Always a Place for the Still Frame: David Degner on Practice, Vision, and the Future of Photojournalism

David Degner is a Cairo-based freelance photographer represented by Getty Reportage and the co-editor of the Egyptian photo story magazine, Panorama by Mada Masr


In an age when video journalism is increasinly paramount and printing is arguably no longer necessary, how do you feel the still image is still pertinent to documentary or news work?

Video journalism serves its purpose and is growing as it is easier to create and distribute, but photos haven’t lost their power in this new environment. A single strong image can be viewed and summarize a situation in seconds. In our fast paced world there will always be a place for the still frame.

Do you think documentary and art photography are important for the development of photo journalism? Is there enough of that going on in Egypt (with the Cairo Image Collective, for example) to create a photographic culture?

As a photojournalist I often steal style from art and commercial photography.  We must be aware of their modern visual language in our work to stay relevant and interesting.  But even though the internet has broken down barriers it can be impossible to find many documentary or art photo books in Cairo.  While in the west you can pick up a thick fashion magazine at almost any store and get inspired by the commercial portraiture it takes conscious effort for photographers to suss out inspiration in Egypt.

How would such a photographic culture benefit journalism and freedom of expression? To what extent do you think that culture exists? What are you doing to help it along?

A photographic culture is made up of 3 separate groups.  The photographers, the photographed, and the audience.  All 3 of them need to be developed.

The “photographer” culture is growing quite well, I see new projects and essays every week.  These works are being created and finding outlets for publication.

The “photographed” culture is not developing, in fact it has probably regressed in the last few years.  Photographers feel it when they raise their camera in the street.  The older generation is still afraid of cameras, and that older generation is still in power.  Their fear gets passed down in policy and echoed through the media.  Some people aren’t afraid of the camera, but they are very blunt in their understanding of how cameras can tell their story.  For example when someone started chanting when they see me lift my camera up, dropping their thoughtful humane body language for another image of an angry Arab.

The “audience” is slowly getting better educated about how to read photos.  But when I look at the photos are published in newspapers I am disappointed, there are way too many boring portraits of politicians.  And when I see the photos that are shared on most Facebook pages I get really mixed feelings, often the photos are blunt displays of evidence used in a visual argument.  But it is interesting to watch how the general population chooses the photos that represent them.

Presumably Panorama — and now Al Masry Al Youm — are important initiatives in this context. Do you feel they are changing the local photographic scene? How?

Yes, Panorama and other sites are doing a lot to get good work seen and support quality photography.  We are still missing a strong voice analyzing photography, someone that puts out an opinion in Arabic that others can agree with or fight with.

Who are some remarkable or promising Egyptian photo journalists? Can they make a living from their photography? To what extent can the mobile web — Instagram, for example — help them to present or promote their work?

There are many good Egyptian photojournalists and they will have a bigger voice on the international stage as most foreign photojournalists have left.  I can count the remaining foreign photojournalists on one hand and almost all have plans to leave within 6 months.  Making money in photography is a challenge in any country.

I know many newspapers are burning through young photographers, abusing them because they are willing to work long hours for little money.  Many photographers see a job at an agency as the ultimate goal because of its stability and decent salary.  Neither of these positions really give photographers a place to be creative and make their best work.  Unfortunately there aren’t many magazines looking for creative vision that pay well either.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom.  I do know a few photographers that can make a living working as a freelancer for international magazines.  It’s unpredictable work though and requires a significant amount of financial risk to get started though.

It is interesting to see the difference in how photographers in Egypt reach their audience compared with photographers in other parts of the world.  Here a photographer’s fame is measured by the number of likes on their Facebook page and many don’t have a portfolio website.  But few photo editors will actually hire a photographer based on their Facebook page or Instagram feed alone, outside of Egypt portfolio websites are the first stop of a potential employer.

How do you feel about equipment in this context, especially considering that the public in Egypt can be very hostile to photographers. Is the iPhone today’s Leica? Is there still room for analogue photography?

It is amazing what can be done with an iPhone these days, they really have helped us communicate with each other through photos.  And they can work well in sensitive situations.  I felt much more comfortable pulling out my iPhone all around Sudan than using my big camera.  But every camera still has it’s strengths and weaknesses.

When I walked around China I only had my Leica and a bag of film.  I calculated that I could shoot 4 frames a day, I had nothing to distract me so I could just focus.  The cameras absolute manual control and lack of features was it’s best feature.  It made me a much better photographer than any iPhone could have.

My sense is that there are too many good pictures in the world today, far too many good photographers working to make moral or material recognition possible for the vast majority. Is there a way out of this problem?

First question, what is a good photo?  I see an overload of technically perfect photos of striking subjects being made.  But that is just a good record of the moment.  Really good photos require a photographer with a unique message that they want to share, and the rare skill to share it well.  I don’t have either of these, but when I see someone who does I am bowled over.  There are a significant handful of these photographers, maybe 1000 all around the world.  The problem is many of them can’t get published broadly because their message is too incendiary and doesn’t fit the mainstream media.

I think the next revolution in photojournalism will come as publications focusing on cultivating a unique voice to get paying subscribers they will start hiring photographers with unique voices more and more.  This may just save the artistic side of the photojournalist industry.