What is the role of the photojournalist in the 21st century? It is a serious and puzzling question besetting many in the industry as job uncertainty, "digital disruption" – which undermines the traditional organisations that employ photographers – and a world saturated by images, all take a toll on the profession.
Fairfax spoke with veteran photographer David Dare Parker about some of the philosophical and very real dilemmas that the modern photojournalist faces.
Parker is a multi-award-winning photographer and member of photography collective Degree South. He is a co-founder of Australia's Reportage Festival, was a director of FotoFreo Photographic Festival, a Walkley Awards advisory board member and an ambassador for Nikon Australia.
David, you are an experienced professional who has been to many countries around the world. What's the role of a 21st century photojournalist?
The digital world has given everyone a voice – deserving or not. So many images, so much "white noise"; makes it difficult to cut through the jumbled mess of it all. You do have to be discerning, as this really is shaping up to be an era of misinformation with fake news, and activists as journalists, shills and propagandists' all adding to the confusion. Not an easy world to navigate around for the uninitiated, one of the results of which is the discomfiting eroding of trust for traditional media.
On a positive note, I love the instant access to news and information the net gives us, when you know where to look. I personally use Facebook as a way of collecting links that are of interest to me. I have a decent number of trusted "friends" and colleagues that I consider credible and intelligent sources: what they share is worth looking at, so that part of the information highway I find invaluable. I also use it as a means of keeping in touch with them: private messaging. I very rarely use FB as a soapbox, to offer comment. I am way too private for that – I tend to keep my thoughts to myself, although I guess you can get some insight as to what is on my mind by checking out my FB links.
Regarding other forms of social networking, I do have Twitter and Instagram accounts. (I am told by those that know, that to get Instagram followers, sunsets and the colour blue are the go). Despite the fleeting nature of Instagram, I am encouraged by the (B+W) work of Magnum photographer, Matt Black, whose body of work – photographing the geography of poverty – perfectly demonstrates the potential of the platform for photographers.
Even though I am still a tad sceptical of Instagram, the fact is the platform reaches out to people, and the fundamental responsibility of the photojournalist is to get their work published – and seen by as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.
Some say we live in a post-truth era. Does this make the work of photojournalists all the more important?
Traditional media is struggling due to ever-decreasing print and digital advertising revenues. Thankfully, SMH, TIME magazine, The New York Times and other publications continue to celebrate strong photojournalism. In particular the work of Australia's own, Daniel Berehulak, resonates. From the first moment I noticed his work during the floods in Pakistan back in 2010, I knew he would be a photographer to watch. Constantly an inspiration, he also happens to be a decent bloke. Daniel's stand-apart work is proof positive that there should always be a role for talented photojournalists.
Despite the lack of professional opportunities, we are fortunate that we still have many talented photojournalists, both here and abroad. I will not imagine a world where credible and trusted photojournalists, male or female, do not head out and reveal to us what they have witnessed first hand. There will be no better record provided of a historical or significant event.
A great deal of your work is monochrome, why do you have a preference to shoot black and white?
My early influences were primarily black and white photographers. I still cherish the work of photographers Don McCullin, Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith and Josef Koudelka. In some ways colour, as real as it is, beautifies and distracts. Black and white, much like a charcoal drawing, gets to the point. I love the stripped-back nature of a B+W image. It delivers.
Even though I love B+W, most assignments require that you shoot colour.
I do have to work harder, as I honestly believe I see in black and white. The beauty of my digital Nikons means I can do the conversion later. My recent work was shot in colour, but it was only after I converted the images to black and white that they actually felt like my photographs.
My conversion to digital was gradual. I remember back in 1999 covering the conflict in East Timor. I was then represented by a French agency and my shipped film got waylaid en route to Paris. I took a financial battering. There was no way we could compete with the new generation of photographers who were then transmitting digital images. I knew then the writing was on the wall.
My first actual digital assignment was for Le Monde covering events surrounding the World Cup in Japan in 2002. The paper shipped a new digital Nikon D1 from Paris to Tokyo. It was a challenge but I embraced every second of it. I loved the immediacy of it. I had my own half-page B+W gallery in the paper for two weeks. Four years later, in 2006, I travelled to East Timor to cover an outbreak of violence with renowned photographer and good friend Tim Page. I had a guarantee from TIME magazine so decided to carry a digital camera along with my usual rolls of B+W film. Four days later TIME Australia's then art director, Michelle Turcsanyi, sent through the PDF of a 10-page spread featuring my work. Here we both were, Tim and I, sitting in a pretty basic hotel room in Dili, looking at what was going to represent my complete conversion to shooting digital on a small underpowered laptop. No going back. I love the immediacy of my digital Nikons and have no nostalgia whatsoever for film or the darkroom. After so many years of inhaling developer, fixer and selenium toner fumes, I now have my sense of smell and taste back again.
Your recent black and white work in south-east Asia is very powerful. What makes an effective photo in your opinion?
I actually love seeing complicated imagery. The work of photographers Eugene Richards and Gilles Peress really impressed upon me when I first saw it – still does. In particular Peress' book Telex: Iran, an extraordinary body of work. There was so much depth and complexity in almost every frame – the work made me think that this kind of photojournalism could be considered art.
As much as I admired the work of Richards and Peress, I simply did not see the world in the same way. I had always set out to emulate Don McCullin's gritty honesty and Robert Capa's love for getting in close. Oddly enough, a TIME magazine art critic, when reviewing a joint show I was part of at the Australian Centre of Photography some years back, described my work as being "grittily artless". Made me chuckle. It is what it is. I try to keep things simple – no Rosetta Stone required to decipher what is happening within the image. I like to think there is a timeless power in that.
Many of our readers are photographers and enthusiasts. Do you have any advice for them in terms of developing their skills?
Photojournalism is not for the faint of heart. You can't afford to sit back and wait for an assignment that will never come. These days if you really want to make it as a photojournalist you need to be based somewhere that will be of interest to the people you would like to work with.
My late father was a parachutist in the army. I still have his worn, cloth pennant hanging on my office wall. It states "knowledge dispels fear". You must have a very good understanding of the political situation of where you are working and have a decent BS meter for judging the mood on the ground.
If you are working in hostile regions, you need to have some basic first aid and a good exit strategy. You need to be well connected, (a reputable fixer is often the difference between a story and no story at all). You also need to have a strong understanding of the responsibilities of journalism: understand the profession's ethics and standards. It also helps to be a decent and thoughtful human being.
In this era of "selfies'' most people are even more self-conscious – curious as to how their image is going to be portrayed. You must have a solid reason to put camera to face. Empathy is every bit as important a tool as your camera.
How has your career as a photojournalist impacted your personal life?
Regarding my own life choices, in recent years my personal work took a back seat to my commercial work. For years I have had parallel careers. One as a photojournalist, the other as a television and film industry production stills photographer. I could not have done one without the other. I love the autonomy of self-funded projects, and the film industry helped with that.
I am a photojournalist. Even so, I never saw it as a compromise when I took time out after my son was born. I lost my real father when I was 10. My son Luc is now 11. I made sure I was around for him, toning down my life, taking fewer risks. Luc has grown into a thoughtful young man who fully understands who and what I am. He is as proud of me as I am of him. I have also remarried. My wife, Martine Perret, is also a photographer – talented and passionate. We were friends for a long time, having met in East Timor in 2007 when she was working for the UN. It took a while but now we are pretty much inseparable. Her positive energy and enthusiasm is contagious. Life is good.