Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stefanie Gordon's 15 minutes of fame

This week Time Magazine announced their Top 10 Photos of the Year:

While the results were dominated by photographs reflecting conflict and revolution in the Middle East and Western Asia, one image stands out as being different. Different because it is an example of 'citizen journalism' and was taken out of a plane window with an iPhone. Stefanie Gordon's images shows the Shuttle launch of May 16, 2011, bursting through the clouds and hurtling towards the stratosphere. Stephanie posted the image on Twitter and it became a social media sensation, being picked up by TV news shows and newspapers across the world. Interestingly, Stephanie became as much a part of the story as the image, with multiple interviews and stories about her (an ironic twist considering that one of the watchwords for journalists and newspapers is "report the story, don't become the story").

Citizen journalism, both in terms of blogging, twittering and transmitting newsworthy images with phones has exploded over the past couple of years, and combined with other factors, has had a devastating effect on both traditional journalism and photojournalism. Many news organisations, suffering colapses in both their traditional audiences and in advertising revenue have cut back enormously on their spending in these areas, and it has become extremely hard for journalists and photojournalists to make a living.

However, I think there is some light in this story, for the simple fact that only one of the ten Top Images of the Year was a lucky chance by an amateur in the right place at the right time. Even though there are hundreds of millions of people out there every day, taking hundreds of millions of images, and by sheer weight of numbers having the best opportunity to be "in the right place at the right time", the other nine winning images were all by professional photographers and photojournalists. The odds are stacked against them, but by the fact that they used their skill and experience (and often immense bravery) to get to the right place at the right time, and take the definitive picture of the event, they trumped the odds against them. It is of course tragic that, along with the many local casualties in these conflicts, some very talented people such as Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros (who was one of the winners) should lose their lives under these same circumstances.

Stefanie Gordon had her fifteen minutes of fame, and will always have a great story to tell about it, but it is unlikely that anything else will come from it. She was merely lucky.

The last sentence from her interview with Time is both poignant and telling:

"I am still in search for that perfect job that many thought would be offered to me after the photo caught fire."

Even if she doesn't say that she herself thought she would get a big break from her 15 minutes of fame, and it isn't implicit that the 'perfect job' would be as a photojournalist, the context of the image suggests that this is what people expected.

I think it is safe to say that Stefanie Gordon's name will never appear again in Time's list of Top 10 Photos of the Year, but the names Yuri Kozyrev, Pedro Pardo, Dominic Nahr, Pete Souza, Adam Ferguson and of course James Nachtwey, may well, and some have in the past. They made their own luck, they spent years in training, in the field, in difficult and dangerous situations, learning what they needed to know to take the iconic images of their time, and often for little reward. They should be commended for their courage and commitment and know that there are many of us who really appreciate and respect what they do, for all of us.