I first published this post on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s been rolling around among the knots in my stomach today, after a yet more devastating and senseless shooting in metro Denver. I am constantly rerunning these events in my head once again.
Here is a professional truth:
We carry every story, good and bad, with us. It’s the result of the empathy we need to do our journalism job fully. All the good journalists I know feel their stories to the bone despite professional detachment and analytical scrutiny.
Today is the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the story that has followed me most intensely for a decade. I write this exactly ten years after Eric and Dylan went bowling.
My career has been filled with wonderful stories. I have been overwhelmed by fascination and joy, happiness and friendship. My life has been changed for the better by most of my subjects. The good has outnumbered the bad by tenfold.
I have also seen horrors beyond Columbine. I’ve tiptoed around the bodies left by drug gangs and corrupt cops in Rio, looked into the eyes of sudden widow in India, and faced the grief of the family members of the Oklahoma City bombing. I’ve listened quietly to people tell me of personal losses and fears, and I have seen the aftermath of scores of fatal crashes and deadly fires.
That’s the job.
And though we feel all these things, you would have to add up the background pain of a hundred journalists to equal that of any of the victims of an act as senseless and violent as Columbine.
Not long after the event my colleagues at the university wisely took the opportunity to discuss stress and trauma issues among journalists. It’s a valuable discussion. But at the time it smacked of too much self pity to me. By comparison to our subjects, I felt, our pain was trivial. But trivial as it may be, I now look back on how that story changed me. I have yet more empathy for the victims in any story.
For them multiply what I experience by 100.
I felt the first blow of the story days after photographing the tortured faces of terrified parents and shell-shocked students. On my way out of a big public memorial service the weekend after the shooting I came across the first paramedic team on the scene. The small group stood under an umbrella at the back of the huge crowd — not in a place of honor as I would have hoped. There gazing blankly at the space above the stage were the men and women who held the dead, dying and injured.
I snapped two poorly composed frames, crumpled to my knees and sobbed for five minutes. I gathered my wits and went off to develop film and send my images to New York.
I am sure that catharsis helped me get through the next months of covering the story again and again, listening to the harrowing details from survivors and steeling myself to the growing hostility from the larger community.
That hostility is another difference from all the other stories I’ve covered. Our heavy presence, rush to deadlines and competitive streaks left a foul taste in the mouths of anyone who watched it happen. Within days the surrounding community, which had no connection to the story beyond proximity, let its discomfort with our process be known.
In a few cases we deserved it. Our behavior was terrible in spots, and all it takes is one nasty action to create a rumor, a stereotype, an expectation. But all the good and sensitive journalistic behavior I saw was trumped by the bad.
Not only was this story tough in subject matter, but we had a very tense relationship with the subjects.
All these emotions well up in me at every subsequent Columbine stop — the funerals, the shot-up school tours, the exhibition of the weapons, the ticking anniversaries. It caught me this year as I heard the father of victim Rachel Scott speak about his daughter.
The reactions vary, from a jaw clenched to soreness, to sleepless nights like last night. But my expectations of subjects have also changed.
In August 2007 I was in Price, Utah, to cover the ongoing tragedy of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine. My jaw clenches now whenever I imagine covering a community struck by tragedy. I wrongly anticipate excessive resistance if not outright hostility.
I walked out of my motel room on the first morning I was on the story to find a new tire flat. I looked around it and found no nails, no holes. Rather than my assumption being that a seal or a valve had broken, I instantly jumped to the completely irrational conclusion that someone in town had taken it upon themselves to go empty a few tires in the lot of one of the journalist motels.
I was, of course, wrong. And, despite losing nine local miners and rescue workers, the community was no more difficult to interact with than any other.
Over all the other tragedies I’ve seen, perhaps it is because Columbine was so senseless and unexpected that it has stayed with me. Drug wars in Rio and untimely death in India can unfortunately be expected. Crashes and fires happen every day. In 1999 a school shooting in an affluent suburb with such a toll of dead and injured was not expected. Unfortunately now stories like that are just another part of the tragedy landscape.
Again, all of this reaction is trivial by comparison to the victims, or to those who have seen mountains of tragedy.
To see and hear the tales of journalists really haunted by what they have covered, watch in “Dying to Tell the Story” Don McCullin’s thousand-yard stare as he describes his war-dead subjects climbing out of his film filing cabinets at night and walking the halls of his English country home.
Or listen to Paul Watson in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross describe his inner conversations with Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the dead man he photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
My point is not to show obsession with my reactions to one story. It is to make clear that no matter what stories we cover, we carry them with us forever after.
Hah! Sorry for the tease. Really, there will be a full blog post here soon. But in the short term, know this:
I’ll be presenting on Transmedia Journalism at the NPPA Business Blitz Road Show in Boston on July 14, in Austin on September 29, and possibly in two more cities to be announced. My co-presenters include my former student Matt Slaby of Luceo Images, Allen Murabayashi of Photoshelter and intellectual property attorney and photojournalist Alicia Calzada.
Registration info is here. Join us for interactive presentations on the future of photojournalism, the media business, your freelance career and the future of storytelling.
This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.
You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.
It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”
So what makes now so great?
To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.
We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.
But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.
Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.
In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.
My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.
And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.
In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.
The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.
Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.
But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.
Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.
Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.
When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”
So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.
This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.
Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.
This is one of those terms you’ve heard before, but might not have ever gotten to fully understand. It is what it sounds like — thoughts out of tune. More particularly, it is the feeling we get when our thoughts, beliefs and morals clash with our actions. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we have after we buy something we really couldn’t afford, or do something we know we shouldn’t do.
As adaptable beings we dispatch that feeling with justifications. “I really need that new [insert toy name here] even though I ain’t got the cash, and here’s why…” Aesop had a good fable that fit this too. A fox sees some grapes hanging too high to reach. After trying to get them and failing, he struts off arguing to himself that they must not have been worth eating. It’s where the old “sour grapes” saying comes from. We are also prone to justify away the dissonance we would otherwise feel when we take a shortcut we know we should not take.
