Early in the morning of September 11, 2001, the phone rang in Stan Honda’s 94th Street apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. On the line was the French wire service, Agence France-Presse, telling him a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Instantly, the 43-year-old photojournalist picked up his camera, rushed to a southbound subway and, minutes later, started taking pictures that in the days and weeks to come would haunt the world.
You may remember them. One shows a typical New York City businessman in a grey suit covered in soot. He’s trudging through the debris of the towers, almost like a refugee in a war zone, with briefcase still in hand. This photo ran on the cover of Fortune. Then there’s the picture of the New York police officer burying his head in his arms as he slumps over a soot-covered car. It appeared in The Globe and Mail on September 12. Another Honda picture shows an African-American woman taking refuge in an office building. She’s gazing with shock into the camera and her hair and face are covered in white ash. You may remember this photo, too, which also appeared in the Globe. If you do, you’ll likely never forget it.
Honda, a freelancer since 1995, hasn’t tired of talking about his memorable shots. Since the attacks he’s been interviewed by such newspapers as the National Post and The Dallas Morning News and by the TV show Inside Edition. He’s also been asked to speak to students at Columbia University in New York. “I think what we’re seeing is that in an era of 24-hour news channels like CNN, the still image is the most reliable source of information,” he says. “When you see something on TV you’re aware that TV is mostly an entertainment and news media. But by printing an image, people can stare at it and realize that September 11 wasn’t a movie.”
When historians 50 years from now look back on September 11, Honda’s pictures could quite easily turn out to be among the shots chosen to best explain what happened on that dreadful day. Editors at publications around the world-including the Los Angeles Times-realized that Honda’s stark, simply composed close-up shots could help their readers understand the pain and shock caused by a vicious act of terrorism. And so when readers looked at Honda’s photographs, they could stare at the expression on the African-American woman’s face and feel her fear. Or, as they looked at the man in the grey suit, their eyes would likely have focused on that briefcase. Why, they might have asked, would a man fleeing disaster even care about his briefcase?
Both these photographs represent the power and purpose of photojournalism. They add to our knowledge of the effects of a terrible event in a way that the printed word cannot convey. So in a season in which the world mourned the deaths of thousands of innocent lives, you have to forgive photojournalists who, amid the tears, including many of their own, have also let out a few cheers of celebration as the world rediscovered the importance of their craft. In the October 2001 issue of the online magazine Digital Journalist, for instance, the editor and publisher, Dick Halstead, wrote that “Since the late eighties, we have watched-appalled-as American media moved away from hard news and investigative journalism to entertainment and life-style issues. At the top, the big newsmagazines, the life-blood of photojournalism, decided that the public no longer cared about any substantive information coming from the rest of the world….In one day-September 11, 2001-photojournalism was, in a sense, reborn. The horrendous act committed on that day accomplished what none of the dedicated and loyal photographers had been able to during the past decade. A period filled with fighting, not only for the rights to own their pictures, but the very survival of their craft.”
Halstead’s point, although meant for American readers, has universal truth. Photojournalism only gets the respect it deserves when major tragedies occur. The irony about this tragedy is that as the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, so did North America’s already slumping economy. And in the tougher financial environment that followed, the very same Canadian publications that had decided photojournalism could help them fight a newspaper war suddenly had to make do with fewer pictures.
“When the National Post came on there was a real renaissance in photojournalism,” says Hans Deryk, former photo director at The Toronto Star. “It was the flavour of the month again. But now everyone who works in the industry is a little concerned”-and perhaps wondering just how long this renewed interest in photojournalism can possibly last.
When National Post photo editor Denis Paquin was recruited to help launch the paper in 1998, he wondered why so many Canadian dailies simply ran typical head shots of, say, politicians or businessmen beside big news stories. “This country needed shaking up,” says Paquin as he leans back in his chair and rests his black cowboy boots on his desk. “The problem with this country is there’s an amazing amount of talent, but people who put the papers together have this idea that papers have to look the way they did 50 years ago-that photographers need to shoot pictures of people smiling into a camera.”
