Is professional documentary photography dead?

Here and Now

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to lay to rest that great tradition of photography, the documentary,” says Rev. Richard Banks, as he holds a funeral for the art. The BBC’s Laura Hubber explains the reason for the service: “In the era of digital images, citizen journalism, YouTube, Flickr and a myriad of websites, the figure of a hired documentary photographer feels like a lonely dinosaur, especially in Los Angeles — a city that routinely kills off it’s past without regret.”

Amateurs are taking most of today’s pictures, but photographer Lauren Greenfield believes there is still a place for the professional:

The audience on the internet seems just as hungry for information, and not just any information but thoughtful, digested, in-depth information. But there isn’t really a financial model for that, and so it’s very hard for us to find funding for in-depth stories.

Proof that there is still demand for expert photography is at LA’s Getty Museum. Its 2010 exhibit, “Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties,” was the most well-attended photography show in the museum’s history. Frank Evers, CEO of the Institute for Artist Management, is confident in the continued interest in professional photography. “We, as a people, have always been interested in stories and each other’s stories and hearing stories, and I think we live in a world where we’re exposed, actually, to more stories. So, I’m really hopeful about the future for storytellers. I think that the sky’s the limit.”

In a culture with so many amateur artists producing great work, Laura Hubber suspects that the editor, or curator, will be the professional artist of tomorrow. While Rev. Richard Banks is “burying still photography in the desert dust next to silent films and 3D glasses,” he may want to heed Hubber’s point: those two types of media are making comebacks. 

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