Archive for category Ethics
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.
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 year in the World Press Photo Awards an honorable mention was awarded to Michael Wolf, a prior World Press award-winner from Germany. Wolf’s entry this year was for a series of photographs made of the screen of his computer as he explored Google’s Street View, a service in which automated cameras mounted on vehicles trawl the world to present the street in virtual space.
The debate over the award (as is often the case with World Press Photo) is interesting to read.
The criticisms ring with complaints that they are not his pictures, that it wasn’t him standing there slicing those moments from time, that he’s not out in the world struggling with the rest of us.
These criticisms are a bit navel-gazing in that they are mostly about how we define ourselves as photojournalists, not in how we define what photojournalism does. The boys at dvafoto have an excellent post on these points. You can see Wolf’s comments and thinking in an interview in the British Journal of Photography.
Photojournalism (and photography in general) has a long history of overvaluing process when the only thing that matters is the result. What really matters to the reader? The process or the picture? The complaints smell a bit of “you took the easy way out.” That’s not a legitimate argument.
I don’t specifically care that Wolf chose to use the automated, surveillant and serendipitous cameras of Google. I also would not care had he used screen grab software rather than a camera to make the pictures. Using the camera here just smells of a strange justification and trying to find a way to make himself the photographer. The result is the same as a cropped screen grab but with lower quality. And as others have pointed out, screen grabs from surveillance cameras or TV have been published alongside what we consider “real photojournalism” for a very long time. (A notable difference is that these sorts of images have not won photojournalism awards in the past that I know of. Correct me in comments if I’m wrong.)
Wolf’s collection of images is fascinating, powerful, opinionated, curious and somewhat addictive. I like them very much. They are art as Girl Talk’s remixes or John Cage’s Chance Music are art. But they are not photojournalism. By presenting this work with a venerable photojournalism award, the World Press Photo jurors have declared them photojournalism, even when Wolf himself apparently does not.
My argument against these images as photojournalism is over the lack of context. As photojournalists we all know how critical it is not only to understand how an image we make or publish would be read, but also what the circumstances are surrounding those images so we can correctly inform the reader. We’ve all made photos sliced out of air that without context might mean something entirely different than the story we were there to tell. In our outtakes we all have images that might accidentally lie, and as photojournalists we have the responsibility to make sure those don’t see the light of day as journalism.
What is happening in these images? We can assume, but we cannot know. Wolf can assume, but he cannot know. He was not there to see the moment unfold and interpret its meaning. He could not follow up with the subjects to clarify what just happened.
Wolf uses the term “curate” to describe these images, and I think that is closer, but still not correct. He is collecting things out of context and interpreting them from personal experience, but not the background information. A curator has context and background from the maker of the images. Wolf lacks even that. An editor of photojournalism should also gather the background and context from the photographer/witness before publishing. Wolf can’t (realistically) do that either.
Our job is an imperfect one. We inevitably contextualize important events through the filters of our own eyes, our own lives and our own experiences. But we should do the same through the objective circumstances of the scene. It is the valiant effort to understand the scenes we photograph that makes us journalists. It is not the process we use to capture the images.
World Press Photo’s jurors surely knew this would be a controversial award. I find nothing wrong with Wolf’s work other than the label put on it by the jurors of the contest and by Wolf in entering it there. There are many appropriate venues and labels for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” but Press Photo is not one.
I was walking on a beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.
I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.
When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.
We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.
There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.
That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.
But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.
We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.
It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.
I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.
No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.
We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.
Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.
And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.
If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.
Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.
The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:
July 14, 1995
I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.
I watched people pass.
Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.
An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.
Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.
A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.
The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.
The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.
The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.
Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.
She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.
Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.
Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.
I turned back toward the other street.
A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.
The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.
I was unhappy to see today that Britain’s venerable Economist joined the ranks of other foolish magazines that unacceptably alter cover images.
Its June 19 cover features an image of Barack Obama in front of an offshore oil rig, looking as upset as Obama seems capable of looking. It’s a strong metaphor that fits their “Obama v BP” headline.
The problem is that there were two other people in the original Reuters image. And in seeing the whole frame Obama is not looking down in dismay. He’s gazing at cleanup materials at his feet or bending an ear to parish president Charlotte Randolph. The context for the downward gaze was entirely removed.
The criticism over the last two days has been justifiable, and the response from the editor in command as unjustifiable. Economist deputy editor Emma Duncan told the New York Times:
“I was editing the paper the week we ran the image of President Obama with the oil rig in the background. Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop). We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.
“We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.
