What are the photographs that bring change

Others argue that technological change has irreversibly changed photojournalism. Professional photographers, they insist, will inevitably join the ranks of toll collectors, telephone switchboard operators, and other jobs rendered obsolete.

Yet photographers are embracing the new realities and—through their images—proving their relevance.

Despite the billions of cell phone images posted on Facebook and Flickr, the vast majority of iconic photographs capturing major events are taken by professional photographers. Nine of the 10 images in Time magazine’s “Top 10 Photos of 2013,” for example, were taken by professional photographers.

“Yes, there are a million images out there,” Time’s director of photography, Kira Pollack, told me in an interview. “But these journalists’ images are the ones that are the most compelling.”

Judge for yourself. Here are Time’stop 10.

Blogs featuring the work of professional photographers at Reuters, The Atlantic, TheNew York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Denver Post, among others, continue to draw high online traffic.

James Estrin, a New York Times photographer who co-edits the paper’s photography blog, “Lens,” with columnist David Gonzalez, said that the explosion in social media imagery is impacting photography in two ways. First, it is creating a vast new audience that appreciates great photography. Second, it is changing the nature of photographs. The vast majority of the imagery we share online is about ourselves, our families, and our friends—not others.

“The photograph is almost always—98 percent—a piece of currency in a social interaction,” he said. “The function of a photograph is different.”

Estrin said he does not yet know if the changes, on balance, are positive. He worries that today’s torrent of images makes it impossible for an iconic photo to emerge—for example, Nick Ut’s harrowing photograph of a young Vietnamese girl, who had stripped off her burning clothes, screaming after a napalm attack. He is concerned that photos today may not have the same impact.

“Are there so many photographs that it’s difficult for one to stick out?” Estrin asked. “Even when a photo goes viral, it’s only for 24 hours.”

Stephen Mayes, the former chief executive officer of VII and a longtime executive at other photo agencies, says photographers must reinvent themselves.

“It’s up to the professionals to prove that we have value,” he said. “The world doesn’t owe us a living because we make great pictures.”

Haviv and others are doing just that. They are developing large social media followings, shooting documentary films, and accepting grants from foundations, non-profits, and the United Nations to support their work. Photo editors say that images taken by amateurs can be powerful, but professional photographers are still needed to compose the deeply-layered images that haunt viewers.

Professional photographers are vital. Without them, the world’s conscience will wither. They bear witness for all of us.


This post originally appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, the national-security investigations editor at Reuters, and a former reporter for The New York Times.