Photography has been a practical reality for about 190 years, and, from its beginnings, journalism seemed like a natural application of the medium since most people believed that the photograph was an objective representation of reality. During the years since the first surviving photograph was produced in a camera, the evolution of photojournalism has been driven by a combination of technology, public demand, and a passion for the profession by its practitioners. In the first decades after that initial photograph, improvements in lenses, negatives, and prints made photographic reportage of the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the American Civil War (1861–1865) possible. The British and American populaces created immense markets for war images, and entrepreneurial photographers such as Roger Fenton and Mathew Brady provided them.
Technological advances in cameras, lenses, film, lighting, photographic reproduction methods, and an ability to transmit photographs worldwide continued to advance the boundaries of photojournalism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The topics of that work were mostly motivated by public demand. Wars, politics, photographs of “exotic” cultures from around the world, sports, everyday features, and celebrity portraits provided popular themes and continue to do so into the present, but photojournalists have also pursued subjects that they deemed important to humankind though not necessarily popular. Many have produced social, political, environmental, and cultural documentaries that challenge the status quo. Some have challenged this work as being outside the bounds of “objectivity,” but the usefulness of this argument has been rejected by many in the profession. Legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, for example, stated succinctly, “there is nothing objective about journalism.”
The final decade of the 20th century brought the evolution of the digital camera. Today’s photojournalism is almost exclusively a digital endeavor. The transformation of photography from analog to digital has revolutionized photojournalism in terms of workflow, mobility, transmission of images, ethics, image availability, and the question of “who is a photojournalist?” Finally, the gradual mutation of the term “photojournalism” to “visual journalism” denotes a transformation of the medium itself from the still image to a combination of still and moving images or perhaps exclusively moving images in the future. This, in turn, may fundamentally change the ways in which photojournalistic stories are told and experienced.