Life as an editorial photographer is almost unsustainable today, and artificial intelligence is not helping. But what happens when we cut corners at all costs in photojournalism? asks Andy Blackmore
Listening to Jeff Buckley, I’m gripped. An almost overpowering sadness and melancholia floods the room. As tears trickle down my cheeks, I realise I’m crying for the second time in as many days to the haunting rendition of Corpus Christi Carol. It’s not the bittersweet vocals bringing me down. It’s a much deeper sorrow; I realise I’m mourning the passing of an age.
Last week, I heard that very same hymn in very different circumstances. Either the pollen count inside St Bride’s church was unpleasant in the extreme, or others were pierced by the same shards of emotional shrapnel that punctured the air in remembrance of a man I had known for decades. I’m not ashamed to say it; but as I wept, I could sense I was not alone.
St Bride’s has long been regarded as the journalist’s church. Sadly, this was not the first time I’d been here to say goodbye to a friend and colleague and I don’t expect it to be my last.
However, there was something very out of the ordinary about the level of emotion I felt that day.
Eamonn McCabe was a true Fleet Street superstar and giant in the world of photography; it is his life we were gathered here to celebrate. He was a photographer and picture editor par excellence. I accept many of you reading this will not have heard of him, however, he helped change the way you look at news and sports photography.
I was lucky enough to work for Eamonn in the mid 90s. In retrospect, this was our last hurrah; a golden age for photojournalism and press photographers. Eamonn was a secret weapon drafted in by Peter Preston, then Editor at The Guardian. He gave up being a sportsphotographer to become a picture editor; parachuted into the position in an effort to win a circulation war with a brash new kid on the block – The Independent.
Well they called it a war, but it’s a strange conflict that has no losers. In fact, both the reader and photography were left all better for such tilting at windmills, indeed some might say it was Fleet Street’s finest hour. Eamonn was a man who cared passionately about photography and photographers and passed that enthusiasm on to me.
The rise of the internet and the move to digital, plunging circulations, slashed budgets, increased costs, lower rates and less work all mean that today, life as a editorial photographer is, more or less, unsustainable as a career. Inevitably, new technology proved a disaster for a profession now forced to accept to the mantra of doing more with less.
Thankfully, we thought, things can’t get much worse. And then, you guessed it – things just got worse. In the time since Eamonn’s death, the world seems to have gone bonkers, obsessed with all things AI and ChatGPT-4.
The final nail in the coffin was hammered home a few weeks ago when an AI-generated image won first prize at one of the world’s most prestigious photography competitions. Eamonn would have been apoplectic, undoubtedly spewing a wholly unprintable monologue.
Now, you may call me cynical but don’t ever call me stupid, for I have enough painful experience to know what can happen when we are harnessed by a desire to cut corners, at whatever cost. Left unchecked, the rise of AI machines eventually makes dinosaurs of us all. But as we photographers and picture editors stood around St Bride’s, it was a mass extinction event. Quite simply, the end of an era. And if that doesn’t make you weep, what on earth will?