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For four years, I edited a photography magazine that featured interviews with professional photographers from around the world. For four years, I was every day amazed and convicted by their work, and the culture of photography that they talked about in their home countries: exhibitions, grants, support… respect. That culture seems to be lacking in New Zealand today.

Look at the pictures that New Zealand photojournalist Melanie Burford made of communities affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Or the pictures that New Zealander Robin Hammond has made of daily life in Lagos. They are among our best photographers, and neither has worked in this country in decades.

We have little work like this in New Zealand because we have few publications that can afford to pay a photographer to spend months on a story. New Zealand Geographic photographer Richard Robinson began collecting images for his feature on seabirds in this issue nine years ago. Neil Silverwood has been working up his West Coast feature since 2018. But there is not enough income from New Zealand Geographic to support an entire industry.

Photojournalist Adrian Malloch once made the bulk of his income taking pictures for magazines published by Bauer Media, which ceased publishing in April this year. He has turned his attention to commercial photography, but it’s a poor substitute.

“There’s so much photography of people now, but it’s all curated by advertising agencies, publicists, marketing people,” he says. “Whatever it is they want to tell us is everywhere for us to see. But who are we and what we care about, what matters to us, that’s what documentary photography is able to do if it’s done properly.”

Today, one of New Zealand Geographic’s best and longest-standing photographers is working in a kiwifruit packing house to make ends meet. Another has a full-time job in healthcare.

Eleven years ago, New Zealand Geographic inaugurated Photographer of the Year to stimulate pros, encourage emerging photographers, and involve the public in a more critical visual examination of our environment and society. The finalists of this year’s competition are online now, and will be exhibited at the Maritime Museum later in September. It’s a reminder of what we look for in photography, and what is usually available in the media. News photography covers dramatic events and famous people. Disasters and dignitaries.

But it’s the slower pace of documentary photography that records everyday life—beautiful, with dignity and grace.

Internationally, there are structures in place to support documentary photography. Aspiring photographers can win places in workshops to discuss art and ethics. Documentary photography is exhibited in art galleries and professional photographers can apply to non-profit funding bodies such as the Pulitzer Centre or ProPublica which allow them to pursue stories over the long term.

Photojournalism is in crisis in New Zealand, and yet our major media and arts funding agencies don’t support it. If NZonAir supported photojournalism like it supports screen production we would have a compelling and important new view of our nation. If Creative New Zealand recognised documentary photography as a valuable visual art, our galleries would be as full of challenging and relevant photography as those overseas.

Recognising the importance of documentary photography, before it is gone, would bolster an entire industry of creative professionals. But perhaps more importantly, it would give us a better view of who we really are as a nation, because pictures give us something that words do not.

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