Paquin has earned the right to sound arrogant. Even photo editors at The Globe and Mail and Toronto Starcredit the Post with revolutionizing photojournalism in Canada. In a very short period, the paper developed a reputation for using pictures in a creative way. Instead of slavishly illustrating news stories, photographs at the Post were often thought-provoking, creatively composed, boldly displayed. For example, when Israel attacked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s home in December, the Post ran a huge shot of a soldier driving a tank through Ramallah. The photographer zoomed in so closely on the soldier’s face readers could see he was clenching his teeth and getting ready to kill anything that got in his way. The image vividly displayed the intensity of the hate that’s tormenting the Middle East. “When there’s a good image,” Paquin says, “people are going to study that image and learn as much from it as they probably will from the text.”
It’s hardly surprising that the Post has a photo editor who speaks so passionately about his craft. After all, Paquin was hired by two men who had come from publications with strong visual reputations: Kenneth Whyte, a former editor of Saturday Night, and Martin Newland, a former senior editor of the London Daily Telegraph, both of whom interviewed Paquin in May 1998, when he was the photo editor for the Tokyo-based Asia bureau of the Associated Press. Whyte and Newland spoke about their vision of a picture-heavy newspaper modelled after publications such as The Independent in London, England. Paquin explained that to achieve that goal, editors must recognize that photographers had untapped expertise in coming up with visual ideas. “That’s what was different here at the Post,” says Paquin. “It was photo people who chose the images that go in the newspaper-and not a copy editor or political editor.”
On the morning of November 27, 2001, National Post subscribers awoke to this front-page image: two American soldiers in Afghanistan looking eerily into the dark grey sky while kneeling by a bunker located close to the site of a bloody prison riot between Northern Alliance and Taliban fighters. The article that ran below the picture, taken by a photographer from Getty Images, said U.S. troops had finally landed in Afghanistan. The picture, though, provided something the story could not: because the photographer crept up close to the subjects, readers could see the fear on the faces of these two young soldiers. It was a photograph that followed in the tradition of legendary war photojournalist Robert Capa, who once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
When Picture Post published Capa’s shots from the Spanish Civil War in 1938, the photography magazine called him “the greatest war photographer in the world.” It was a title earned not just because Capa risked his life to get photos (his most famous picture shows a Spanish loyalist being gunned down just metres away from the camera), but also because he so successfully captured what photographers call “the decisive moment”-the image or facial expression that best reflects the emotion of the time, whether it be violence, joy, or horror.
Capa, however, wasn’t the only celebrated photographer of that era, a period often referred to as the golden age of photojournalism because of the popularity of such picture-laden magazines as Life, Look, andCollier‘s. All these publications filled a need: they showed the rest of the world to their readers in a time before television and satellite transmission. Back then, World War II was the big story and the hunger to see what was happening at, say, the frontlines was huge.
Life was founded in 1936 and it set the standard for photojournalism in the U.S. Among those published regularly: Capa, George Rodger (best known for documenting Africa during World War II), and W. Eugene Smith (who covered the war from eastern Asia). By the early 50’s, 5.2 million issues of Life were being sold weekly. Then came TV, which could show even more of the world and do so more excitingly. Over time, it would steal both audiences and advertisers from the glossies. By 1956, Collier‘s had gone. In the early ’70s, both Look and the original Life folded.
In Canada, magazines such as Star Weekly (1910 to 1973), Maclean’s, The Canadian (1965 to 1979) andWeekend (1951 to 1979) would often publish photojournalism. None of their photographers, however, made big names for themselves, though a few Canadians, such as Sam Tata (best known for shooting Mao’s China) and Richard Harrington (who documented Inuit life) developed followings.
“Canada has never had a photography culture,” says Larry Towell, the first and only Canadian member of the internationally renowned photo agency, Magnum. Although Towell resides near Bothwell, Ontario, and had a September 11 photo essay published in the Globe (he was in New York attending a Magnum meeting that day), most of his work is sold to European magazines, such as the German publication Stern. “In Europe, there’s a whole history of telling stories through pictures. Here we’ve never had that.” Readers of Canadian Geographic, Toronto Life, the now-dead Saturday Night, and Equinox-magazines that have published photo essays-may disagree, but Towell is really talking about a lack of money to foster a great tradition. Canadian magazines have far smaller budgets than their American counterparts so it’s cheaper for them to fulfill most of their photographic needs in the studio. “A photographer is paid by day, while a writer is paid by word,” says Margaret Williamson, photo editor of Canadian Geographic. “But since photography has to be done on the spot it could take 10 days to complete an assignment. The time factor can make it expensive.”
