History of Photojournalism

The history of photojournalism is replete with dramatic images such as the one below of Thich Quang Duc who set fire to his own motionless body at a busy road junction in Saigon.

This was in 1963, in protest at the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam's administration.


Dignity and discipline mark the Vietnamese monk in a photograph that still reverberates throughout our collective consciousness. This photograph ranks alongside the best of examples of photojournalism. Very much of the moment, the drama and impact of the image won the photographer a Pulitzer Prize.

Above: Self Immolation by Malcolm Browne

What is Photojournalism?

A definition of photojournalism necessarily includes a definition of documentary photography as they are both related but opposite.  Photojournalism communicates information about news events which are topical and therefore of the present moment whereas documentary photography is something that happens over time where the photographer builds up an overall picture of events which may or may not be of the present day. 

The essence of the question, what is photojournalism, is best answered by a couple of examples of photojournalism. A photojournalist can send ripples across the world with the publication of an iconic photograph such as the Times Square kiss marking the end of World War II.  Armed with a camera and nothing more, 

Nick Ut shocked the world in 1972 with his photograph of a little girl running down a road in Vietnam, naked and burned by a napalm attack. Throughout the history of photojournalism, photographers have worked in the trenches wherever they were called or commissioned.  The most dangerous and, perhaps, thrilling of photographic endeavors, war remains a stranger to most of us.

The Birth of Magnum & The Associated Press

Throughout the history of photojournalism, adventures have most often been sparked off by photography agencies, which function much like news agencies, sending their best into far corners of the world. The Magnum agency, founded in 1947, remains the apex of these businesses.  Founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour, Magnum remains a going concern after more than 60 years of delivering some of the best that photography has to offer in covering life in the extremes.

It was years before the creation of the modern press organizations that the Associated Press (AP) was founded in New York City.  In 1848, the telegraph proved excessively expensive a tool for any one newspaper to use and still cover a wide variety of topics in far-flung places.

This prompted the first group of newspapers in the United States to share news via "the wire".  We still call AP and other similar agencies "wires" today. 

The world and categories of events were now covered by the joint resources of a larger group. When photojournalism came into its own, AP photos were among the most valued of shared news by the organization. Because of the wire services, the free world has been privy to otherwise rarified events that only a chosen few would view. Here are some examples:

Above: The Beatles (Photo by AP)

The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1963, forever changing popular culture and music in the United States and around the world. Notice that the photograph was made by an  Associated Press photographer.

Above is a photo of President Richard Nixon of the United States, during a ground-breaking visit, photographed by the Associated Press whilst on a visit to the Great Wall of China with his entourage in 1972. (Apologies for the low resolution.)

During the trip, he used the symbolism of the Great Wall to make a point: walls should not exist between countries.  During the course of the visit, Mr. Nixon met with Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai, first Premier of the People's Republic of China. The visit was of such grand proportions that the popular, highly-stylized opera Nixon in China by American composer John Adams,  centered around a series of tableaux mimicking the photographs taken at the time.

Above: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 by A. Citizen

Do you recognize the photograph above?  It could only be the celebration at the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 which marked the end of the Cold War, a momentous event for those celebrating in the photograph.

Having been built to separate East and West Germany beginning in 1961, the wall was demolished, pieces sold as souvenirs and the remaining fragments marred with graffiti.

Is Photojournalism Alive Today?

The history of photojournalism has brought us to a new dawn and today photographers often use digital images to make the pictures tell their stories.  Because photojournalism's major thrust remains conveying the news via images, the digital camera allows the photographer to skip the darkroom step and upload pixels directly to the computer.  Immediacy and the ability to preview pictures and retake images favour the latest technology in photojournalism.

While the history of photojournalism is a tale of famous photographers and their stories of bravery, photojournalism does not end with the elite.  In an age of digital and cell phone cameras, almost every moment and any place on the globe can be covered journalistically.  Citizen photographjournalists - the next logical step in the history of photojournalism, given the technological savvy of the masses - have emerged as an important force. 

Above: Tavistock Square Terrorist Attack by A. Citizen

The British agency Scoopt, owned by Getty Images, operated as an intermediary for amateur photojournalists to market their work. The same year as Scoopt's inception, an amateur photographer in an office building was perfectly placed to photograph the British bombings in Tavistock Square.

The photograph above shows the impact of one of the bombs on a bus and its surroundings immediately after the act of terrorism. Unfortunately, Scoopt stopped receiving submissions in 2009. Getty announced that although it was "convinced that there is a demand for this kind of material" they had now decided to choose to focus on Getty Images and the production of news, sport and entertainment.

However, there still exists several citizen journalism sites although many of them have been criticized for lacking in quality and content. You can find a good introductory article about Citizen Journalism on Wikipedia.

Above: A Second Plane Heads for the World Trade Centre by A. Citizen

The history of photojournalism is an ongoing story but I will leave you with an extraordinary photograph, again, taken by an amateur photographer. The photograph above of the bombings of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in 2001 is stunning for its simple composition and immediacy. It shows a second plane on a collision course with the building which was ultimately razed to the ground, a photograph impossible to plan or choreograph.

The image is elegant in its simplicity; dazzling in its immediacy; and, even now, shockingly fresh in its visual impact.

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