojournalism 2017

for Capture Magazine

After the tumultuous year that was 2016, 2017 had a lot to live up to in terms of world events and high-calibre, in-depth photo-based reportage. But as the shellshock from the US election slowly faded, the now standard array of regular world catastrophes continued to guide photojournalists’ lenses. But at the same time, some of the industry’s best pushed the limits of editorial storytelling into unchartered territory and most notably, right here in Australia. Sam Edmonds takes a look back at the year thus far.

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Sometime around mid-July, a number of the world’s most noteworthy photographers seemingly in chorus, took to social media in praise of a story in the New York Times – a story told in Australia by an Australian photographer. Names like Peter Van Agtmael, Anastasia Taylor-Lind and a plethora of others were celebrating Adam Ferguson’s personal pilgrimage and photo- documentation of a several thousand kilometer drive to the heart of his home country. Breaking a number of readership records for the Times, the series takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of those parts of our country so often at the extreme periphery of both the world and Australians alike. And for those who saw the resulting images, the series seemed to provide a breath of fresh air in an industry presently grappling with a number of its own shortcomings. But not all is well and good on the home front, as journalistic departments around the country (both visual and otherwise) continued to suffer under the hammer of amalgamations and a funding cuts. At once in 2017, the world celebrated Australia’s photographic prowess whilst many local practitioners faced the threat of a dwindling investment in quality journalism. But on other editorial fronts, several of Australia’s most successful portraiture and fashion photographers are realizing new realms within their practice and a handful of Aussie sports photographers are thriving on the world stage. In a sea of the politics and ideology informing it, editorial photography is white knuckled and holding on for the ride in 2017. Which has made for compelling imagery across the board.

A Photographic Odyssey

In August of this year, a somewhat confronting quote from Donald Weber appeared in the British Journal of Photography: “I’ve just about had enough of photojournalism,” he said – going on to pinpoint “an almost complete lack of self-awareness” as the cause. While such criticism is always a little tough to digest, this might also serve to highlight one of the reasons for Adam Ferguson’s Photographic Odyssey’s incredibly wide acclaim among his peers. Appearing in the New York Times in July, the essay was the result of a solo road trip by Ferguson into the remote expanses of outback that most Australian city-dwellers rarely see. From burned landscapes to kangaroo hunters, remote indigenous communities and crocodile farms, the series speaks of several themes covering identity, youth, socioeconomics and our relationship with the land. But

importantly, the essay, which was both photographed and written by Ferguson alone was a personal journey for a Coffs Harbour-born, coastal Australian. Having made a name for himself covering conflict in Iraq, Ferguson has gone on to great success within the industry and in typical photojournalist form, most often been obligated to turn his back on his home country for large swaths of time. So in many ways, this project was Ferguson’s re-discovery of his home and perhaps so upheld by his peers as a shining exemplar of contemporary work as an undercurrent of Australian self-awareness is acutely present across the body of work.

Surprisingly, this story was the first that Ferguson has pitched to the New York Times – a process came with its own sense of both responsibility and ownership. But in approaching the publication, he says that “they didn’t just let me go and run around Australia with my camera so I was pretty clear that I wanted this to be a kind of critique of regional identity and a look at the outback”, but also stipulated that “this was going to be a personal journey.” Needless to say, the Times responded well and allowed Ferguson six weeks and an open itinerary – something virtually unprecedented for assignment parameters set out by a publication of the Times’ size. But as Ferguson explains, this sense of freedom was both a blessing and a curse in country where such a small population density often saw him on the road and not making images for days at a time. “There were multiple times throughout the project where I was panicking really hard. And mainly because it was my baby; because I had pitched it, it really had to pay off,” he says. “It wasn’t enough just to make an OK set of pictures.”

However, while Ferguson’s approach certainly implemented a certain level of openness and exploration, he was not going into the project without a pre-conceived idea of the Australian outback. For him, the image of Australia’s vast interior that has been so adored in Australian lyrical history and then romanticized by the likes of Baz Luhrman was something to be eroded; something to be interrogated. And as Australian working with an international newspaper based in the United States, this presented a unique angle for the communication of cultural nuances both in producing and presenting the work. “My aim was to strip the sentimentality out of it [the outback],” says Ferguson. “I said to my photo editor, ‘I’m not going out there to make beautiful pictures of stockman on horseback, I’m going out there to try and challenge what we think about this place. It’s not going to be a beautiful, sentimental piece about the outback’”.

While Ferguson and the team essentially broke new ground in simply their allocation of such a large amount of time for an editorial assignment, the real innovation came in the weeks and months following Ferguson’s time on the ground in Australia. From his new home in New York City and the offices of the Times, Ferguson and photo editors David Furst and Craig Allen essentially re-wrote the handbook for editorial publication workflows as the trio plus an in-house Times designer implemented not only a custom-built webpage for the story but a staggering 16 page section in the print version of the paper. “It was actually the largest photo spread that the times has ever done, which was pretty extraordinary,” says Ferguson. “Apart from doing a long National Geographic assignment, it was the most involved process I’ve ever worked on. We were editing with hard copy prints and there was a lot of dialogue. And that was just the photo part. Then there was the text. Which was this unwieldly beast which went on for months.”