When asked how he’d like to see photojournalism evolve in Canada, Denis Paquin says he hopes more newspapers will follow the Post‘s policies on choosing visuals. “You have to believe in the people you put in place in your photo department and that’s been the difference here,” he says. “We don’t win every battle. There are days when it wasn’t my decision to go on the front page. But at least we have a voice.”
The Post, however, isn’t the only Canadian publication dedicated to improving photojournalism. Since 1998, there have been visual shake-ups at both The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star. “Certainly the newspaper war has led me to have a greater appreciation of photojournalism and creative shots,” says Starpublisher John Honderich. “It has been a critical part of the newspaper war and I think it has sharpened all our edges.”
That sharpening began in summer 1998 when the Globe published colour photography for the first time. When Erin Elder, then a 30-year-old photographer from Aurora, Ontario, was hired in August 1998, theGlobe‘s photo department consisted of six members, including the former photo editor and an art director. Today, Elder is the photo editor, in charge of four staff photographers, four assistant photo editors who oversee different sections, and a separate photo production department that scans materials and corrects images’ tones and colours. And while Elder says she doesn’t know if the rumour that the Globe made the changes to prepare for competition with the Post is true, she admits the paper was in need of a change. “When I was hired, the reputation for the Globe was that it was a great grey lady,” she says. “But the world was becoming more of a visual place.”
With two national newspapers putting a heavy emphasis on pictures, other publications followed. Neil Reynolds was hired as editor of The Vancouver Sun in April 2000 with a mandate to improve visuals, as was Anthony Wilson-Smith at Maclean’s in April 2001. But it’s The Toronto Star that had the greatest photojournalistic overhaul.
Around the time the Star hired Post photographer Hans Deryk as its photo director in summer 1999, a U.S. design specialist named Bill Ostendorf had already been retained to analyze the paper. “He didn’t pull any punches,” says Honderich. “He had a lot of critical things to say about our use of photos, size, cropping, and selection. His visit had a real impact, and it led to a series of decisions and perhaps a rethink of our use of photos.”
At Ostendorf’s seminars, according to what Deryk was told, “He held the Post up as a parameter and said, ‘Hey, look at what they’re doing. This is what you should be doing.'” During Deryk’s two and a half years on the job (he demoted himself to a regular photographer in February), he says he worked to get a paper that traditionally used pictures of people smiling into cameras to practise photojournalism. “I’d much rather have pictures where the subject is doing something,” he says.
As proof of the Star‘s new emphasis, he starts talking about a photo essay that will cover two and a half pages of the tiny Greater Toronto section. It’s a slice-of-life journalism piece done simply to glorify an 88-year-old hunchbacked woman who’s a neighbourhood legend. And the main photo running over the centre spread will cover seven of eight columns. As Deryk holds the proof pages, he calls it one of the biggest photos and nicest layouts he’s used since joining the Star. “I think there’s much more acceptance of visuals today than there was a while ago,” he says. “Two years ago, it was a pretty tough sell, getting a six-column picture in a paper, whereas now big pictures mean big visual impact.” But even though photographers and photo editors have recently earned more recognition, says Deryk, they’re still the underdogs when fighting with section editors for space that’s traditionally used for text. “We’re always battling for the same territory,” he explains. “Times have changed since three years ago, when the Post came on board. Everybody’s news hole is getting smaller and smaller and traditionally the first thing that goes is space for pictures.”
While September 11 reminded the world of the importance of photojournalism, September 17 reminded Canadian photojournalists of the craft’s vulnerability to a lack of advertising. On that day, the Post axed 120 employees to compensate for some of the $170 million it had reportedly lost since 1998. The photo department was slimmed from five photographers and seven editors working under Paquin to four and five, respectively. In addition, some of the paper’s visual showcases were cut. Gone were the Toronto, Avenue, Arts and Life, Weekend Post, and Review sections. Although Arts and Life and Review returned on December 6, some of the photographers’ lifeblood hasn’t. Particularly missed are Avenue, a two-page miscellaneous section that could be used for photo essays, and Saturday Night.