In journalism justifications like that pop up frequently to argue why something considered unethical should be seen as okay “under the circumstances.” You’ve heard them: “magazines are different from newspapers” or “the cover is an advertisement” to explain away a breach of journalism ethics. Our ethics should determine our actions, of course. But there seems to be an unending stream of ways journalists justify letting their actions determine their ethics. Neither market forces, ease nor style should trump ethics in the images we produce or how we use them. If we act like we are delivering truthful information, then we must follow through on that promise.
It happens among photojournalists more often than we might think. We pay a lot of attention to the egregious breaches of our ethics: major alterations, serious cases of reenactment or direction of what would appear to be a spontaneous moment. But as professionals who document reality we need to stay aware of how we might let convenience, competition, drive for a style or a wish for the approval of an editor or producer affect our work. This can come down to many of the mundane tasks we perform in our work, including — to pick only one example — things like toning an image.
There’s a difference between choosing a moment of perfect light and color that actually existed and fixing dull light to make it more dramatic in a photo. We like dramatic images. They attract reader interest, appeal to editors and feel satisfying to us. But isn’t the satisfaction and pride much stronger when we took the time and energy to seek out the light and color rather than pumping it up with software tools? And isn’t it simply more honest?
Our talent — the one that separates us from all the other flavors of photographer — is that we capture reality quickly and delicately and without influence. It is an incredible skill that takes great attention and effort to develop. We take pride in our ability to think and act quickly and to know the story as we are seeing it happen. We slice telling moments out of the unstoppable flow of time, and when we miss, we miss.
Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, is “…an immediate sketch, done with intuition, and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. Life is very fluid, and, well, sometimes the picture has disappeared and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘oh, please smile again, do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”
Having made all that effort to catch the decisive moment without any before- or after-the-fact fixing, why would we let any overrated sense of market pressure discredit that work? Look again at Cartier-Bresson’s images in which the moment and geometry are so perfect that trivial stylistics like color and contrast don’t matter at all.
I am not making an excuse to shroud dull images in a cloak of ethics. Our challenge is to find the impressive image in any circumstance — no matter how colorless or flat in light — without needing to embellish it after the fact. We do that by skillfully getting to the right place at the right time to capture true storytelling images and minimizing our influence on a scene.
If any of our actions need a justification to exempt them from our core ethical standards, then those actions need to be reconsidered. It is our ethics that must determine our actions, not the converse.
For an entertaining and disturbing look at cognitive dissonance at work in the cable TV world, have a listen to radio producer Rebecca Hertz’ piece on how process trumped ethics in the production of a reality TV show, for NPR’s Snap Judgement. In the show segment she compares the experience of the producers and participants to the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s.
This is a cross-post with my additional new blog “Transmedia Journalism.” There I’ll be describing my research of the last year and continuing to flesh out the ideas behind it. Here’s what it’s about:
If you are here, reading this, you know that journalism is having some trouble. Not only is the economic model that used to pay for it sinking fast, but journalists are having a harder time reaching the public with their work in a very diverse and dispersed mediascape. This new blog and my ongoing research is mostly about the latter problem, though all of journalism’s woes are inextricably linked. Rather than waiting for the public to come to us for the news, we need to send our work down every conceivable avenue to find the public — new publics too — and win their engagement and loyalty. We need to improve the way we tell stories.
That is where the title of this new blog comes in. “Transmedia” is one of the top buzzwords of the past two years in the entertainment and advertising industries. It is proving to be extremely effective in reaching and engaging the public in those two realms, and there is much about it that we can put to use in telling the informative and factual stories journalists want to tell. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are using transmedia techniques to win more fans and engage them more deeply. That’s something we should want too.
Transmedia storytelling is not just convergence or multimedia by a new name. It’s also not an entity solely of the digital age. The Web is an excellent tool for much of it, but a transmedia story doesn’t unfold there or in any other single medium alone. It can, however, use any aspect of any media from the cave painting to the latest killer app.
Transmedia storytelling and the transmedia journalism I propose tells stories across an array of media — analog, digital and even brick-and-mortar — in an expansive rather than repetitive way. That would mean telling a complex story not only across the usual print, Web and broadcast media, but possibly through books, games, immersive experiences, graphic nonfiction (comics), gallery walls, museum installations, public lectures, public interaction and authorship, or any other medium appropriate to the story. It also means not simply re-editing a story for repetition among those media.
In entertainment it looks (briefly) like this:
Star Wars did it largely by accident. Starting with one film in 1977, the story proved so compelling and engaging that it exploded across the mediascape from films to comics, books, games, toys, fan fiction and video, and any other medium you can think of. Inspired by this, creators of The Matrix franchise in the late 90s designed a similar experience from the start, planning how their story would unfold not only on the screen, but continue through all those other media and more. Since the Matrix tale began more than a decade ago, other entertainment franchises, like the hugely successful Lost TV series, have successfully used transmedia storytelling design to rivet fans and put them to work finding, sharing and shaping stories.
As the new blog unfurls I will describe what transmedia storytelling is, where it comes from and how we can use it within the goals and ethics of journalism. It will come in both appetizer- and entree-sized chunks, but if you’re a big eater you can download the full academic paper. You’ll also see links there to all the pieces of important context and background on transmedia storytelling and transmedia journalism as they are published. Subscribe to the feed or the related tweets to know when there’s something new.
That blog will also be a hub for my ongoing research on the subject, and a place to air my and your related discoveries about it. Post links to interesting examples of transmedia stories from any industry, and send observations and suggestions my way. I’d love to hear them. And what does it have to do with photojournalism? I believe we visual reporters are very used to the idea of telling stories by alternative means.
This post is the barest scratch of the surface of what will come. Look ahead for deeper explanations of what transmedia storytelling looks like in the entertainment media — with many linked examples — places where journalism has gone before, and what transmedia journalism might look like — also with many linked examples. To start a deeper exploration go to the Contexts page there, and stay tuned to it is as the background and examples are posted.
The journalism profession is not short on experimentation with new ideas, new technologies and new storytelling methods. But they seem more like attempts to keep the publics they used to have than to find and engage new ones. I believe by adopting the techniques of transmedia storytelling, we can reach out to new readers, viewers, listeners and interactors in the media spaces where they already are, and engage them more deeply in complex real-world stories. It could certainly be easier than reviving our old model of expecting them to come to us.