But despite both the readership records and new editorial ground broken by this story, at the heart of it, the success of Ferguson’s photographic odyssey stems from his intrinsic knowledge of

this sundrenched continent. And as he admits, it was Australians who would be the toughest to please with this work. “I always thought that Australians were going to be my hardest audience because as a foreign correspondent, whenever I do a story on another country it is that country where the hardest criticism comes from,” he says. “So I wondered if Australians were going to like it. And I didn’t get one criticism which was extraordinary.” And perhaps in almost picture- perfect antidote to Weber’s concerns, the brilliance of this essay would seem to come from Ferguson’s acute awareness of not only the cultural facets of his subjects and his surroundings but also his own M.O as a photojournalist as his return to his homeland and what some are calling his magnum opus has come at the peak of his photographic career. As Ferguson describes, his approach to Australia and to this story was vastly different to his daily routine in the Middle East or Northern Africa: “I wasn’t just executing my craft like a professional and making strong imagery. I think if some of the images were isolated, they aren’t great, iconic images or anything but I guess I knew what I was saying, it was in my own head and it was my own story,” he says. “I guess a certain amount of sincerity shone through which might have been what people responded to”.

On the Home Front

Although Ferguson’s essay proved wildly effective at putting both regional Australia and Australian photojournalism well and truly back on the map, the Australian press photography world itself has continued its battle for survival in the face of funding cuts and diluted journalism. At the center of this has been a number of Australia’s largest newspapers but of note of course is the country’s most well-resected photo department at the Sydney Morning Herald. Over the last decade or so, the Herald has been no stranger at all to the trimming down of departments and photography has suffered heavily in this respect with an obvious overarching theme that photographic content is less important that its text-based counterpart. As veteran Herald photographer Nick Moir explains: “They see visuals as being secondary... that is until they actually realize that people will look at a story more if it has powerful imagery.”

The Herald, which this year has been running on a skeleton photographic staff of roughly six full-time employees has long been known within Australian journalism as producing some of the country’s most memorable images by a long list of noteworthy names including Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, Dean Sewell and Nick Walker. But as Moir details, the ever-trimming down of photographic departments in most news outlets across the world is drastically affecting the quality of visual content overall and the cumulative affect is a loss of genuinely experienced, passionate and reputable professionals. “There are loads of people doing combat photography but it’s people like Kate [Geraghty] that keep going off to cover that sort of thing,” says Moir, referring to Geraghty’s ongoing commitment to coverage of war in the Middle East. “She recently came back from Mosul and her work there... she’ll almost undoubtedly pick up a Walkley for press photographer of the year for it because it is just epic. I think she’s got a very good chance for a World Press photo award.” And similarly, Moir refers to long-time Farifax photographer Nic Walker as example of the loss of genuine talent and experience to a publication by funding cuts: “It was a real loss to lose Nick Walker because he had really established his skill. You could look at a picture and say that’s a Nick Walker.”

But as always, one port in the storm remains for photographers in the Australian press and documentary world as Oculi – a group partially founded by Moir himself approaches its twentieth year harbouring some of the nations’ best practitioners. As 2016 saw the addition of three new full time members to the group with Matthew Abbott, John Feely and Alana Holmberg, 2017 saw the first round of Oculi’s shining new internship program which seeks to pair budding Australian photographers with three senior members of the group for a year’s worth of mentoring. Reaffirming its positon as the country’s bastion of visual documentary practice, Moir details how the internship program was very much a reflection of the need for encouraging emerging talents. “There’s been times where we’ve looked around at wondered whether Oculi was going to make it,” he says. “Apart from helping each other survive and providing strength in unity, it is also about finding those new talented photographers.”

Welcoming Mridula Amin, Sinead Kennedy and Ella Rubeli as the inaugural interns, Moir is optimistic that the both the talent and the number of applicants for this year’s mentor program is a positive sign of a continued Australian institution in documentary photography. And as he describes, the immediate future looks good for the group that now boasts a spectrum of ages and technical abilities encompassing virtual reality and design practices. “Oculi will keep bumbling on. We’re close to twenty years old now and there are times when I do look at myself and wonder if I should get out and make room for others now,” says Moir. “Now that we have brought these new guys in, we just need to let them produce their next body of work and then we can move on from there. So I would expect to see either an exhibition or a book within the next couple of years.”

