As photography has become more ubiquitous in society, so too has photojournalism. But what does this medium entail? This article aims to shed some light on this profession and briefly discusses the history of photojournalistic practices.
Photojournalism has played a crucial role in the understanding of not only the world around us but also our own humanity. Photojournalists document important moments in time, events that would otherwise go unnoticed by society at large- everything from major historical events like World War II to earthquakes, famines and wars across the globe today that are often forgotten before they end or significantly diminished in significance by media bias or short attention spans.
It is said that the birth of photojournalism began in 1829 when John Thompson took a daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) of a British political scene, which later became known as the first photo to be widely distributed. However, photojournalism as we know it today began in 1865 when Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner photographed members of Lincoln’s funeral procession.
The significance of Brady and Gardner’s work was not lost upon the public eye, who quickly recognized their work as capturing a great historical moment. The term “photojournalism” was coined by Stendhal in his book “The Life of Napoleon”. In this book he describes how photography changes journalism because it allows for events to be reported faster.
The transition from daguerreotypes to modern day photography coincided with a rise in the popularity of photojournalism. The technology got cheaper and easier to use, enlarging the market for photographs. These improvements in technology are often attributed to the great depression.
However, there have been many other reasons given for combining photography with journalism. For instance, the enormous cost of protecting and developing each photograph meant news agencies would often use stills rather than motion pictures as a means of conveying information during wartime or when there was uncertainty about the future.
During World War II and the Korean War, photojournalism played a very important role in giving historians insight into the inner workings of these wars. Photographs recorded the moments before and after battle as well as post battle analyses.
Since then, photojournalism has continued to evolve and develop as a form of communication. In 1966, Mary Ellen Mark created her “Last Execution” series which extended beyond war coverage to include executions in an attempt to show not only what happened but also what led up to it. Her “Execution” series was an example of deeply personal narrative journalism that addressed key social issues, like capital punishment.