In part 1 and part 2 I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:
- Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
- Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
- Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.
Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard than might be immediately apparent.
So let’s wrap this up with a ‘cambrian explosion’ of styles, where the photo essay was codified, scrapped and rearranged in a score of different ways, the portrait took on a whole new meaning(s) and what we reveal of subjects is less rigid. This is a period where photojournalists take the mandate of documenting the world and interpret it personally. This is the toughest list to assemble because the farther you look back, the easier it is to spot the innovators and revolutionaries. Sometimes it takes the length of a career to see what changes or new ideas a photographer brought to the profession. I’ll be conservative in naming people or groups here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t chime in. Drop a name or two in comments, with a few sentences about what he, she or they did to change the face of photojournalism.
Weegee — If being a newspaper or wire photographer was “feeding the machine” as has often been said, Usher (Arthur) Fellig fed it the morsels with the most gristle. As a freelance New York crime photographer in the 1930s and 40s, Fellig earned the nickname “Weegee” for his uncanny ability to beat the cops to a shooting. They assume he had his fingers on a Ouija Board to get there. In reality, he had a police radio in his car with a darkroom in the trunk, lived in the center of the crime in Hell’s Kitchen, and ran on the motivation of a paycheck. He was one of hundreds of Speed-Graphic-wielding freelancers plying the same trade, but Weegee had a rare sense of humor and irony in his images of New York’s underbelly, and Barnum’s penchant for self promotion. He was the star of a particular way of working that still includes many hot-spot-hopping freelancers and wire contributors. But he is the one that got the MOMA and ICP exhibitions, and yes, he would have pointed that out to you.
Magnum Photos — Magnum Photos is not the first photojournalism agency, nor the first group of photographers to coalesce. Magnum changed the idea of the ownership of images, insisting that the copyright of the work remained the photographer’s property. The prominence of the photographers who founded it — Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger — gave the cooperative and its subsequent members the leverage to change business practices in the profession of photography for the better. It remains the preeminent photojournalism agency, and the style of its members has influenced every subsequent generation of photographers and photojournalists.
W. Eugene Smith — Smith had the news sense of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the understanding of combat of Capa and the technical polish of Walker Evans. He is also our model of obsessive-compulsive, irascible and addicted artist of the real. But his greatest contribution was in the redefinition of the photographic essay. In 1949 he broke with LIFE’s script for a photo essay on a country doctor in Colorado to photograph what he saw (and a little of what he wished to see). That essay and subsequent ones on Dr. Albert Schweitzer and nurse-midwife Maude Callen reshaped the way we approach the long form of photojournalism. An essay on a Spanish Village under fascist rule is arguably the template National Geographic has followed since for covering a place. His last essay on mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, is one of the most powerful and complete reportages on the environment ever published. And his failed essay on Pittsburgh at mid century is one of the most beautiful, compelling and epic failures of the profession. He was also a compulsive audio collector, amassing thousands of hours of documentary sound from a New York City loft from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. His personality was a cautionary tale for how to act and how not to act, but his essay work will echo for the foreseeable future.
Robert Frank — While Smith was crafting the public, mainstream photographic essay for LIFE and Magnum Photos, Frank was creating a model of the personal photographic essay. On a Guggenheim grant in 1955, Frank crossed the U.S. photographing the world’s foremost power with the eyes of a foreigner. The Americans was an overtly critical look in the mirror for most Americans and flew directly in the face of Steichen’s contemporaneous Family of Man. Walker Evans was one of the few who saw the value in the images. “It is a far cry from all the woolly, successful ‘photo-sentiments’ about human familyhood,” he wrote. Where Smith’s stories may assemble virtual bullet points in the images chosen, Frank’s are personal, subtle and tease the emotions of the reader. Smith’s images were about the emotions of the subject. Frank’s work has influenced the craft as deeply as Smith’s and his approach has emerged in the work of others from Larry Fink to Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson and probably you. He is an artist, poet and filmmaker, and says he lost his Leica in 1962 and didn’t mind.
William Klein — If Frank’s work was about the distance and ennui of American society, Klein’s poked your nose and boldly stated that New York is Good and Good For You. His 1956 book by that name grabbed you by the shirt and dragged you into the streets of the city at close range, with very wide-angle lenses in a way that wouldn’t let you escape. Klein took that energy into the fashion world where he and a few others created the look of fashion images in the 1960s.
Elliot Erwitt — I once sat at JFK with a fresh copy of Erwitt’s Personal Exposures catching the annoyed glances of fellow air travelers because I could not contain the out-loud laughs as I paged through the book. As a journalist Erwitt is incisive, catching one of the iconic moments of the Cold War among others. But he is most notable for an irrepressible humor in his images that has never — to my knowledge at least — been matched by anyone. His work is a stream of dry and witty jokes, slapstick humor and uncanny timing.
Ron Galella — In class I often ask new students if they would consider the paparazzi to be journalists. There is no genre of documentary photography more maligned than those who chase celebrity the way Weegee chased murders, and the students’ responses reflect that viscerally. But if the moment be real, I argue, what’s the difference? The idea of doing it still makes my skin crawl, but I have to admit that it is the journalism of the low-brow we all crave from time to time. The granddaddy of these used-car-salesmen of the profession is Ron Galella, the paparazzo who would not let Jackie O out of his sight, resulting in lengthy legal battles. In one case he was given a requirement to stay 150 feet away from his favorite subject. The second required him to stop photographing her for life. Marlon Brando punched him in Chinatown. Sure, there were celebrity-following camera jockeys long before him and will be as long as there are celebrities. But Galella took dauntless obsession and anything-for-the-shot to new heights (or should that be depths?).
Josef Koudelka — There are a few regions where reality and magic blend in the eyes of artists and the words of poets. Latin America and Eastern Europe have both produced remarkable photographers whose work reflects the magic realism of Borges, Márquez or Llosa. If I knew eastern European authors I would include a few of them in simile too. His images of the rituals and lives of Slovakian gypsies are infused with the magic we imagine in their lives. They are intimate images the way Frank’s are, but the emotions come not just from the photographer but seemingly from the subjects themselves. And his work on the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 demonstrates a bravery fictionalized by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Sebastião Salgado — He began his professional life as an economist for the International Coffee Organization but soon drifted to photography through which he has documented the social and political circumstances of the people most directly affected by the production of that and other commodities. This is firmly in the traditions of Riis, Hine and the FSA among others. But what makes Salgado’s work different is a fusion of the magic realism of Álvarez Bravo or Koudelka combined with the compositional complexity of Cartier-Bresson, and a skill for revealing the dignity in his subjects, no matter their circumstances.