Sporting Goods

While hard photojournalism and documentary practice has seen a slightly rough ride so far this year, things have been a little quieter on the sporting scene as chance would have it: a number of the world’s largest sporting events are all scheduled for 2018. But as Australian sports specialist Cameron Spencer explains, this hasn’t stopped the industry from proceeding at full pace as most professionals and number of companies heavily involved in supporting them have taken the reprieve from work to focus on enhancing technological abilities that will make the upcoming Olympics and other events particularly spectacular. This has encompassed implementations not only across improvements to DSLR capabilities and design but also to new robotics systems, iPhone photography and action cameras. “Next year is huge for sport with the Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games and the FIFA World Cup,” says Spencer – drawing attention to the sheer number of opportunities that will be on offer for excellent imagery. “The use of underwater cameras and robotics has grown and been taken to another level,” he says. “And with the rise of 360 cameras and Action cameras, there are new angles rigging these compact cameras such as Go-Pros to boards, wings, helmets and new types of VR photos that are surfacing as well.”

But while the dip in sporting action for 2017 has most definitely been noticeable, Spencer insists that in sheer contrast to the world of hard news reporting, sports photography remains a feasible professional arena for aspiring photographers and that the coverage of the small number of large sporting events that did occur this year (Mayweather vs. McGregor, America’s Cup, the Superbowl etc.) proves the media’s commitment to covering such stories. “There are plenty of opportunities for sports photographers

globally, whilst the media landscape is shifting with traditional newspapers growing to larger online models the demand for imagery has increased,” says Spencer. “With online and social platforms growing there are more and more outlets requesting imagery from sporting bodies. There are probably more sports photographers than ever working making it more competitive.” But despite that, Spencer is quick to posit some advice that are seeking to enter the market in 2018: “Those who have a quality product, a good knowledge of what they are covering, are up to speed with technology and the right work ethic are getting consistent work. With online content growing, clients are expecting more imagery and faster. For the modern editorial photographer, the ability to file fast is paramount, speed is critical.”

In and Out of Fashion

Between press photography, documentary and sport many differences may appear obvious as to the state of each discipline and the external influences upon their operation but one aspect that escapes no genre of photography is the precarious nature of its audience. And this was perhaps no more true than for fashion and portrait photography in 2017. Often at the center of photographic controversies and whispered criticisms over time, fashion photography especially has been punctuated with events that most would prefer simply to forget. And at a time when political correctness is at it’s peak of sensitivity, fashion is treading on egg shells more than ever. This was noted quite prominently by Laurence Butet-Roch in her article for the New York Times lens blog in August of this year than considered the ingoing canon of fashion photography as a political reflection of society. But what contribution have Australians made to this? And given our seemingly disproportionate political voice on the world stage, how are our fashion photographers reflecting Australian society in 2017?

According to celebrated Australian fashion and portrait photographer Michele Aboud, some of this genre’s professional elite are diversifying their practices in the face of adversity and while some are reviving devolved methods of photo reproduction for the sake of furthering aesthetic tangents, others are maintaining fashion’s reflection of societal facets by branching out to a broader swath of visual mediums. Having just returned to live in Australia after spending a considerable amount of her life living and working in the USA, Aboud has recently embraced the medium of film as way of tackling larger, more generic human themes. As she explains: “I’ve spent a good twenty years photographing fashion but now that I’m going into motion I can start exploring the greater aspects of humanity. When it comes to motion pieces that I’m conceptualizing it is really just what I feel like doing and mostly that is about people and about their stories.”

But at a time of particularly fervent political turmoil, tackling larger human issues is no easy feat. And especially in a world where so much visual information is consumed by only few who are visually literate. In this way, fashion photography seems to have taken on an intrinsic and perhaps unwelcome large responsibility as practitioners are faced with the very real prospect that their images as facilitated by social media could be seen by millions of people in an instant. “The thing now with the world we live in is that a powerful image will say it all. But what goes with that is manipulation,” says Aboud. “We are living in the age of the image.” And in a Trump- ridden world, it is more important than ever for people to obtain the ability to filter out the fake news. But as Aboud continues: ““People have asked me if I moved back to Australia because of

Trump. I’d be much more worried about other countries around the world that have actual dictators. Everybody wants the world to go back to how it was... whatever that means to them. And how does that come out in images? People just want to go out and try and capture what they see is the truth. But the camera lies.”

Time Will Tell

From Australian odysseys to technology, fashion and everything in between, the year of 2017 has proved just as turbulent for editorial photography as the few years prior. While photojournalism continues to grapple with some of its own vices and seasoned press photographers struggle to scrape a living in the face of fake news, our obsession with sport continues to explode and unprecedented megapixel counts mean that we can print Roger Federer’s face larger than ever. But there is light on the horizon in other arenas. Australia’s beacon of visual documentary practice Oculi continues to provide safe refuge for our journalistic prodigies and some of the country’s most talented expats from both photojournalism and fashion photography alike are returning to our shores for some kind of reflection or another. 2018 has much in store for editorial photography.

 

Sam EdmondsComment