January 29, 2015

Pro Vs Amateur, and the Instagram Gallery On The New York Times Front Page

Although the tenacity in the photo community is to see this layout in terms of professional photographer versus amateur, it seemed a simple gesture on the part of The Times to recognize the citizen’s (visual) experience as Mother Nature – and snowpocalyse-anxious city officials – shut things down.

At least one point of clarification, though, involved the need to check if the Instagram photos “submitted by readers” were indeed taken by amateurs, as opposed to the plethora of pros that have flocked to the service. Of the two credits I looked up, one was an amateur while the other identified himself as a photographer, among other things, and maintained a separate photo site. (I imagine most pros would say the photos have a Hallmark quality or a simple nostalgia that makes it easy to tell. Given there’s an art to that aesthetic, however, very much a component of the Instagram form, I credit the skilled and talented photo editors at The Times for surfacing the best of that class.)

And, while we are on the well-worn and always sensitive subject of pro versus amateur, I welcome the opportunity to bring up two strikingly contradictory news stories that jumped out at me yesterday morning. One was the NPPA article about a new study, using eye-tracking technology, demonstrating how readers can clearly tell the difference between a photograph from a professional photojournalist and an amateur, the former winning going (or, assumably, not going) away. The second was a quote from the owner of a sports photography company in the CBS Moneywatch article about Sports Illustrated laying off its photographers. In this day in age where visuals are omnipresent and more popular  than ever, the source claimed: “Appreciation of ‘fantastic’ images has been diminished over the years.”

If “user generated content” cannot fool readers appreciative of an increasingly more striking, more artful, more narrative-rich and more ubiquitous photojournalism, that’s not to say that the economics of the news industry hasn’t drastically curtailed the ability to make a living at editorial photography, threatening staffers particularly with the freelancers out there.  In this instance, however, I don’t see how this front page or the online slideshow, in light of the visual commitment of the Times, impacts the pro versus amateur argument in that big a way. Not as much, at least, as the thrill and excitement yesterday’s blizzard cover and the buzz surrounding it must given to the folks at Instagram and Facebook, the clear-cut beneficiaries of the (free) publicity.

UPDATE 12:20 pm PST:

Poynter calls out the NYT for failing to notify the Instagramers their pictures had been selected for publication. Certainly, “user generated content” has deeper complexities, pitfalls and need for protocols.

(photos: Betina Schmitt, Yvonne Ng, Terrence Liew, Travis Chantar, Mira Sestan Jeca Taudte,Miguel Suero, Mercedes Chien, Annabelle Malloy)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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