Mary Ellen Mark — Many photographers have relished photographing subjects at whom you might like to stare — Richard Avedon’s In the American West, Diana Arbus’ work — but Mark developed early a style that blends social documentary with the made-you-look quality of subjects on the fringes of society. You may sometimes be shocked, but you never want to turn away from her empathetic stories.
Arnold Newman — Until the latter half of the 20th century, the posed, formal portrait was as much about vanity as it was a document. Portraits reflected the Old Masters in style and composition more than they really illustrated the life or personality of a subject. Perhaps the greatest practitioner of the environmental portrait was Arnold Newman, who could coax personality from a subject and reveal it in a telling environment better than anyone. There have been portraitists who have lit better, composed better, been more stylized and flashy, but few have taught us so much about the subjects themselves.
Charles Moore and Peter Magubane — Few Western photojournalists ever find themselves covering strife and revolution in their own backyards. Both of these men — Moore in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement and Magubane in South Africa under Apartheid — photographed their own cultures, neighbors and backyards in upheaval. It is always more difficult to photograph one’s own world than it is to photograph the foreign. These men, and others like them such the “Bang Bang Club,” Micha Bar-Am and others in similar circumstances have had to turn the cameras onto their friends, neighbors and families to tell the story of a revolution, and in the process created documents that explain deeply from within the story itself.
Ernst Haas and Alex Webb — Color photography has existed since the beginning of the 20th Century, but it did not reach maturity until color print reproduction was common and affordable in magazines. Until Haas and Webb, color was a secondary element in a photograph — more detail, more reality but less so an element of design. However Haas made color a principle element of mood and emotion, and Webb uses it as a structural element of composition. For both, color was as primary a reason to make an image as the moment in the scene, the social or historical significance or other graphic elements of the photo. They see color better than their predecessors.
Annie Leibovitz — Whereas Newman was out to find and photograph the person behind the celebrity, Leibovitz developed a style in the 1980s of photographing the celebrity in front of the person. Her subjects reveal not their innermost selves, but the crafted stage persona they have all developed and that is the source of their fame. And like many styles and approaches, Leibovitz has been emulated with failure more often than success as many photographers strive for stylization over substance in portraits. In addition to the portraiture, Leibovitz also revolutionized the way we document celebrity behind the scenes with her complete access following the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s.
And who comes next? I see trends away from the crisp realism of the last century toward an edgy, blurred point of view that feels like the pictorialists taking on the subject matter of Lewis Hine or Robert Frank. Who is the progenitor of that mood or another possible shift in how we approach our craft or profession? I am just one opinion with one knowledge set. You tell me who comes next.
Please note, most images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.
In the last post I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:
- Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
- Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
- Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.
Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard that might be immediately apparent.
So here’s part two, the photographers that opened the 20th century. This is the generation of photographers who picked up the new small cameras that shot roll film and started documenting life in action. They created what we consider photojournalism out of a near vacuum:
Jacques Henri Lartigue — Lartigue picked up a camera as a very young boy and aimed it at his adventurous family at the end of France’s Belle Epoque. His best-remembered images are of auto races, early airplanes and cousins leaping in midair. His early images are of the fascinations of a young wealthy boy of the gilded age, but they show a joyful innocence unmatched in most documentary work. They are exuberant, ecstatic and defy the limitations of the photography of a century ago, capturing peak action and decisive moments with very slow plate cameras. To any child — which is what he was when he made his best-remembered images — there are limitless possibilities and no hard rules. His work shows the possibility in working without any adult-world-imposed constraint. He lived a long life, working as an illustrator and painter, then again as a photographer after his rediscovery by John Szarkowski and the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s.
Alfred Stieglitz — Photojournalism is inextricably attached to the art of photography, as we make thorough use of light, form and composition in our work to change the world. No single photographer or curator did more to battle for the status in America of photography as an art or to promote its practitioners. His own work is often documentary, capturing steaming horses on cold New York mornings, and street life on the edge of night much as his European contemporaries Eugène Atget and Brassaï did in Paris. He promoted many photographers on or linked to this list, from Paul Strand and Edward Steichen to Ansel Adams who, in addition to his famous landscapes, documented the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Though his photography career crosses the 19th and 20th centuries, his influence was strongest in the years between the world wars.
Edward Steichen — Few working lives spanned more interesting changes in photography, more genre of the art and more positions of influence than those of Edward Steichen. He began his career at the dawn of the 20th century by making an amazing array of portraits of the luminaries of the day, from J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt to Pierre August Rodin, Henri Matisse and George Bernard Shaw. His portrait style has resonated through subsequent generations from Yousuf Karsh and Philippe Halsman onward. That work moved him quickly into the world of fashion where his images helped define the styles of magazines like Vogue for a generation. Himself a WWI Signal Corps aerial photo veteran, Steichen volunteered for duty in WWII, was commissioned by the navy at the rank of commander, and formed a team of photographers to document the war in the Pacific. His team included notables Wayne Miller, Charles Kerlee, Fenno Jacobs and Horace Bristol, among others. His own images, made of combat when he was already in his 60s, are notable for their capture of war action and the strange, graphic beauty of naval aircraft carriers. On war’s end, Steichen took the position as the first-ever curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York he mounted the “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955 which gathered images from around the Cold-War-stricken world to illustrate his point that, “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself. And that is no mean function.” The massively successful exhibition helped define what photojournalism was at midcentury and influenced most of the work that has come since. Inclusion in the exhibition launched the careers of many photojournalists around the world, and the exhibition catalog has remained in print for more than 50 years.
