In My Opinion: Andrew Watson: A picture really is worth a thousand words

I HAD the privilege of working in the newspaper industry for over 40 years – firstly, as a photographer, local and national, then on a busy picture desk. Last June, I ‘logged out’ for the last time after deciding I needed a ‘career break’.

Now, looking from the outside, in, I have to ask where the next generation of young press photographers will emerge from, given that routes into our industry for them seem to be closing every week. Couple that with some newspaper groups deciding to dispense with the services of experienced staff photographers, and you have to  question what this could mean in the future.

“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” Although over 100 years old, the opinion of an American newspaper editor, Arthur Brisbane, is as true today as it was in 1911.

Just look at the images that came out of Paris on Sunday – images which covered front pages and spreads worldwide the following day. Stunning images taken by press photographers – doing the job they were trained to do –  in a professional way; the way they know best .

‘A picture’s worth a thousand words’ takes nothing away from my journalist friends. They are some of the most able and talented people in the newspaper industry today. Together, with professional press photographers, a package is produced to grace the pages of tabloid or broadsheet – a hard news story, an emotion-filled feature, an action-packed football report.

Great pictures and great words compliment each other – they need each other to enable equally-talented production staff put together a great product. And surely, that’s what everyone in the industry strives for. And that is why we need the professional press photographer.

What to make of a report (here) last year quoting the principal of Sheffield College, hoping that a decision to cancel the ‘only NCTJ-approved photography course in the UK’ might prove temporary? The reason why it had been cancelled? Lack of applications.

Hopefully, it will return in September. When I was a student at the press photography course during the early 1970’s – then held in Wednesbury, in the West Midlands – it was normally over-subscribed, and we were sent there by our sponsoring employer to ‘learn the basics’ before going to on the job training at our local newspaper where the work really started, under the guidance of seasoned professionals.

Training is so important. Not just learning how to use the camera, scanning images, the law affecting photographers – yes, they are prerequisites for the job. But so too are ‘people skills’ – gaining the trust and confidence of your subject will always be top of the list, in my opinion. These skills need to be developed over many years and with experiences gained while doing the job, together with learning from experienced, professional colleagues.

Certainly not the sort of thing that could be covered in an one-day editorial training course, as I have seen in the past.

I remember, many years ago, working on a story with a writer colleague, about a young man, who, with only weeks to live, married his girlfriend. It was such an emotional story and needed sensitive pictures to go with the words.

I could never imagine someone pulling out a smartphone or ‘inexpensive compact’ in a situation like this to photograph the couple.

Our home-grown press photographers are a professional and talented group. Just last year, they produced many stunning images during the Commonwealth Games and the Scots independence referendum – as they have constantly been doing and will continue to do.

But where are our newspaper photographers of the future going to come from? The recognised career ladder through the local paper now seems long gone.  Industry training for photographers seems to have lost its focus.

It’s a question that needs an answer – and soon. Otherwise, the press photographer of today will not be with us tomorrow and the iconic images of the future could be lost forever.

Andrew Watson is a recent former night picture editor at the Daily Record. Prior to that, he was a staff photographer with the newspaper. He left the Record last year to take a ‘career break’ after over 40 years in the industry.

He started in local newspapers aged 17, as a trainee photographer with The Falkirk Herald and the Cumbernauld News.