Big shots

Roger Tooth has worked for The Guardian for more than two decades. He was quick off the mark using pictures online, recognising the need for good picture editing on the Web back in the 1990s. Today, in charge of both online and print publications, Tooth d

When publications are feeling the squeeze, where does that leave photojournalism? And with digital giving everyone a chance, what about the professionals? Anna Richardson talks to two industry veterans about why quality will prevail

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Roger Tooth, Head of Photography, The Guardian

Roger Tooth has worked for The Guardian for more than two decades. He was quick off the mark using pictures online, recognising the need for good picture editing on the Web back in the 1990s. Today, in charge of both online and print publications, Tooth displays a mix of forward-thinking excitement and old-school values when it comes to the art of photography.

Guardian.co.uk decided two years ago to appoint a dedicated picture editor for its website, and has honed its picture use since. It now has the art of the picture gallery down to a tee, for example, with the daily ‘24 hours in pictures’ as well as an ever-changing array of fashion snaps and photo-reportage driving traffic. Tooth is particularly excited about photographers’ audio slide shows. Photographers often understand a story journalistically and can add their own input. ‘Normally, a photographer does a job and might get one picture in the paper,’ adds Tooth. ‘This way they can get more of their work up before the public.’

In print, good photography is still key for The Guardian, and its Berliner-format redesign in 2005 changed the use of images. ‘The idea was to have vanilla pages that were quite text-heavy,’ says Tooth. ‘And then every three or four pages you have a big picture – a major hit. So we’re looking out for those big pictures, and they have to look really good.’

The Guardian’s popular centre spread is also a daily challenge. ‘It’s a difficult one,’ says Tooth. ‘Finding a picture every day that ticks all boxes – with lots of detail, something that arrests the reader for longer than a couple of seconds.’ This search still adds that daily thrill of looking through pictures,’ says Tooth. ‘It’s that old-fashioned search for a great snap. It’s an integral part of the paper – when we leave it out we get complaints.’ A picture of a Bangladeshi woman riding on a train coupling caught his attention recently. ‘It was the best picture I’d seen this year,’ he says.

Tooth and his team trawl through more than 16 000 pictures every day, from the jaw-dropping to the mundane, making the role of the editor even more important. ‘We’re drowning in images. Every person on the road has a camera, so the picture editor’s role is still vital to wade through all this stuff,’ he explains.

He doesn’t believe that citizen photography threatens the role of a good photojournalist, however. ‘I’ve never been a believer in [citizen photography]. The general public’s work isn’t good enough,’ he says, although he will buy some images from Flickr.

On the professional side, ‘technically we’re in a very good place,’ says Tooth. ‘The cameras are stunningly good now and transmission is so much easier. The standard [of photographers] is much higher,’ he adds. ‘I wouldn’t want to compete on the ground nowadays.’ But he adds that there is a misconception that photojournalism equals ‘global war zone’. ‘Photojournalism doesn’t have to mean a trouble spot,’ he says. ‘The recession is a great opportunity for people to go and document this country, for example.’ And it doesn’t even have to be doom and gloom. ‘There are so many gloomy pictures. Sometimes we use pictures to lighten the mood of the news.’

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Edie Tobias Vice-president media productions, Corbis

Edie Tobias has been part of the global photography industry for more than 25 years and has lived through its numerous changes, including the rights-managed to royalty-free revolution, and the move from strictly analogue to digital.

‘The digital revolution changed everything for us as a company and photographers around the world,’ she says. ‘It provided photographers incredible access, the freedom to shoot images that they didn’t manage to shoot before and the ability to know they’d got the frame immediately.’

Corbis has also moved into the world of microstock, the lowpriced, royalty-free stock photography industry that has been growing steadily for a few years, which now sits alongside its rights-managed and royalty-free businesses. ‘It’s a good time for photography,’ says Tobias. ‘From technology to access to new photographers with new ways of thinking, we’re in the best place we’ve ever been. New demands, flexible pricing – those are all good. You can’t be afraid of change.’

The move to the Web and the development of digital technology has certainly changed the competitive landscape, says Tobias. ‘There’s a huge glut of images, with more people shooting than ever before,’ she says. ‘But what sets aside one image from another is the high-end. There will always be a place for the high-end and the quality – what I call the unique, the hard to find, the difficult to replace.’

Like Tooth, Tobias, who also teaches stock photography at the Arts Center College of Design in California, sees great potential in new talent. ‘I see a quality of photography that’s only better than before,’ she says. ‘There are kids who have grown up in a digital world who don’t know the “before”, they only know the “now”. They are incredibly talented in terms of their visual abilities and completely open to new things. Change is ever-present – those who will see that change as an opportunity will flourish and grow.’

As for the future of professional photographers, Tobias believes that the power of the editorial photograph will endure. ‘We all have images that stick with us and those will never go away,’ she says. A recent series by photographer Paul Souders of melting icebergs struck a particularly resonant chord in Tobias. ‘The photographs are beautiful, but also shocking,’ she says. ‘These icebergs are turning into waterfalls because they’re melting too fast. Those photographs tell us the story of our world and how it’s changing. That’s an editorial image that’s compelling – it’s beautiful visually, but it leaves a lasting impressing, because it’s more than just a photograph; it’s about what’s happening to our world. That’s what great photographs do – they hopefully drive some sort of a message to us and help us to create change.’

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