André Kertész — Cartier-Bresson once said on behalf of himself and others of his generation, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.” Kertész started photographing in Hungary before WWI, and through his service in the Hungarian army in that war. After developing his style — one of intricate and graphic compositions, geometric patterns and decisive moments — he moved to Paris in 1925. His work there was warmly received, but in 1936 he accepted an offer to go to New York, both to work and escape the Nazi threat building in Europe. He stayed until just before his death in 1985. He was also an early adopter of small handheld cameras allowing him to catch fleeting moments and travel lightly. Kertész’ work is artful, perfectly crafted, subtle, delicate and deeply inspiring. In perusing it you can see not only his brilliant seeing, but premonitions of all that followed.
Paul Strand — Strand was not a self-described photojournalist and he is certainly better known as an art photographer. However he was instrumental in breaking the photography of the early 20th century away from the soft-focus romantic “pictorialism” of the day and showing that the power of the medium is crisp realism. He made powerful documentary portraits and photographic essays, and his art remained rooted firmly in the real world. And in anticipation of the early 21st century and visual journalists like Tim Hetherington, he was an accomplished cinematographer and film maker, documenting New York, the Spanish Civil War and the struggles of Mexican fishermen in his cinema career.
Erich Salomon — Advances in photojournalism come on the heels of technological advancement. From images of the still and quiet death on mid-19th-century battlefields to the galloping horses of Muybridge, film speed, camera handling and lens speed have all influenced the state of the visual art. But until the 1920s, candid, handheld photography with a small camera was a challenge. Though “press cameras” and SLRs had been around for decades, the first camera that actually allowed the kind of photography we now relish was the Ermanox. It was a 645-format plate camera with a focal plane shutter that could shoot up to 1/1000 second (also not new), but it had an incredibly fast f/1.8 lens. On that format it was as difficult to engineer and had less depth of field than a 50mm f/1.0 has in the 35mm era. Complicating its use was that the focus at that narrow depth of field was done simply by guessing the distance. The master of Ermanox use was Erich Salomon, a German Jewish law school graduate who introduced himself as “Doctor.” With little prior photo experience, Salomon picked up this new little camera (one nearly universally shunned by professionals) and started talking his way into venues where no one had yet ventured with a camera — courtrooms, political meetings, the homes of the famous. He always dressed impeccably, conducted himself with the manners of a person who might be expected to be at such scenes and made pictures either overtly or by concealing the camera. Soon his images were being published by Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung — a political weekly that had pioneered visual reporting. Salomon was fluent in several languages and a talented political observer. Politicians either loved him and invited him into their worlds, or hated him and worked to make sure he was spotted at scenes. He also pioneered the technique of handing over unexposed film with supplicating apologies when caught where he should not be, and keeping the exposed films for publication. Though he had considered emigrating to the U.S. where his images were also being used by the new illustrated weeklies, he kept putting it off until in 1943 he and his family were forced into hiding. They were betrayed by a meter reader who noticed the heavy gas consumption at the house where they were staying in Holland. Salomon was killed at Auschwitz in July 1944.
Martin Munkácsi — Munkácsi is perhaps most famous for making the image that inspired Henri Cartier-Bresson to drop a paint brush and pick up a camera. The image — of a trio of boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika — is his most often reproduced, thanks to HC-B. But behind that image is a career as an action photographer. In Europe before WWII he was the toast of the fashion and sports photography world. Anyone who assumes sports photography is only possible with autofocus and ten frames per second needs to look at his tightly cropped, shallow-depth, razor-sharp images of goalies diving for a save or polo riders in mid-strike made in the 1920s on 4X5 and larger plates. Skiers breaking over cornice lines, dancers in flight, and models in mid leap hallmark his work. He went to challenging lengths to get his images — laying in the surf with a bellows-focused camera to photograph swimsuit fashion in the 1930s. Like his Hungarian compatriots Andre Kertész and Robert Capa, he was drawn to the U.S. before the war, and like Kertész, he languished here among much less inventive editors and publishers.
Alfred Eisenstaedt — Eisenstaedt’s career began in Germany in the late 1920s with the illustrated press that arose there and ran into the 1990s for LIFE magazine, for which he was one of the first staff photographers in 1936. His last photographs were of Bill Clinton and family in 1993. He used small cameras from the start, making active images in low light on the heels of Erich Salomon. A few of his images are enduringly remarkable — Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels glaring with hatred, The V-J Day kiss in Times Square, a parade of gleeful children marching behind a drum major. But by today’s standards most of his images — though technically solid and timed well — seem boilerplate. We feel we’ve seen them so many times before. But what must be remembered in looking at his vast body of work documenting most of a turbulent century, is that Eisenstaedt didn’t have Eisenstaedt to emulate. He is the template for most of what we do. His journalistic sense was impeccable. Not only did he define the genre of photojournalism in how he worked, but he defined what it looks like to be a professional photojournalist. There is some Eisie in everything we do.
Henri Cartier-Bresson — He said that Kertész did it first and that Munkácsi influenced him. Can we put him on this list? I will argue yes, and not because he’s my hero of heroes. HC-B’s influence on all photojournalism since the 1940s is so wide and so deep it would be remiss to consider him derivative. His innovation comes from taking Kertész’ form and grace and combining it with Munkácsi’s timing to define that decisive-moment photojournalism and street photography we so love. He produced, directed and filmed documentary films during the Spanish Civil War and again in the U.S. in the 1970s. He fused high art and incisive journalism more directly than anyone before, and cofounded one of history’s most influential cooperatives to promote it.
Robert Capa — As seen in the last post, war photography was not new and the bon-vivant photojournalist persona was not either. But Capa amplified both to as-yet-unseen levels. Capa was a talented self-promoter, inventing a name with his collaborator Gerda Taro (also an invented name) to make his work seem more valuable to editors. He photographed and filmed conflicts from the Spanish Civil War to the Japanese invasion of China, WWII, and Indochina where he was killed in 1954. His gritty few frames of the Normandy landings on D-Day are some of the most iconic images of the biggest conflict in world history. His style and approach have influenced all war photography that has followed, from David Douglas Duncan to Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey and the late Chris Hondros. His high-stakes, high-living style has become the cliched image of the gambling, loving, champagne-drinking world photojournalist, so much so that Hitchcock fictionalized him in Rear Window. And on founding Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger, he was instrumental in reclaiming rights to their images for photographers.
