As News Outlets Drop Photographers, Who Will Document Vermont's Visual Story?

Jun 14, 2018

Layoffs are not uncommon in the newspaper industry these days, but the recent layoff of a local veteran newspaper photographer seems to indicate another shift in 21st-century journalism — and one that is being felt in Vermont.

It was announced last week that Glenn Russell, a veteran staff photographer for the Burlington Free Press, was being laid off. Russell's work had been appearing in the paper since 1986. As Seven Days noted in their coverage of Russell's layoff, there were at least five photographers on staff at the Free Press in the 1980s, whereas now just one remains at the paper.

Paul Carnahan, a librarian at Vermont Historical Society, spoke to VPR about what's lost in a layoff like this.

"I think it has to do with the matter of quality and the professional training of a news photographer who's able to capture the essence of a scene in one particular photograph," Carnahan said. "There's a lot of skill involved in creating a photograph which summarizes the events of our day. And I think that's lost when professional photographers are no longer on the staff."

"There's a lot of skill involved in creating a photograph which summarizes the events of our day. And I think that's lost when professional photographers are no longer on the staff." — Paul Carnahan, Vermont Historical Society

In addition to the actual photo composition, Carnahan said there is also the editorial element that is inherent in a newspaper's process and organization.

"Sure, there are a lot of digital photographs out there, but I think what newspapers have to offer is curation of the photographs, if you will, the editorial phase," Carnahan said. "Publishing photographs in newspapers makes it a lot easier for historians and researchers later to find those particular images. ... It's very difficult to find images of a particular scene in our internet world, and particularly a historical scene, but when you combine that with searching a newspaper, you have a much higher chance of finding what you're looking for."

From VPR's Commentary Series: Vermont Life's Photo Legacy [May 15]

And even those who are not professional historians or researchers may want to take advantage of newspaper archives, and a recent announcement from the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration reveals a way to make that easier.

"They partnered with a vendor called Newspapers.com to digitize a large number of the state's newspapers, which previously had only been available on microfilm," Carnahan explains. "And in [an] interesting arrangement, all that residents of Vermont need to do is go on to Vermont.gov and sign up for a myVermont.gov account which then provides access to those newspapers."

When veteran Vermont photojournalist Toby Talbot left The Associated Press a few years ago, the organization didn't replace his staff photographer position. And when it comes to quality archived material, Carnahan said that the work produced by photojournalists at news wire services is a valuable asset.

The Associated Press staff photographer Toby Talbot captured images of Tropical Storm Irene's devastation, including this photo from Sept. 15, 2011, in which Amy Worden of the Preservation Trust of Vermont surveys damage in Bethel.
Credit Toby Talbot / Associated Press

"One of the great collections that we have at the Vermont Historical Society from the 1970s is sort of an analogous archive that is from United Press International," Carnahan said. "Those photographs are just priceless."

Carnahan said UPI photos have been part of Vermont Historical Society exhibits on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and also on the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s.

"It's very easy to sort of look at those photographs and sort of imagine yourself in that setting — what people were wearing, what they were doing, modes of transportation that they were using," Carnahan said. "It's really wonderful to be able to look at a picture of a downtown, for instance, from an even earlier time period and sort of see what was going on on your main street and the type of businesses that were around. They're crucial for exhibition purposes because they really bring an exhibit to life."

A snapshot of the user submissions to the hashtag #vermontlife on Instagram. More here: https://bit.ly/2t52dPj
Credit From top, left to right: @mad_photography, @richardsonfamfarm, castletonuniversityevents; Row 2: @mal_maiz, @onfootstudios, @naturebodysoul; Row 3: @protect_wildlife_vt, @kateduf, @strattonmagazine; Bottom: @liz_flowerfarmer, @burk.becky, @artbylauraleigh / Screenshot

For the Vermont Historical Society's counterculture exhibit, Carnahan said, the UPI photos were a key element: "That photo archive provided photographs of protests and farmers markets and things that were going on in the '70s that really, you know, weren't captured by the average citizen's camera."

However that idea of "the average citizen's camera" may be different today with more accessibility to take photos whenever on a phone — and Carnahan has advice for Vermont photographers documenting the modern world:

"I think people need to be aware when they've got great photos like that to transfer them to a repository," Carnahan said. "Either a local historical society or a state historical society or the Department of Special Collections at UVM — someplace where those digital files can be preserved, can be organized, can be accessed. The big problem with all the photographs that everyone's taking is access and selection and finding the image that really fits the moment."