Important Stories That Drove Photojournalism in the 1970s

Ugandan President Idi Amin. Photo by William Campbell

By Katelyn Umholtz

The 1970s was a decade of conflict and unrest, polarizing politics and rock n’ roll. But to Bill Gentile, now a photojournalism professor at American University, it was the golden age of journalism.

“This is when our jobs were more about information, as opposed to entertainment,” Gentile said. Practitioners of the craft, he said, believed information could change things for the better.

Wars were everywhere. Gentile covered Central America with United Press International where he went from Mexico to El Salvador to the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, covering stories that he believed mattered.

“I could document what I considered to be a really important moment in not only Central American history, but American history, too,” Gentile said. “To me and to a lot of people like me in my generation, Central America was kind of like our Vietnam.”

This extensive coverage led to changes. Steve Lubetkin, a correspondent in New Jersey and Philadelphia, said this was because people actually cared about newspapers.

“People did read newspapers,” Lubetkin said. “There was a lot more interest in what was said in the paper than there is today. If you were doing a decent job, the local people wanted to talk to you.”

This meant American readers had more interest in what was going on all over the world. When Ugandan President Idi Amin was being chased out by the neighboring Tanzanian government, magazine and newspaper journalists and stringers were there to cover it.

Photo by William Campbell

“I looked at the ‘70s from an international perspective because I was based in Nairobi,” William Campbell, said. Campbell. a videographer and photojournalist now based in Montana, said that in the ‘70s, the Vietnam War was winding down and the Cold War was building.

“In Africa, there were lots of small wars and things going on during the Cold War,” Campbell said.

In addition to the conflicts going on all over the world, Lubetkin said it was also an interesting time to be a journalist because technology was making its way into the industry.

When he covered a Grateful Dead concert, he was given a large computer to carry around so he could get the story out before the paper went to press. It was one of the earliest portable data terminals.

Campbell also said it was the environment of the industry that made it all worthwhile. Even though it was a competitive time to be a magazine or newspaper photojournalist, it still felt welcoming.

“They took good care of us,” Campbell said. “It felt like a family among the journalists and editors.”