From Iceland — Obituary: News Photography

Obituary: News Photography

Obituary: News Photography

Published December 7, 2007

How did you select the photos for the exhibition? What was the guiding light?
I didn’t really have a guiding light. I just wanted to find old photos, all the way from the beginning of photography in Iceland, at the turn of the 20th century, and examine a different side of these old photos. I tried to select photos I hadn’t seen before, and which were related to aspects of news photography, daily life, or extraordinary events. I really wanted to stress the early days. It surprised me how many photos I found. From a photographer’s standpoint, these were big old cameras they were using back then – 4×5 or 10×12 cameras with glass plates – and it was not easy to take all these photos. Nevertheless, whenever something happened, like when there was a big fire downtown around the turn of the century, all these events were photographed. These photos have all the characteristics of news photography, although they may not have been taken as such at the time. As the years go by, however, you can see how this becomes a more conscious effort. When you put these photos together, they represent a fraction of the history of photography in Iceland.
When does the concept of news photography first emerge in Iceland?
I would say that news photography in Iceland begins for real in the 1960s. At that time, there was much competition in the newspaper industry; there were five or six newspapers at the time. Of course, it had started earlier, although people didn’t necessarily regard it as such. Many photos documenting newsworthy events were taken without ever being intended to complement news stories.
You don’t see a lot of photojournalism in Icelandic newspapers. There is little attempt to document unfolding stories and tell it visually. Do editors lack understanding of the work of the news photographer and the power of photojournalism?
It is very difficult to give you a short answer, because there are many factors at play here. My feeling is that there are two things destroying news photography. On the one hand it is the market economy and on the other hand digital cameras. These elements have ruined news photography. Since Icelandic newspapers stopped being political party papers and became corporations in a competing market, the mandate has been to constantly cut expenses. The first thing they cut is quality. For that reason, newspapers will accept anything, as long as it doesn’t cost much. If you don’t have to send a photographer to the scene, they will use a photo even if it’s rubbish. And then there is the digital revolution. Before, not anyone could be a photographer. It was expensive, you needed both equipment and know-how and you had fewer chances to catch the photo, working with the amount of films you had. That meant that you could see who stood apart as photographers. The only people who lasted in this environment were the people who had talent. Today, anyone can buy a digital camera and everyone is a photographer. You shoot a thousand photos that you can see instantly on you screen.
The newspapers even run photos from mobile phones. The events are not given the proper attention. The standard of quality has been brought down. The abundance of photos from amateurs or young aspiring photographers has devalued the market, so now it’s impossible for established photographers to work on large expensive documentation projects. Big photo agencies like Getty and AP have been forced to bring down their price in competition with amateur photo banks. The demand from the market is that newspapers must turn a profit above anything else, so they drive down the price. Fortunately, there have been a few papers and magazines that have tried to fight this, and these are the papers that stand out from the rest: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Sunday Times, Newsweek and Times. These papers value photography. Other papers have been going in the opposite direction and buy cheap photos that have little or no news value and run with it.
Sometimes, papers use doctored photos; splice together people from two photos or crop a photo to show one certain item for instance. Is that a part of this as well?
Yes, that’s another thing I find strange; how the photo is always the last thing considered. The respect for the work of the photographer is minimal. This is a constant struggle between editors and publishers, because the publishers want to cut down the costs. It used not to be like this. It used to be that newspaper publishing was an ideal. There are no ideals anymore, it’s just business. Obviously, the responsibility rests in many hands, but news photography in Iceland is dead, the only thing left is to write the obituary.
In the exhibition you put together, I noticed you only have one photo there yourself. The subject is a girl at an outdoor concert, giving us, the viewers, the finger. Is there a hidden message contained in that photo?
Absolutely. I think it is great that you mention this, because not many people have noticed it, but I did this absolutely on purpose. Actually, I first thought of using that photo because it contrasts so well with the old photos of very civilised people, but teenagers today are a different matter. The generation gap is evident in that photo. I thought about whether people would read into it that I was giving photography the finger, like you did, but I decided I could very well let them think that. I’ll admit that was not the first reason I chose that photo, but I also thought that it fit what I was thinking, there is a little message contained in there, I won’t deny it. I could have chosen many other photos.
Looking at your website [] I noticed you have several photo journalism series, but they are all taken in other countries, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Palestine. Is it really the case that there are no subjects for photographers to document in Iceland?
No, that would be a very incorrect assumption. Ten years ago, I was fascinated with foreign news as a subject. War photography, disasters, and human tragedies. This was just a phase, like you go through a phase when you only buy bellbottom jeans, and then you buy something else. The website was set up around that time, rather hastily. I’ve always meant to add more to it, but it hasn’t happened. Iceland is a country of opportunities in photojournalism. I am certain it is one of the best places in Europe to document, because the changes in our society are so visible, and there are only two or three people who are documenting these changes: the country that is now, but might not be here in just a few years. I’ve been documenting farmers and deserted farms around Ísafjörður for two years. This used to be a very large farming community, but it’s disappearing very fast. This is the last chance to document this. This is a dream project for me, since it mirrors the changes in our society and, really, the Nordic region as a whole. This is what drives me forward. That’s why I’m very sad to see that news photography is dying. People don’t seem to realise that people want to see good photos. No one is ever going to remember the text about the event 50 years from now, but people still remember the different photos of the event. Why is it that newspapers today are overflowing with photos of recipe dishes and quilts, giant photos, while the news photos that really matter are cut down and drowned in text and advertisements?

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