“I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”
If I could bring her into my classes and ask her to comment on the alteration decision, I doubt she would survive long under questioning from students. I, like most of my colleagues, hope to train students beyond the simplistic “you just don’t do that” argument. Critical thinking is a key to good journalistic judgment, and rarely does the easy answer hold up.
Let’s look critically at Duncan’s reasoning.
1. “We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.”
First, intent is not evident to a reader. Her lack of intent to make a political point is irrelevant. You lose any argument that a decision is apolitical as soon as an alteration is made, because why else would you alter history?
Second, a puzzled reader is a simple thing to overcome. As Wilson Hicks, the venerable editor of Life Magazine noted, it is the combination of words and pictures that most effectively communicates. Few if any journalism pictures can stand alone without a caption. More puzzling than a mysterious extra person is the choice to put a deceptive picture on the cover of one of journalism’s most esteemed publications. Why would she want to erode reader trust by changing what was before the camera?
2. “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke.”
“Obvious” is the key there. Digital alterations of news images is a hot-button issue because as journalists we seek to not deceive readers. I frankly have no trouble with heavy-handed art made from news images in news publications as long as it is patently obvious to the average reader that the image has been rethought, combined with others or torqued beyond question. I have not seen that March 27 cover, but I would guess it is pretty clearly a digital mashup. But this June 19 case is certainly not so. They made this woman disappear in a way that Stalin would envy.
How many of you image-savvy professionals out there would have spotted this as an alteration? Would you flip several pages deep to hunt for the six-point credit that reads, “Photo Illustration by…”?
And if the average person did, would s/he think that the term “photo illustration” was anything more that a couple redundant words before someone’s name? (Having not seen the magazine yet I have no idea if they credited the image in this cryptic way).
It’s OK to be plainly, playfully obvious I think. But this was certainly not a transparent change.
3. “Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”
I think they did intend to bring out the central character here, and I can sympathize with that hope. I am sure their ideal cover involves a clear, simple graphic statement that acts as a metaphor or confirmation of lead story. Having seen neither the Chavez nor Obama Health Care covers, I can’t judge whether they were obvious enough for me. But removal of anything from an image is misleading and can be even if the image is only cropped. There was context behind both those heads, and perhaps even context cropped by the photographer as s/he shot the images. Cut-out images need to be as transparent as any other. Even if those two other examples were as clear as I’d hope, this June 19 image is not.
Here are some questions I’d ask a class:
How many images have been made of Obama? Of the Gulf oil spill? Of Obama at the Gulf oil spill? Is this really the only image out there that makes this point? Isn’t a better answer — one that would maintain the critical trust of the readers — to find a different image?
If all that is impossible and you feel the only image available would not work without being altered, then why not go all out? Why cop out with the simple removal of a person who was there giving context to that image when you could find a perfect Obama, a perfect flaming oil rig and make something infinitely more artful and obvious?
Caricature-like montage illustrations are a cop-out in my book too, but if there’s any place they work it might be magazine covers or opinion pages, so it’s a reasonable choice here — certainly better than this deceptive alteration.
This is an excellent example of why we should not alter journalistic images. Intent to deceive or not, the entire story has changed from the original to the final alteration.
4. “I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”
Then why is this the one and only image that could be used? Why was this frame so important that it needed to be deceptively altered? For me the resulting image says only that Obama is disgusted with the spill somehow. And that isn’t the true message of the original frame. The original Reuters picture says Obama discusses cleanup efforts with local and national officials. So this altered image lies. And if the story is about the damage to business in America, then this image is a total failure. No hint of that message is there.
Like every similar case I see, the excuses are simply excuses. When a publication decides to make an alteration to a news or documentary image it all comes down to laziness. They didn’t take the research time, the creative effort or the thought to find the honest solution. And the resulting justifications (of which there are hundreds) are simply poor justifications.
There’s a spot I love to camp in Utah, on the edge of a red rock canyon miles from the nearest town. On a clear moonless night the stars are so rich that I can never sleep. I spend most of the night gazing at the curls and eddies of the Milky Way, smiling at passing satellites and listening to wind hiss off the wing feathers of diving swallows working the cliff-edge currents.
“I’ll find a deal on a clock drive,” I’d think to myself, wondering how I could photograph this amazing visual. I’d get the star-tracking device astronomers use to keep a far-off celestial object in their lens for longer than a few seconds.
Using film, or a digital camera only three years ago, it would have been necessary to expose for hours to get the detail I wanted. And without complex engineering the stars would all move and become the clichéd star trails in a camping photo. The clock drive would be a compromise too, as in relation the ground would move. Capturing both that sky and the canyons below it would be a daunting task.