Walker Evans — We know Walker Evans mostly through his work for the Farm Security Administration Photography Program where he produced some of his most meaningful images. But Evans was an accomplished documentary photographer before he joined Roy Stryker’s team. More interestingly, he was fired from the FSA. Evans and his work are as straight as an arrow. He took the idea of documenting seriously, using large format cameras to meticulously correct perspective and distortion on images of simple buildings throughout Depression-era America and in Cuba. But his images are far from artless. They prove over and again that art does not need to come from gimmick or visual trickery, and that the subtlety of light, shape and content can send a powerful message about the state of a culture. SX-70 Polaroids he made in the 1960s presage even a current fascination with those films and their phone-app emulators.
Margaret Bourke-White — Bourke-White was not the first woman photographer, but she broke more glass ceilings and social barriers than any other. She was hired as a staff photographer for Fortune on the cusp of the Great Depression in 1929, was the first Western photographer allowed to photograph Soviet industry in 1930, and a staff photographer and author of the first cover of LIFE magazine in 1936. Like her contemporary, Dorothea Lange, she photographed the dire conditions of the Great Depression, and authored a book (with then-husband Erskine Caldwell), Have You Seen Their Faces. She was the first authorized woman combat correspondent of WWII. Her images of the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald are some of the principle historical evidence of Nazi atrocities. With Cartier-Bresson she photographed the partition of India and Pakistan and the violence it spawned, and made moving portraits of Mohandas K. Gandhi on the eve of his assassination. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, is a valuable read for any photographer.
Gordon Parks — Parks was a classic Renaissance man: A concert pianist, composer, photographer, writer, and filmmaker. There were black photographers before him, but none who elbowed his or her way through the discrimination of the day as effectively as him. He was born in Kansas and began his adult life as a railroad porter, but as a very young man he picked up a camera to photograph the plight of migrant workers. He progressed from that first roll to photographing fashion in St. Paul, which caught the eye of Joe Louis’ wife Marva. From there he branched to portraits of black society women in Chicago and on to documentary work about Chicago’s South Side in the Depression. An exhibition of that work caught the eye of Roy Stryker who gave him a fellowship with the FSA. His first images there struck right at the heart of how the nation’s Capitol treated its black workers. After the FSA disbanded, Parks moved to Harlem where he worked for Vogue and then LIFE where he was the first black journalist. He photographed Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali and produced a book-length essay on an orphan in a Brazilian slum. But that was just his photography career. He was also a successful novelist and poet, and wrote and directed the 1971 “blaxploitation” hit movie Shaft, for which he also wrote the score and popular theme.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo — Like others on this list, he described himself as a photographer, not a photojournalist. And like others he was a surrealist above all in the early 20th century. But his often political work brought attention to the struggles of a nation. His portraits, art and surrealism inspired generations of photographers from Tina Modotti to Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, Miguel Rio Branco and Cristina García Rodero. He was the first Latino photographer to rise to prominence, and he helped define the style of a hemisphere.
The Farm Security Administration Photography Program — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott. It was the dream team of documentary photography, assembled by economist Roy Stryker to photograph the plight of the American farmer during the Great Depression. The purpose was propaganda, really. But neither Stryker nor his photographers felt they needed to create advertising. The truth of the American economic situation spoke for itself, and as a result we have an incredible document of America at one of its most difficult points. Many of the photographs are the icons of that age, burned into the retinas of Americans born more than a half century after they were made. Most of the photographers went on to long photojournalism careers for LIFE, Look and other popular magazines. Mydans, who with his reporter wife spent time in a Japanese prison camp after the fall of the Philippines, made one of the iconic images of the Pacific War. Stryker carefully populated his staff to allow access to both genders and as many races as possible, to leave no group undocumented. Their work forms a template for cooperative documentary projects and expands on the social documentary started by Riis a half-century earlier. With every subsequent economic crisis, their work has been republished and emulated.
Please note, all images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.
This is a set of posts about inspirations and influences. I know you may have landed here following a search about camera equipment, but to quote Peter Adams, “A camera didn’t make a great picture anymore than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” Photography is about seeing and making any camera of any sort work for you. This post should cite many examples of that.
A “canon,” as used here, is a list. It may be a collection of rules from a religious authority or a list of the great books, music and art of history. This canon is a rough start on a list of the most influential photojournalists or documentary photographers (largely the same thing) to have aimed their lenses at the real world.
The idea came to me as I was looking for a favorite recipe the other day (poblanos en nogada if you’re curious). I went to the stack of cookbooks and pulled Raymond Sokolov’s The Cook’s Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know, and found myself wondering who or what would be on a photojournalist’s canon.
This could be approached a few different ways: It could be a list of great works, a list of great essays, a list of great photographers. I chose the last because great works or great essays can be isolated incidents in a career, or can be forgotten or never escape a small readership. Great photojournalists have succeeded in not only repeatedly producing great work, but in getting it seen by masses and collected by institutions.
Why bother? Everyone’s list may be different. Some will argue the merits of who makes such a list. Who am I to decide? But that’s the beauty of a blog. This is ostensibly a conversation, and I make no pretense that I have the final word. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments with a name and a few sentences to make your case.
And what do you care? For many, this should be a reminder of who influenced us to take up the profession whether they are on this list or not. For students of the art/craft/profession, it is a list of those worthy of some study. For all it will hopefully be inspiration to truly innovate in what we do.
In order to have a pattern and avoid excessive repetition of styles, here are the standards I have selected. He or she (or maybe they) should have:
- Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
- Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
- Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.
This isn’t as easy as it might seem to be. For example, take Henri Cartier-Bresson. Of the decisive-moment-layered-geometric-composition style is he the first? Or did André Kertész do all that first? Should Marc Riboud, also one of my personal heroes, be included? Or does his work stand firmly in the same genre as HC-B? The nuances and potential arguments are many. But what the hell. It’s worth a try. If you add to the list, make a point about why they were first or best at an approach. If I were just making a list of favorites, this would be a different sort of list.
