A photographer’s thoughts on the local press industry


With news of two blows to the press industry this week – the closure of the NCTJ photography course at Norton College, Sheffield (The only official pre-entry qualification for press photographers) and the news of another round of redundancies at local papers in the North East,I thought I would share my thoughts on the recent changes in the industry. 
 
I will begin, with a little story which I think sums up what it is to be a press photographer… During my university years, I decided, with very little experience of photography, that I wanted to be a press photographer (All down to an impromtu two weeks work experience at the York Press when I was 15) I tentatively asked the then picture editor Martin Oates if I could go back one day a week for some more experience. He agreed, and after quite a few Thursday’s, I was told that if I was serious about press photography I needed to enroll on the NCTJ photojournalism course.

 

I applied, and after an interview process including an exam, I made it on to the course. I received a letter telling me to report to classroom 3b at the college on the Monday, at 9.30am… 
We arrived at the college, nervous and expectant, to find the door was locked and the tutor was no where to be seen, after ten minutes passed we decided to venture to reception and ask where we could find Paul Delmar, we were helpfully directed to a different floor, and a different room. There sat Paul Delmar.. and an empty class room… By 10am Paul stood up and closed the door. “well done” he said, “you’ve passed the first test” and that was that, anyone who hadn’t bothered to find the correct classroom by then was off the course – a sign of things to come..

 

The point I’m trying to make here is that press photography isn’t just about photography, of course capturing the moment, and telling a story in a single image, composition, focus etc are important. But what also makes a press photographer is drive, passion, ingenuity, patience and persistence. Not to mention the ability to put people at ease, create a photo out of a challenging situation and controlling large crowds of people. The art of persuasion is a must. Myself and many press photographers before me learnt this the hard way, from a year with Paul being told to “kill” the pictures that weren’t up to scratch and being sent on ludicrous briefs on a tight deadline. Others learnt this on the job from their local picture editor or agency picture desk.


An image taken in by myself in 2010, of two young boys being winched to safety at the last minute, after being trapped by the incoming tide at Whitby. Press photographers are expected to know what is happening in their patch, and move fast to record the breaking news of the day


It might sound arrogant describing the industry I work in with so many good qualities, perhaps I should mention that many of us are grumpy, enjoy a good moan, and are often, secretly quite shy and under estimate our work.
 
Newspapers may think they’ve hit the jackpot getting readers to send in their photos for free. But they are making a huge compromise in accuracy. A press photographer will make sure their captions are accurate, the correct dates, and names spelled correctly (most of the time…) I’ve heard of a case where a reader sent a photo in to a local paper from the scene of an accident, which was promptly uploaded to the paper’s website, before they realised the image was three weeks old.

 

 A press photographer will not only provide an accurate photo but they will make sure it is taken within the law. All professional snappers are familiar with IPSO or the PCC as it was formerly known, a set of guidelines that protect the public and regulate the industry. They are also likely to have studied media law and are aware of a which pictures could land their editor a stint in jail. Of course not all press photographers are perfect, we’ve all negotiated our way around some police tape or an over zealous security guard, but leaving this job up to the public is a minefield. I feel it won’t be long before a photo, taken in good faith by a reporter, could go to print and change the future of freedom of journalism by seriously breaking one of the steadfast rules of accuracy or privacy.


An image taken in 2012, during my time as Whitby Gazette photographer, of a serious accident in Sleights involving a mother and child. The child’s pram can be seen in the road

 

The growth of the internet and social media has meant that quite often, our much loved local newspapers are no longer the first at breaking the news, in fact, many journalists probably source their stories these days from their Twitter feed or a viral Facebook post, but rather than try to keep up by making huge cuts, my solution would be for them to play on their strengths. Any one who has featured in their local paper will know that their mother, grandmother, uncle and second cousin will all go out and buy a copy, even if you were half obscured in the back row of the nativity. There is something magical about seeing yourself in print. Yes every parent has an iPhone now and records every step of their children’s lives. But I do believe they would still buy the paper, and probably order a reprint, of a good quality, professional photograph. The York Press have a pull out section “Park Life” full of images from local kid’s sports games – absolute gold for the local paper. I’ve heard a rumour they might be axing this soon, and can’t believe they are letting something so integral to the sales of the paper slip through their fingers.

 

 
I feel lucky to have experienced working alongside some amazing photographers at local papers, The Press and the Northern Echo, who truly inspired me to go on to become a press photographer myself. I only witnessed a snippet of what it was like and missed the golden era where films were couriered around and developed on site, and the paper was printed in each office. I can’t imagine what the future will hold for newspapers and press photography, but I hope that those who have had the news of job losses this week go on to earn their worth as freelancers and keep enjoying doing the job they love. How much longer a newspaper will be worth buying when it is full of reader submitted content…who knows…

 

 
And now a lighter look at what I learned during my years as a local press photographer, and the absolutely bonkers photos we published, truly the most fun job I’ve ever had…


1. Limbs, both hands and legs, can be used to fill the frame, even if completely irrelevant to the story:


 

 

 

2. If struggling for inspiration, place subject in a bush, even if completely irrelevant to the story:

 

 

3. If struggling for inspiration, ask subject to remove clothing:


 

 

 



4. Food, as well as providing nutrition, is a useful prop for the local press photographer:


 

 

 


5. If struggling for inspiration, shoot image through any nearby object:


 

 

 



6. It is completely acceptable to use the idea of a man, twiddling his handlebar mustache, in a mirror. Twice:


 

 And I leave you with this image, of a goth riding a donkey…