In praise of our friends the photogs

At last weekend’s Pictures of the Year International program, the winner of the Best Photography Book Award said it took him 10 years to publish his book, which documents the fall of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, Brooklyn-based photographer Jason Eskenazi made his living working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — as a security guard.

And then there was Balazs Gardi, the winner of the Global Vision Award. He gave a gut-wrenching presentation of his work, which chronicles marginalized communities in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. But he makes his living shooting commercial work for the likes of Red Bull.

The most haunting session I attended was a slideshow presentation by Danish photographer Jakob Carlsen, who won POYi’s World Understanding Award for the decade he spent photographing dalits — the so-called Untouchables of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He pays his bills by cobbling together grants and freelance assignments, and self-publishing books.

It was an assembly of the world’s best photographers. As winners of POYi’s Documentary Project of the Year for our Age of Uncertainty series, photographer Josh Meltzer, online producer Seth Gitner and I were invited to talk about our collaboration on the series. I was the only non-photog in the bunch; the sole person for whom “multimedia” still means a Steno book and a very fine Pilot Precise pen. For now anyway. 

Astonishingly, our trio from the Roanoke Times — by far the smallest-circulation publication spotlighted — was the only newspaper represented amid the presenters, not counting Emilio Morenatti, Newspaper Photographer of the Year (though technically he works for a wire service).

Was this a glimpse into the future of newspapers, with their shuttering bureaus and increasingly thinning staffs? What’s it say when most of the top winners of photojournalism’s top competition just happen to labor piecemeal on their own, for little if any pay, and often for years at a stretch? Who but the viewers of their self-published books, Web sites and gallery shows will see these important images?

Sitting in the cushy, surround-sound conference space at the Annenberg Space for Photography, I wondered about the fate of our industry, the fate of empathy — who knew it was such a bad word? — and, yes, the fate of my own career.

Even College Photographer of the Year Tim Hussin won not for assignments he’d completed at newspaper internships but for the picture stories and sound slides he’d undertaken completely of his own initiative — after the pictures he was getting paid to take were turned in: a family trying to recover from a devastating house fire; a photo essay on the microcosm that is Coney Island.

His work had depth and detail, purpose and passion. And it gave me a glimmer of hope. For it was exactly the kind of work that I believe can save newspapers — the ones that still believe in offering readers in-depth content that they can’t get anywhere else.

Should the last printing press turn silent, I hope I’m still standing next to these driven picture-makers, no matter who, if anybody, is footing the bill. 

To do good journalism, I need their curiosity and their insights and their competitive spirit. I need their unwavering belief that the world needs to see what it is they have captured — the intimate and the ugly and all those other honest moments that, there but for the photogs, would not be seen.


The Age of Uncertainty team at POYi: Josh Meltzer, me, Seth Gitner.

(Not pictured: Terri Macklin, Alec Rooney, Matt Chittum, Tracy Boyer, Meg Martin, Grant Jedlinsky)

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