When Paquin is asked how the reductions in space will affect his paper, he denies they’ll have much of an impact on photojournalism. Photographers can still strive for journalistic shots, even if the pictures have to run smaller.
The Post‘s cuts, however, are just an example of a nationwide problem. A study based on information from 91 of the Canadian Newspaper Association’s 103 members found that the number of pages newspapers printed in 2001 was down 5.1 percent from 2000. The reduction was blamed on an ad-sales slump that dipped deepest in September. “Both words and photos are feeling a little pinch with the space available,” says Elder.
That pinch is making it harder for freelance photojournalists, who already struggle to make a living in such a small-market country. The opportunities for photojournalists here are so limited that when students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary ask instructor Frank Shufletoski about their employment prospects, he answers frankly: “I’m going to tell you the truth and it hurts,” he says. “There are no jobs out there.”
Twenty-eight-year-old freelance photographer Donald Weber can relate to the poor job market. The recent photojournalism graduate from Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, wakes up each day hoping he’ll get a call from one of his clients, which have included the Globe and The Toronto Sun. “You have to be lucky to be one of a number of people a newspaper uses.” In the aftermath of September 11, Weber said, “It all depends on what’s going on in the market. Right now it’s not good.”
If Weber’s handed an assignment and lands a black and white picture inside the Globe, he’ll earn $200. A front-page shot earns $750. (the Star, with 20 staff photographers, rarely hires freelancers.) But Weber may only land an assignment three times a week, which prompts a big question: Why would anyone want a career in photojournalism anyway?
Larry Towell didn’t plan to work in photography. Photography, he says, “discovered me” when he became an activist interested in human rights issues. In the early ’80s he travelled to Nicaragua with a Christian human rights delegation, armed only with a camera, tape recorder, and a hope of drawing the world’s attention to a nasty war in which a guerrilla army was massacring rural civilians. “I realized that when you meet someone whose legs have been blown off by a land mine, you don’t want to be an artist,” Towell says. “You want to tell people’s stories straightforward.” Now, in his late 40s, he’s documented everything from the crisis in the Middle East to family life on his farm. Since being invited to join Magnum in 1988 he has won 26 international or Canadian photography awards. He is proof that Canadian photographers can make it big if they have an immense passion for their craft and the subjects they explore. But to do that in the absence of a huge photojournalism market, he recommends photographers work with publishers to create their own books. “In photography now, not just in Canada but internationally, there are so many photographers that if someone throws a brick out a window, there’s going to be six people at the bottom with a camera. You have to be very good. You have to develop your voice.” He sees more Canadian photographers doing that, pointing out Ethan Eisenberg, who spent two years documenting the Gaza Strip after the 1993 Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization peace accord. The rise of Toronto-based photo organizations such as Contrast and PhotoSensitive has also helped. Both groups employ documentary photographers and find places to expose their work. “I see a photographic culture developing,” says Towell.
Early in January, Stan Honda got another morning phone call, only this time the voice on the other end didn’t ask him to cover a breaking story. Rather, he was asked to give a talk about the state of photojournalism. In the weeks following the terrorist attacks in New York and elsewhere, he was excited to see publications, for once, realize the importance of photojournalism and choose to run pictures that capture a subject’s emotion rather than typical press-conference shots. But now, as the public’s interest in the war on terrorism fades, he sees newspapers resorting to old tendencies. “Here in New York we take a lot of pictures of people shaking hands. Those pictures are taking the place of something that could be more meaningful. No one’s pushing for the journalistic shots that photographers, editors, and advocates want to do anymore.”
Honda, in fact, would not recommend freelancing to budding photojournalists because they would have to compete for assignments from a limited number of publications, even in New York. Fortunately, photojournalism’s fading fortunes haven’t meant less work for him. He has enough experience to collect work frequently from Agence France-Presse and some of his other clients, which include the Post and the Globe. He’s also banking on the fame his pictures have brought him. On April 6 he’ll speak to members of the Asian American Journalists Association at a meeting in New York.
He’s also been asked to talk about his shots at an AAJA convention in Dallas and at a separate conference in San Diego this summer. His images aren’t fading from memory. Great photographs have staying power-even if photojournalism’s popularity doesn’t.