A few years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to the Eddie Adams Workshop, arguably the most competitive photojournalism workshop in the country. I felt my age a bit at the conference as I was fresh out of graduate work on my MFA and many of my fellow students were undergraduates at the nation's top photojournalism schools. I was blown away by some of the portfolios and amazed at the quality and vision of the camera work.
One of my fellow attendees shared that he had willfully driven into the path of Katrina in the hopes of using photography to document the aftermath. He made it as far as Mississippi before riding out the brunt of the impact in a county courthouse near Waveland. I thought it cavalier, loading a cooler and cameras into a car and driving into a category five storm. He mentioned proudly that National Geographic had run one of his images at approximately 1/8th of a page. I was incredulous and it occurred to me with great clarity that this young man's mother would be horrified had she heard his story. I later noticed before the workshop concluded that the intrepid photographer before me was showing some indications of post-traumatic stress as he hung aloof from the rest of the attendees.
Later that night then NY Times photographer Vncent Laforet shared images that he had taken in New Orleans immediately following Katrina. Choking back tears, Laforet grabbed the house that night and never let go until the last image came down. Taking questions after the presentation, he was asked what he thought of students who had driven into the certain danger in hopes of capturing decisive moments of the the apocalyptic misery and carnage he had witnessed. Laforet said that he felt it was dangerous and would likely lead them to a reliance on rescuers or volunteers. Really, they would be an addition to the problem.
This memory from EAW came back to me this week when I ran across a blog by a photojournalist named Zoriah offering a photojournalism workshop in Haiti for four aspiring photographers able to sign up and pay $4,000 each for an insider's opportunity at capturing the aftermath of the earthquake. The response from the photojournalism community has been swift in condemnation. Despite the willingness of the photographer to provide half of the money raised to a local Haitian charity, he is essentially profiting off the tragedy in a way that I personally find to be irresponsible.
The photojournalists who cover natural disasters, war and human conflict are the very elite of the profession, shooters who typically have the technical skills and the thick skin to use a camera in a highly-trained way amidst chaos, suffering and, sometimes, errant bullets. The notion of bringing aspiring photographers into the aftermath of Haiti so they can build their portfolios and learn how to "work in disaster zones and other difficult and dangerous situations" is nothing short of reckless.
As a profession, photojournalism is under threat of becoming obsolete in the emerging migration to digitized media and the climate of "free" that dominates information distribution on the web. A great number of talented photojournalists are trying to adapt to this new environment as newsrooms continue to be downsized. The winners in this time of transition will be those who can innovate and leverage their skill set within the context of the new media environment. Teaching workshops to the growing masses of photo enthusiasts is a great concept, a personable way of sharing one's vision, talent and passion with an eager audience. Doing this in one of the most impoverished countries in the Caribbean, when the post-earthquake rebuilding and reconstruction are in their infancy, is exploitative and opportunistic and, as Laforet cautioned at the EAW, just adding insult to a difficult situation.
Stepping down from the soapbox now.....
More info can be found here:
Photojournalism Workshops in Haiti
Journalism and Society Blog
Wired Magazine online