A Brief History of Photojournalism

Our modern world is dominated by visuals, especially photos. Photos now accompany every advertisement, modern essay and major news article; they attract the initial attention of any audience, even you. Think about it—when you skim through a newspaper or magazine, your mind is primarily attracted to the most engaging, journalistic photo, and then to the headlines. We judge a major news article by its accompanying photo. How did this come to be? When did photography become such a major factor in our modern world?

Daguerreotype Daguerre Atelier 1837

Example of Daguerreotype by Daguerre

The first permanent photo was taken in 1816 by Joseph Niepce who created a photographic camera from a jewel box and a simple lens. Niepce was a weak drawer, but an artist at heart, and searched for a way to create realistic “drawings” by using a primitive photographic process. He was one of the first photographic pioneers that helped shape its importance and convenience today. Another important founding father of photography was named Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the Daguerreotype. Niepce and Daguerre formed a partnership and dedicated four years to refine the process of creating photographs.

"Shadow of the Valley of Death" by Robert Fenton during the Crimaen war. If you look closely, the ground of this battlefield is littered with cannonballs.

The power of photojournalism had its debut during times of war. Roger Fenton is known as the first official war photographer and shot the Crimean War in 1853 to 1856. He explored an entirely new atmosphere as a photographer on the warfront, and struggled through many ethical issues, one of which concerning the topic of photographing the dead. Roger refused to do so, but in 1861, Mathew Bradyentered the battlefield–camera in hand–and began to shoot even the bloody realities of the Civil War. Brady and his team were the first war photographers to capture photos of the dead after battles. The effectiveness of these photos on the American public was undeniable. Photojournalism then set root into the American, and world-wide, culture.

The “Golden Age” of photojournalism lasted from 1930’s to the 1950’s, focusing on the central idea that a photojournalist must be in the right place at the right time. A few major photojournalists from the “Golden Age” were Robert CapaAlfred Eistenstaedt and Margaret Burke White. Major newspapers and publications like LIFESports Illustrated and The Daily Mirror began to regularly publish and use photographs as main focuses for discussion. In 1937, the first major disaster captured using photography, the Hindenburg ZeppelinDisaster, occurred; and in 1945 the first photo of a mushroom cloud was taken. Photojournalism brought the realities of the world into the homes of the previously uninformed, unaffected public.

The role of the photojournalist grew and grew along with the technological advances of photography. The release of the 35 mm Leica camera in the 1930’s made it possible for photojournalists to move with the action. As time and technology advanced, cameras became smarter, faster, lighter and more useful. The first ever Digital SLR camera, the Kodak DCS 120, was released in 1990 and cost an outstanding amount of money–& $25,000. In 1999, Seth Resnick founded the E.P. (Editorial Photographers) online community for freelance photojournalists and photographers; in that same year, Nikon released its first-ever DSLR at a more reasonable price of $5,000.

A starving Sudanese girl who collapsed on her way to a feeding center while a vulture waited nearby. Photograph by Kevin Carter

The photojournalist’s goal is to report the accurate truth, and the truth is not always easy on the eyes. Photojournalists are expected to document suffering, death, poverty, and war; all while putting their own life on the line. What some photojournalists experience change their lives and even affect them so deeply that they enter deep depressions…and even commit suicide. Kevin Carter was a photojournalist who, in 1993, took a trip to the Sudan. He captured the famous photo of an emancipated Sudanese child crouched on the ground while a menacing vulture stares at her. The locals urged him not to intervene and save the child, so the least he could do was scare the vulture away. When he returned to America with that photo, he won the Pulitzer Prize, but along with the prize came deep criticism. The public constantly asked why and how he could take the photo and leave the child. In 1994, Carter entered a deep depression and took his own life out of extreme guilt. (I will soon begin writing a post about ethics within photojournalism) Photojournalism is not only a profession, but a sacrificial lifestyle—one of great importance, substance, honesty, and journalistic responsibility.

The history of photojournalism is extensively more dynamic than this brief overview, and more is being added to it every second of every day from somewhere in the world. Photojournalism is alive and well, moving and progressing with the world and has (I believe) permanently set its place as the life blood of journalistic society. I encourage you to look deeper into the history of photojournalism and photography, here are a few good resources that I obtained my information from:








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