In the middle of last month, Jack Womack, CNN's senior vice president of domestic news operations, sent around a memo to staffers. It was not the kind of memo people like to get right before the holidays. "We... spent a great deal of time analyzing how we utilize and deploy photojournalists across all of our locations in the U.S.," wrote Womack. "We looked at production demands, down time, and international deployments. We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company."
In short, because it was receiving so many photo submissions via its user-generated iReport platform, CNN decided that it could afford to do away with 12 of its full-time photographers. The message at the root of the layoffs was big: In an age when anyone with an iPhone can tweet breaking news pictures, the photojournalist is going the way of the pterodactyl.
"If the game is to be in the right place at the right time, I can't win at that game, because there's only one of me," says Rob Bennett, a Wall Street Journal contract photographer. "I'm resigned to that." Millions of people with smartphones are now in constant possession of cameras. Nobody plans for a 9/11 attack or a Japanese tsunami, and when those things happen, it's not photojournalists who are there first, it's iPhone users. "The iPhone people are going to be there when the bomb goes off, when the house burns down, when the assassination goes down," says Bennett. "They’re going to crush that market, and there's nothing I can do about it."
Indeed, usage of the iPhone 4's camera is surging, according to data from picture-sharing site Flickr. The iPhone 4 is now the second most popular image maker on the site, second only to Nikon's D90 and ahead of every single Canon point-and-shoot. The smartphone camera is so popular, in fact, that even some photojournalists are using it. Michael Christopher Brown, a photographer who flew to Libya to cover the uprising in February, shot an entire series using his iPhone's Hipstamatic app after dropping and breaking his SLR camera. He was still shooting on his phone in April when an explosion sent shrapnel into his chest and killed two of his nearby colleagues, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington. "At this point I hesitate using a 'real' camera," Brown told Time magazine a few weeks after his injury. "Using a phone has brought my attention less to the craft and more to what I am photographing and why. So, the question becomes not where I see the phone taking my work, but where the work will take me."
The modern media consumer seems to demand that less attention be paid to the craft. A great photograph is still a great photograph, but a good photograph immediately dispersed through Twitter wins the day. Consider Stefanie Gordon, the woman from Hoboken who in May took what is probably the most famous photo of the Space Shuttle Endeavour's final mission. Gordon wasn't at the Kennedy Space Center with hundreds of other professional photographers, she was on a Delta flight to Palm Beach, where she snapped a few photos with her iPhone and then tweeted them. Within hours her pictures were on dozens of news sites; the Associated Press gave her $500 per, and the next day some of her Twitpics had made it to the front pages of newspapers. "It’s definitely a different experience and something I never expected," Gordon later told Newark’s Star-Ledger. "It was just the right place at the right time."
If any lucky person with a smartphone can now take pictures for newspapers, what makes a photojournalist a photojournalist in 2011?
"Photographers need to figure out what exactly separates them from pedestrians with nice cameras," says Channing Johnson, a photojournalist who spent time at Michigan's Midland Daily News and Vermont's Valley News before deciding to become a full-time wedding photographer. "If what makes a photographer better isn't clear, then I don't think photographer jobs should be preserved just because they have up until this point. People thought the profession of photography was threatened when autofocus was introduced, but photographers who lasted proved that knowing the technical elements of a camera was the least important part of their value."
Johnson says one thing professionals can offer that amateurs can't is ethics. Not changing the context of an event with a manipulative image, for instance, or not adding or removing anything with Photoshop. "A news organization is only as good as it's credibility," he says. "It's hard to control that when you are getting key content from strangers."
Darrow Montgomery, a staff photographer for D.C.'s alt weekly, the Washington City Paper, says that although photojournalism's decline is "inevitable," professional photographers should never be obsolete. "If the metric for successful image making is being at the right place at the right time, the professional is doomed based on the sheer number of warm bodies with image making whatnots," he says. "But if the metric is to get the best, most telling, evocative picture of a given situation, and to be able to do that repeatedly, then the professional will win almost every time."
Bennett, who is also an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, was hired to replace a professor who gave up teaching photojournalism because "he said it felt like sending lambs to the slaughter." Bennett, 35, says that though the horizon seems dim for photojournalists, the students he sees aren't dispirited. "They want to learn everything they can," he says. "They're so hungry and excited. And they should be; CNN can do whatever they want. I’m not pissed at them firing photographers. They’re making their best business decision, and nobody is going to change that market force. I just continue to have faith that what I do and what my very skilled colleagues and students do is of value."
Overall, Bennett is "bullish" about the future of photojournalism. But toward the end of our conversation he opens up a bit. "Something you might find interesting is that as bullish as I am, I'm not sure how much longer I can go on being a photographer myself," he says. "I'm tired. It's hard out there right now, because my editors want to save money by not hiring that extra photographer each day, so they've got me doing the work of two people. I could have maybe done it 10 years ago, but now I'm just exhausted."