In order to make this an approachable read, I’ll start with the first 50 (or so) years:
Roger Fenton — This guy may have been the first photographer to drag a camera into a war zone. He photographed the scene of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Crimea in 1855. Though until the 20th century photography was seen not as art but as document, Fenton may have been the first photojournalist. Granted, his ethics would certainly not pass even 20th-century standards, but he made a few long exposures on sluggish glass plates that for the first time transported viewers to the scene of a major world event.
Mathew Brady — Six years later this star American photographer arranged a similar thing. Brady was a studio photographer noted mostly for his portraits, including those of Abe Lincoln made — as many assume — by securing the president’s head to a metal rod so he could hold still for the long exposure. Imagine… “Excuse me, Mr. President while I strap your head in place…” But Brady packed up his studio onto a wagon and sent assistants out to the scenes of death and mayhem in the American Civil War, where they photographed aftermath mostly, because dead soldiers didn’t move. They did, however, make images of men posed in bivouacs and other situations where they could hold still for the daguerreotype plates. His crew, which included notables Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, and other period photographers also produced work in 3D for stereoscope viewers. Today we worry about shocking and desensitizing our readers, but back then they delivered the gore in 3D by selling cards in stores. To end this lengthy note, we might say Brady was as much the first photo agent as he was an early photojournalist, running a team of photographers to cover the war. Like Fenton and others of his era, the manipulations of all their images before and after the exposure are legendary. But as I’ve noted here before, ethics evolve. He should be on this list for his innovations. And in an end far too common on this list, he died penniless.
Eadweard Muybridge — Muybridge was as strange as his invented name and certainly not a photojournalist in any classic sense. But his work in settling a bet on whether all four hooves of a horse leave the ground at a gallop make him a seminal documenter of scientific phenomena. Following him one could easily include the likes of electronic flash inventor Dr. Harold Edgerton, obsessive railroad photographer O. Winston Link and photographers of the mechanics of the natural world like Louie Psihoyos or James Balog.
Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier — History is filled with white men, even though women and other races are innovating alongside the counterparts that have generally held the pens and purse strings. These two women came to photography relatively late in life, and broke gender presumptions to make extraordinary portraits on two sides of the world — Cameron in Britain and Ceylon, and Käsebier in the U.S. Their styles were rich, intimate, personal and beautiful.
Timothy O’Sullivan — This Civil War combat veteran, photographer of Gettysburg and one of Brady’s minions made his own distinct name by making some of the first best images of the American West. His romantic pictures of the mountains and canyons of the frontier arguably fueled western expansion by demystifying the region and romanticizing its beauty. On the other side of the planet a contemporary, John Thomson, was exploring China with a camera, for purposes of documenting the reality of that ancient culture for those back in Europe who could not go there. His images are not only beautiful, but filled with intricate detail and volumes of information. Would have National Geographic existed yet…
Edward S. Curtis — Curtis, funded with $75,000 by J.P. Morgan in 1906, set out to photograph The North American Indian. Making beautiful portraits of disappearing cultures was the superficial goal, but ethnologists and historians discredit his work for its romanticism over accuracy. Curtis sought the beauty in the subject and amplified it by dressing his subjects in elaborate head dresses and clothing inappropriate to their cultural history. Despite the fictionalized images, the breathtaking collection he made still provides a document of peoples making a transition into the 20th century and humanizes formerly maligned and belittled peoples. His images have echoed not only down the line of documentary portrait photographers, but in the work of fashion greats Irving Penn and Richard Avedon who made loosely real portraits of visually compelling cultures decades later. Curtis had a little-known contemporary who did a much more ethical-in-our-eyes job of it: Frank (Sakae) Matsura, a Japanese photographer who set out to photograph Native Americans in their daily lives then, often dressed in European clothes and struggling to adapt to a foreign culture. Gertrude Käsebier at the same time applied her formidable portrait talents to photographing Native Americans.
Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine — Riis started a tradition, continued by Hine twenty years later, of using the camera as a tool to document social injustice and grab at the hearts and minds of readers. As a reporter who used the camera to prove his point, Riis crusaded against immigrant living conditions in New York’s slums. Hine saw the camera as his principal tool, however, and used it to fight against child labor. Riis’ flash powder illuminated dingy dwellings. Hine charmed, conned and cajoled his way into mines and factories to photograph the tiny children working there. The work of both helped change old laws or create new ones to protect underprivileged citizens. Their work has influenced all that followed, from the Photo League to the Farm Security Administration and the photographers of the Civil Rights Movement such as Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson to any documentary photographer working for social change.
Why does photojournalism addict us and make us want so badly to do this even though there are better ways to make more money?
The answer struck me when reading this recent book by Jane McGonigal. In Reality is Broken she describes the four defining traits that make a game a game. They are a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation.
McGonigal’s book is about far more than this (see her TED talk here), but reading that fired the Sylvania Press 50 flash bulb over my head. These qualities of a game engage us, tug us along in pursuit of the goal, challenge us to do it within the rules and then reward us when we’re done. That is all exactly what photojournalism has done for me (artistic expression and “doing good works” aside).
So what is our goal? We work to make an image that tells a story. That’s the simple goal. We could also extrapolate that to other grand journalistic goals like informing a democracy or bringing positive change to the world.
The rules? This is where I think photojournalism differs from any other kind of photography: We must do this within the ethical boundaries and best practices of our profession. We make images of reality unfolding — no alterations before or after the image is captured. The story must be grounded in facts (or truth, whichever term you prefer) and not deceive the reader. We also work to not misrepresent the subject. Their story must be told truthfully, no matter how flattering or unflattering that ends up being. That’s a pretty tight set of rules.
Feedback? We grasp our progress through a variety of means. First, we see the images we make and feel satisfied or dissatisfied with our performance. The digital age has sped this up enormously as we now see the result seconds later with a quick “chimp” of the image on the camera’s screen. Feedback increases when our editors use our images, our readers respond to them and awards judges honor them. The progression from shooting to Pulitzer medal tugs us ever forward.
We do all this voluntarily, as there are better ways to make more money, and more secure — even safer — professions available to us.
