Press Photography in Northern Ireland
A Critical Analysis
by Jim Maginn
I reckon that as a consumer of locally produced newsprint I deserve and expect better photographs in our papers. Surely I am not alone in this. To prevent any, "who does he think he is?" I'll declare my credentials. I've worked as a staffer and freelance for papers from London to Vancouver. I've had to cover cheque handovers, W.I. Cake sales, pictures of used cars for ads, strawberry growers coping with floods etc. Nothing particularly challenging or dangerous, but I always tried to find an alternative to the norm.
The problem is simple. Those who commission and produce photographs for our journals pander to the lowest common denominator. All papers are constrained by their 'Clients'. Whether they like it or not there is a sub-text in the work of all the protectors of the third estate. The papers do not want to upset their readership or advertisers, so we get what they think we want.
Across the rest of the British Isles newspapers routinely run picture stories, features, strong single images and even landscapes. They are not set up and do not have bonny babies or cheque presentations.
There seems to be a lack of appreciation of the power of photography. The picture editors select images that suit their idea of a good picture. That is only right, that is what they get paid for, but if it doesn't fit the available space then the knife comes out and the photograph gets chopped. There doesn't seem to be much practice of reducing a picture to preserve the original image or retain the integrity of a picture. One group of local papers used to squeeze the picture if it didn't fit, the result being a risible image of people with elongated egg-shaped heads. Just look at some of the mug shots seen in recent weeks where a face ends up missing the chin or the forehead or the ears.
The second part of the problem is the pictures that get taken. If you are a keen intelligent young photographer starting a career in press photography here and the picture editor only uses the set up pictures, the bonny baby shots, then it will not take long for you to concentrate on getting the dross that will be used. Why bother doing anything decent if it's not going to get used? When The Belfast Telegraph first moved to colour for the cover picture there was a nightly howl of laughter across Northern Ireland. Under instructions, of course, photographers would contrive to include an element of red in their pictures. It was as subtle as a boot in the face, every conceivable device was used. Tractors, cars, flowers, if it was red it was used. This went on for over a year, it seems to be less of a criterion these days, and now I miss the eager anticipation that came with waiting for the paper's delivery.
The professional integrity that is found elsewhere in the British Isles, apart, of course from the tabloids, is missing here.
I remember covering the funeral of Cardinal O'Fiach in Armagh. I couldn't believe what I saw. A well known local freelance (I'll not name him to spare his blushes) almost fell from the limbs of a tree onto the just lowered coffin. As if this was not bad enough there was a queue of local well known press photographers passing their cameras to this man hanging from the tree so that they too could "get" this picture. This technique of getting another photographer to take a picture for you and then putting your name to it is regular practice among some of the press pack here. It seems the common insult of calling photographers monkeys has some grounding.
There is hope. Before The Independent started in the mid 80's all the broadsheets had fallen in to a similar stupor. It was the vitality and visual awareness of the picture editors on the new Independent that embarrassed all the other papers into acting on the quality of the images. Within a short time The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph had caught themselves on and started to use decent pictures with the respect they deserved. Some day it might happen here. If you think the quality of pictures used in our press should be improved why not drop a note to the relevant picture editors Gerry Fitzgerald at The Belfast Telegraph and Brendan Murphy at The Irish News. At the time of going to press, The Newsletter hadn't appointed a new picture editor since the last one's retirement, but Eddie Harvey and Bob Hamilton might appreciate your comments.