Monday, June 25, 2012

Is the Daily Mail the saviour of documentary photography?


The Picture Post was a British photojournalism magazine in circulation between 1938 and 1957.

Since the Picture Post’s demise, documentary photography has suffered a long and slow death in this country.

Publications showing in-depth photo essays have dwindled over the decades. Hardly any exist today.

Newspaper magazine supplements – such as Sunday Times Magazine, Guardian Weekend magazine and Telegraph Magazine – were once proud adversaries of documentary work. 

But from their 70s and 80s photojournalism heyday, these supplements have chosen to cut back on their once impressive documentary coverage in favour of celebrity driven content.

While there has been the occasional renaissance in coverage, the Sunday Times Magazine’s Spectrum strand springs to mind, the British press has largely become a wasteland for photojournalists.

But over the past 12 months something quite remarkable has happened – photojournalism, or at least a bastardised version of it, has become increasingly popular thanks to an unlikely source.

Step forward the Daily Mail, a British middle-class tabloid better known for whipping up scare stories and savagely attacking any woman deemed past it who dares to give herself a makeover.

The Daily Mail Online is officially the world’s most read news website (though you could argue that the New York Times website still has more hits if you take away views from the Mail’s sister titles). We are talking 45 million hits in a month (December 2012)

The British Guardian newspaper produces innovative photographic slideshows and actively promotes documentary photography online.

But the Mail Online beats it hands down with a fast moving, celebrity-driven front page with long title headlines which are optimised for website search engines.

Strangely, the stories you find in Mail Online are hugely different to much of the content in the print version.

But what editorial staff at Mail Online have quickly realised is that as well as a thirst for tittle-tattle on Cheryl Cole and Rihanna, readers also love a photo essay.

And the Mail duly serves up photo story after photo story, with collections of images ranging from the British weather, archived black and white collections and, more recently, documentary essays on subjects like Gypsy travellers and the Chinese culture of eating dogs.

Sadly, all of these stories are subject to the Mail’s derogatory spin, which can be xenophobic and prejudicial.

But the sheer volume of photoessays, sourced from various agencies, are giving a new platform to essays from around the world.

The discovery that there is a news-hunting audience out there ready to devour photo essays is a huge boost to the photography industry.

As the hits mount up, expect more online publications to follow suit and give documentary photographers new avenues to showcase their work.

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