McGonigal also argues that the games make us happier. When we are fully engaged with a video game in particular we are inspired to play at the very top of our skill level. That can happen with a simpler game too, but video games are designed to keep pushing us further to better performance. When we reach that point we achieve what she and other researchers describe as “flow.” This term was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (cq that in a caption…) who described it in a book by the same title as, “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning.” In a Wired interview, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
I’ve been there as a photojournalist, when a fleeting moment magically erupts perfectly in front of me and I get it in a split second, when the subtleties of a story are unfolding for my camera, when I hit the focus on a sudden game-ending double play. I get it mostly when I am feeling happily challenged, or when I am reporting a story that may ripple through society. I feel it when I am working on the very edge of my skill level. And that, McGonigal says, is what a good game inspires you to do.
Also like the play in many well-designed modern video games where moral complexity is one of the features of the game, our work has nuance. Part of what drives us is that sense of social concern and the deep involvement with moral implications of our work. In order to advance and earn the feedback of the powerful image or the holy-grail “social change,” we must maneuver through thickets of complexity. Some might “score” most easily by being aggressive shooters, marching into a sensitive scene with cameras blazing. I’ve seen this more often than I like — a camera shooter inches from the nose of the bereaved victim scoring points with the illusion of intimacy. But the vast majority of us know that sincere intimacy ultimately wins for all involved. To earn those images we tread delicately and wisely, and earn our access to the story.
McGonigal argues that reality needs to be restructured to be more “gameful” and to keep us in a state of flow in places where we often are not — like when solving social or environmental ills or even while at work. I argue that photojournalism is one of the possibly few professions (bond trader might be another) where there are inherent gameful conditions that inspire flow. But perhaps we work in something more like a board game, where it is as much up to us to keep our flow as it is to the design of the game.
How do we do that? It’s probably different circumstances for each of us. And the lack of flow or engagement might be what we’ve long called “a slump.” I’ve had great editors who can inspire flow by encouraging the thinking and analysis that leads to great work. I’ve also had terrible editors who can crush flow in a single sentence. McGonigal writes at length at how game-world ideas can work in reality to inspire flow and the happiness and productivity it can bring. But one of the keys comes from another simple definition by philosopher Bernard Suits who said, “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
His point was that a game is about the rules and obstacles. Though it would be simplest to pick up the golf ball and carry it down the fairway to drop it in the hole, that game is less fun and ends too quickly. It’s a walk in a park with a lame purpose. Golf works because of its difficult unnecessary obstacles. In photojournalism we have a host of obstacles most of us would declare very necessary. But some are not.
A classic example of unnecessary obstacles was Jim Brandenburg’s Chased by the Light project where he made only one frame a day for 90 days. Few of us can imagine the self-inflicted pressure of deciding when in that 24-hour period to make a single shutter click. Is the exposure right? Is it in focus? Is this that moment? And yet most, if not all, of those single images are better than the portfolio work of the rest of the working nature photographers out there.
Technology has removed many of the obstacles that prior generations faced — making sports pictures with a press camera or twin-lens reflex for example. Making a usable image has never been easier. That’s great for me when the obstacles to getting the story-telling image come from the story itself. When photographing an emotionally intense scene, an unfolding crime, a fast-action sport or when needing to be stealthy fast, I appreciate equipment that is as invisible to me as possible. I have flow from the story already and don’t want the obstacles of difficult gear.
But not all stories are like that. When I am photographing something that doesn’t require those easy-to-use modern cameras, I find myself wishing I were making that image with my infinitely slower, much more obstacle-rich old press camera or my beloved Rolleiflex with its 12-shot roll, backward screen image and strange viewing angle. When the story is too easy, I crave mechanical obstacles. I want to feel like I am playing at the top of my skills.
The better way, most certainly, would be to find how that story can go farther, how I can go deeper into it and work at the top of my mental skills without the artificial obstacles of a leaf shutter or sheet film. But often for me, happiness comes from having the very unnecessary obstacles of quirky old gear, or the circumstantial obstacle of a foreign language, or artificial limit of one camera and one prime lens.
There is a great risk of semantic misunderstanding by describing our profession as gameful, to use McGonigal’s term. I would be cautious to describe it as a game because of how we too often see games as meaningless pursuits and time not productively spent. Photojournalism is a serious profession that enters the lives of people at both their best and their worst moments. To imagine a journalist as out to score points is both inaccurate and offensive. McGonigal does not argue we should make reality less serious. She argues that we should take what makes games work so well and apply that to reality.
Though photojournalism is not a game in terms of what that label may imply, it is certainly gameful. Perhaps that’s why we love it so much. And understanding those gameful characteristics may be a valuable way to keep ourselves engaged with our profession, out of slumps and working at the top of our skills.
Yesterday the final decision was made to close the School of Journalism and Mass Communication that is not only my part-time employer, but my alma mater. My father also taught photojournalism part time at this school and graduated from its predecessor College of Journalism at the University of Colorado. The old school will be replaced by a double degree in journalism and another discipline at the university, and details of how that will work remain vague.
Though I and many of my colleagues wish a purposeful change of how journalism is taught at CU would have unfolded differently from this, the decision begs an examination of what it means to have a journalism education. This may still be well served by CU’s plan, depending on how it unfolds. I am hopeful.
I would not teach at a journalism school if I did not value them. For more than a century they have been the training grounds of generations of the world’s witnesses (like all things for better and for worse), homes of the research that help us understand communications’ flows and the social life of information, and builders of confidence in an important profession.
However today not even the working profession of journalism — where reaction to the needs of the market and the social distribution of information is life or death — knows where it is going. Expecting the ivory tower to keep pace where the profession cannot is extreme. Regardless, I and my colleagues, though looking at it from different angles, have not shrunk from that challenge.
Professional journalism will always have skills that need to be learned, philosophies and standards that need to be debated. But in the end it is a profession of experience. Storytellers learn their craft by telling stories. Though my own education at CU inspired me to do the work of learning journalism, almost all I learned about journalism came from watching journalists at work when I was young and from doing the job myself. Journalism schools exist to plant the seeds of what needs to be really learned in real-world practice.
In the two centuries prior to the creation of journalism schools, the art, craft and professionalism of the time was learned through apprenticeship and experience. That will always be available where there is no school to set the stage. A true university education is about ideas rather than practice. It is about learning to think as the acting generally comes later.
Find your mentors in schools and out. And tell story after story.