Now camera manufacturers have reached astronomical heights in low-noise ISO, and making that photo is remarkably simple: A bright lens, ISO 1600 or so and maybe 30 seconds. In that time the stars don’t move much and the camera’s sensor seems to see into even the shadows of light cast through the atmosphere by a city a hundred miles off, or from the stars themselves. I just have to get back to that favorite spot under a new moon.
But it’s not just about stars and gimmicks. As the photographers of the last century must have felt when film reached ISO 100, “You can photograph anything now.”
ISO has become such a versatile and useful element in the equation of photography that I wish camera makers would promote the controls for it to the same level as shutter speed and aperture. I want to change it as often as I change those two.
For Harry- or Mary-DSLR-owner this means great cushion in getting that family moment onto Facebook. For a professional photojournalist, though, it is versatile power. Some of the world’s most disturbing, telling or satisfying moments happen after the sun is down, in only the smallest hints of light. What every storyteller wants are better tools with which to tell the full story.
This power was immediately put to use in the toughest places. Images of conflict and injustice in the night started appearing as fast as this generation of cameras appeared. Look, for example, at the work of Tyler Hicks and Michael Kamber. Also, while searching unsuccessfully for one image (possibly by Hicks or Kamber) I found the work of Michael Yon.
And in their latest edition, National Parks magazine filled their cover and several inside spreads with starry landscapes. The story was written by my colleague and sometime student Anne Minard.
Another of the great gifts of digital photography is the perfect ability to correct color in white balance. This has been there since the first RAW files on my notoriously bad Nikon D1. (Give it a break. It was first out of the chute for truly usable digital cameras.) Film corrections took exposure-robbing filters that needed a huge investment in time and money to reach commercial perfection.
These wonderful tools are certainly helpful to amateurs too, and lately a few colleagues have admitted being nervous about them in the hands of just anyone. I suppose in days of old it was as much the technical craft of photography that separated us pros from the great un-hypo-cleared masses as anything. Only we had the know-how to correct fluorescent lights and expose at ISO 3200. But what has separated us from just anyone with a camera is the ability to tell the story well and accurately.
It’s not the tools that do the job. It’s the experience of the photographer that does.
This is a beautiful age in our art. Not only do we have almost all the power of the film world still at hand, but we have the ever expanding power of the digital world at our fingertips.
This is my ode to the digital age. Never has our toolbox been so full.
Thank you for being patient between posts as I teach, study and shoot. Summer is here!
Haiti could be the story of the year, and scores of international photojournalists are there now, more than a week after the devastating earthquake. Their work has been powerful and has unquestionably influenced the amount of aid headed there in the aftermath.
Though some journalism about the disaster (as usual) has been an embarrassment, overall the coverage has made me proud of my profession. Those photographers will eventually leave gratified, exhausted and permanently affected by their work.
But for the rest of us who are not there I suggest we support causes and charities that matter to us as photojournalists.
Here are a few photojournalist-related favorites:
Another one of very great importance is Internews, an organization that trains and supports local journalists around the world. Basic support of democracy, information and the Fourth Estate does not come from international journalists who parachute into the disaster. It must come from the locals who work the streets of countries like Haiti every day. And though those parachute journalists certainly help draw attention and support from the wider world, it is local information, delivered on the spot in local languages that can save lives immediately. Help Internews help Haitian and other local journalists get back up and running on their life-or-death jobs.
Read or listen to Bob Garfield’s interview last week with Mark Frohardt, the group’s vice president for Health and Humanitarian Media, on NPR’s On the Media…
…and then send a bit of help to any of the above.
To my readers I apologize for the sparsity of posts of late. Jobs of shooting and teaching now matched with study of my own has my schedule thoroughly filled. I hope you’ll stay tuned for monthly posts.
What can a photographic portrait actually tell us? At the most we see a singular fleeting expression that was either concocted by the subject or directed by the photographer. We see a hairstyle, some clothing perhaps, and sometimes the context of environment.
But can a human being ever be so simplified? To sum up a person, or even a particular moment in the life of a person, would be an incredibly complex task. In many modes of photography that would be irrelevant. But in journalism we would still argue that our portraits are out to truthfully represent at least an aspect of a person.
That is a virtually impossible quality to judge though. As the subject we are always trying to present our own imagined version of physical or stylistic selves.
As the photographer we are always interpreting — for right or wrong — that person. We are photographing our own reading of the subject.
Viewers see only what they want to see in a portrait. Judgment is immediate and preconceptions are made.
