Jim Hubbard: “Photojournalism has Ended”

"Don't you see this?", Celebrated photographer Jim Hubbard finds himself asking wherever he travels and sees the homeless. More so in India he is visiting after 4 decades and finds much more in the pits of poverty. His project ''Shooting Back'' with street children in the US won him accolades for highlighting the issues of street-children from within than what had been done "superficially'' from the outside by photographers and journalists. New Delhi. April 2014. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Jim Hubbard in New Delhi, India

(Published first in the Deccan Herald, May 2014)

“ Don’t you see this ”? he asks somewhat bewildered . I have come to interview celebrated Photographer Jim Hubbard, 71, but get a feeling of being put under the spotlight instead. He is visiting India after four decades, (his last visit was in 1971 to photograph a devastating cyclone) and he is clearly overwhelmed with the poverty he sees and seeks some urgent answers.  “ I always ask people – Don’t you see this?”, he says flailing his arms about.

We are not exactly in the right setting for this anguish, ensconced as we are in the plush corner of a five-star hotel in South Delhi barricaded completely from the grinding poverty just outsides the high gates. But Jim ignores the irony and is relentless.  “Yes I want to know how you deal with it”, he says leaning forward in the high lobby chair.

I am unprepared but   find refuge in an explanation given on the subject by the much reviled V. S. Naipaul, in one of his India Books ,“It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad”.

“ Please can you write down his books you think I should read”,  Jim says offering his tiny note pad.

It would easily seem like  a white man’s colonial gazing,  were it not for the fact that  Jim spent a lifetime highlighting the issues of the homeless,  right there in Washington where he lived.

He  embarked on this mission in the 1980’s to challenge President Regan’s press statement that there were no homeless in America.

“ All the journalists wrote that, even though we had  just walked through many homeless just to get to the White House. They lied and that got me going”, he says.

Jim called his project  Shooting Back, where he gave cameras to the homeless children in Washington and told them to document their lives. Jim   thereby pioneered   Participation Photography, which later became a catalyst for what we today know as citizen journalism.

“ This was first of its kind effort at dealing with social issues through the eyes of children- by giving them cameras”, he says.

And Jim was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the narrow focus of professionals who tended to highlight only the  suffering, the images shot by the homeless kids covered a wide gamut of emotions including joy.

 “My intent was to publicize the issue and to put it there in peoples faces and show what struggle looks like through the eyes of the sufferers ”, he says.

In a distinguished career spanning almost five decades, Jim won a ton of photography awards and has been nominated thrice for the Pulitzer for his Shooting Back series.  He has covered some of the world’s major stories including the massacre at Munich Olympics in 1972, Cambodian genocide in 1979 and the Wounded Knee Siege in 1973.

However, despite  making the world sit up and take notice of the marginalized, Jim feels  photojournalism is superficial and limited in terms of understanding anything.

“It (photojournalism)  is  nothing but superficial.  You don’t get to know anybody. Not their struggles or their pain. Someone has been shot or killed and you come in and photograph those who are mourning the loss. You don’t get to know them or anything. You are just looking for a pictures of them crying. I wanted to understand people.”, he says.

Shooting Back accorded Jim that intimate glimpse into the lives of the people.

Jim however sowed the seeds for ‘free- photography’ with  Shooting Back . The project became so popular that the media worldwide gradually invited the general public to share their photos for free, sidestepping the professionals.

“Citizen Journalism took off just a year after I started the  Shooting  Back project. It put the idea in the media that everyone can take pictures so why hire the professionals”.

Needless to say many photographers around the world hate him for that. “I get a lot of support but there are a lot of people who are unhappy and probably blame me for giving this idea. They are not impressed with the idea of  giving people cameras”, he says.

With the advent of digital cameras where everyone is taking pictures it certainly does not augur well for professional photojournalists today. But unlike other photographers, Jim offers no consolation. He says it is the end of photojournalism as we know it.

 “ Today the mindset is that everybody can take the pictures, why do we need to pay you. There are no jobs. Pulitzer Prize winning photographers have lost jobs and find it hard to find work.  You can ignore this reality   like you can ignore poverty but this is the bitter truth”, he says.

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