Yesterday as I drove home listening to NPR’s All Things Considered, a story on a previously unknown photographer caught in my ear.
Robert Bergman, who had worked for 60 years with little recognition, was now featured in Washington, D.C., and New York art institutions. The shows come for his portraits, described — and shown on the Web — as simple, posed images of people found on the street. They come with no contextual information.
“I would say that anytime we meet a person it is impossible for us to not somehow figure out what they are about. We start doing that instinctively,” Bergman said in a comment only available on the audio. “We figure them out by projecting our own fantasies on them. That’s called stereotyping or typologizing. We sentimentalize them even if we think we’re glorifying them.”
Yes, I thought on a second listen, he understands it. We not only do that upon meeting someone, but we do it with even greater eagerness when we look at a portrait. We cannot help but carry our own assumptions and our own histories into a portrait, particularly when we have no context for that person. Had we met them on the street we would have a thousand more clues about them, from their gestures to accent, expression and vocabulary.
I think that’s why we love portraits so much. Few other kinds of images are so much about us as viewers.
Take the ubiquitous image of a third-world child staring at a camera. I once had an editor who inelegantly said as he looked at some portfolios, “I never want to see another picture of a brown kid staring at the camera again.”
His point was to ask what those images — so often found in the work of young photographers returning from their first trip abroad — could ever really say.
But those images are immensely popular among our readers. Many times I have heard people say they “feel a connection” to that subject, as if through silver or ink they are communicating with each other. This happens so readily that the great Sebastião Salgado published a book entirely of third-world children staring at his camera. I have long imagined it as his top seller. People sense pride and dignity, openness, intimacy and many other sentiments in those images. Bergman’s are getting similar reactions.
But are any of those things really there?
Arrive in a remote village or even in suburbia and the kids will stare at you. The crazy tall person with the camera is a fascination and a curiosity. The kid staring picture may also be an easy image for a non-professional to make, as most travelers are shy, slow or uncomfortable to snap pictures on the sly. The eye contact is tacit approval to press the trigger.
Viewers can also be touched by a pained expression, a look of misery or a “haunted gaze.” Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of an Afghan girl with such a gaze has captured the imagination of several generations. It is a phenomenon.
But what was the source of that gaze? The horror of war? Poverty? Oppression? It could well be. Or maybe it’s just a look of surprise to find some foreign-looking stranger aiming a camera at her in a culture where such actions are very rare. I have no idea and no way to judge, really. Our interest is not as much in who she is and what her circumstances may be, as it is in what we imagine or stereotype them to be.
Does anything change with adult portraits? Complex portraits? Environmental portraits? I don’t think so. They are still simply a subject trying to present a P.R. image combined with a photographer trying to directly interpret that subject combined with a viewer attaching too much of themselves to the image’s significance.
That can be interesting art, but potentially skewed documentation. And perhaps it applies to every kind of photograph, with or without a documentary purpose.
The comments of Sarah Greenough, the curator of Bergman’s Washington exhibition confirmed it all and even contradicted Bergman himself. “The end result is that the people sort of seem to reveal their own humanity in front of the camera.”
I disagree. The subjects of Bergman’s work have simply revealed a tiny little story — be it true or false — that they created for his camera. In a game of telephone Bergman selected a moment where he thought he understood that story. And the viewers are the last conveyors of the game’s call with all their subjective misinterpretation in tow.
This isn’t Bergman’s problem. “Well it’s about art,” he said. “I’m an artist, not a social scientist. I’m not a do-gooder. I’m not a documentarian. I’m not a journalist.”
How then, as journalists, can we make a portrait be viable? We do this by understanding well how portraits are seen. We struggle to listen and observe carefully so we don’t misinterpret our subjects or saddle them with our own life experience. We are careful to represent people in ways that are hopefully not mis- or over-interpreted by the viewers.
Can it work?
You tell me.
This week featured photojournalism-related news that seemed to come from two different realities. In many ways the issues and sentiments are the same — protection of privacy. But privacy is not an issue in either case. Both are about protection from criticism.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week a new law making it easier to sue media outlets that allegedly invade a celebrity’s privacy.
It seems our problem of making some citizens more equal than others persists. Why should Arnold and his friends be more protected from images than the rest of us? And what are they protecting? The treatment of the issue implies that celebrities (by what definition?) are being violently assaulted. Yet all the pictures usually show is a poorly dressed, anorexic or obese celeb shopping for accessory-dog food. They are not protecting their physical selves, just their well-crafted marketing image.
At the same time, new rules on journalists embedded with the military in Afghanistan prevent photographs of U.S. Soldiers killed in action. An image (linked above from News Photographer magazine) by Julie Jacobson seems to have reignited the old issue.
“Media have multiple ways to cover the war in Afghanistan and embedding is only one of the choices available. The press retains the option to report independently or as a media embed with military forces,” a Master Sgt. Clementson told the NPPA’s News Photographer magazine.
Access, where have you gone? I can’t imagine how one could be in the presence of battle without being embedded. Without those images, war coverage drifts toward “propaganda by omission.” And the price of war is hidden from the citizens who pay for it with money and lives.
Does this rule protect a soldier? The dignity of death? The family? Perhaps tangentially. But it unquestionably protects the military’s well-crafted marketing image.
I have little sympathy for celebrities, but I do have sympathy for soldiers and the risky, difficult job they perform. But, as it was once said of battlefield casualty photography (if you know the source of the quote, send it my way), images of a soldier’s death honor that death as the ultimate sacrifice.
Many argue that a block on such pictures is meant to protect the families of the victims. That is a worthy sympathy too. But that place is a funny one to draw such a line. If that holds true, should we not avoid photos of any casualty? Any disaster? Any death? Valuable coverage of the world would greatly suffer. We need to see to believe, and to understand the impact of our or others’ actions.
Two worlds under the control of marketing. In both the surface hides the reality beneath.
Every decade for the past half century the debate over the veracity of Capa’s Falling Soldier image from the Spanish Civil War rages anew. It is all over the photojournalism blogosphere and the media this last week. I am a bit disappointed with the 21st-century demonizing of him for what may probably be a setup.
A decade ago I was eager to believe an elderly Spanish woman who claimed the subject was her dead brother, and the background of the image was where he was reported killed in action. It seemed to set the debate to rest and gratified my respect for Capa.
Of course she might have been mistaken, and new research makes a compelling case that she was wrong.
But regardless whether the image is real or not, we need to remember to judge the photo and the photographer in context.
In 1936 photojournalism and its ethics were in their infancy. Capa would not have had the training of modern journalism professors and an extra 70 years of photojournalism ethics on which to hang his work. It is quite believable that he may have set up the photo, among others. Ethics is an evolution and always starts out a bit feral before civilization is reached.
As late as the 1950s the vast majority of news photos, in the average paper, were completely set up. Fortunately for us and for history we have forgotten most of that work. And even in the early 21st century, many TV news images are set up, along with much suspect work on the Internet.
I have no doubt that as Capa matured, his work progressed and his ethics developed, his work stayed quite honest. A photojournalist’s eye on his work could tell immediately that the vast majority of the moments are spontaneous.
So we can’t and shouldn’t demonize him any more than we would W. Eugene Smith who unquestionably fused two negatives into one on a famous image of Albert Schwietzer, and used the edge of a negative in another from his Spanish Village story as if it were part of the real-world content. In that same story, using retouching brushes, he chose to change the direction of the gaze of a mourner. In his early Country Doctor story he unquestionably set up the lede photo of the doctor walking through a gate, and the closing image of the tired physician slumped with a cup of coffee after a long day.
In his powerful and mind-changing Minamata work, the most famous image is also set up. Smith chose the time of day to ask Tomoko Uyemura’s mother to bathe her so he could catch the light that so effectively evokes Michelangelo’s Pietà.
By standards of the late 20th century these are grave ethical breaches. Making even more subtle changes now get newspaper photographers fired and some magazine freelancers blacklisted from their clients. But at the time Smith was working these were not uncommon techniques.
We all revere Smith’s ability to tell a story, his amazing eye for form, contrast and content, and the wonderful stories he brought us.
And before we crucify Smith along with Capa, let’s remember this: Judge the photographer in context of time. Were they working today they would hopefully not behave this way. Would they, their colleagues and editors would have justifiable grounds to end their careers. They would have no excuses now. Our ethics have surpassed all this.
We also need to be careful not to throw stones. Seventy years from now our very own techniques may be under fire as falsehoods — excessive dodges and burns, exaggerated saturation and contrast, questionable use of light and flash…
Capa, Smith, and the often-mentioned-this-week Robert Doisneau, were imperfect men of their time, who despite their mistakes contributed hugely to our art, communication perspective and ethics. Collectively they created as many falsehoods among their work as the average daily photojournalist publishes in less than a week. And collectively they created as many honest, powerful and world-changing images in their careers as any Pulitzer-winning staff could hope to in a lifetime.
I judge Capa, Smith and their contemporaries based on their era. I will judge my students and colleagues based on this era.