Defining Photojournalism

 

 

As soldiers board military planes for war in the Persian Gulf, a family weeps. (Dunleavy, 1991, San Antonio Express-News).

DEFINING PHOTOJOURNALISM

 

Photojournalism as an occupation has struggled over years with a loss of jobs due to media consolidation, and corporate downsizing. In addition, citizens armed with camera as well as issues involving digital photo manipulation have instilled  a lack of public confidence in the profession.

In an age of Facebook, Twitter,  and Instagram do  images really matter as they once seemed to?

Discussions concerning photography’s demise as an art form are always problematic and provocative. If we consider how digital technologies have influenced photography in the past two decades, we need to place the debate within a larger context.  Consider how painters must have felt in the mid to late 19th century when photography emerged as a viable alternative to capturing realistic representations. At that time, photography was the “new technology”, which surely stirred up lots of emotion.

For centuries, painting was far from experimental. Artists were concerned, in large part, with realism — the ability to make objects in the world appear real on a two-dimensional surface. Many portrait artists lived off the making visual likenesses of their patrons with paint on canvas. Photography’s influence on painting cannot be overstated. With the invention of photography, painters were released from the constraints of realism. For example, the early impressionists of the 1860s, artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and others, were inspired by candid photography. The impressionists were able to take chances with form and style. Photography’s realism filled a niche — it was faster, less expensive, and more accessible than painting. Further, you didn’t need to have extensive training in drawing and painting to produce a representation of the world around you.

Photography is not dead, it’s just changing. Just the same it changed in the 19th century for traditional artists.

Today, the commonly held perception that a photograph provides a reasonable likeness to what is seen in the “real” world is changing. Digital technology, with its capacity to reconfigure reality, is viewed as a threat to the status photography once enjoyed as a form of conveyance  — one burdened by the responsibility of being perceptually accurate.  We now have cameras that can make people look thinner, remove blemishes, correct color and tone, and sharpen the clarity of the pictures produced. Visual veracity is now in the mind of the beholder. Pictures, however, may still be worth a thousand words, but what makes the medium difference today is that the technology is increasingly able to determine what those words may mean.

Sociologist and photojournalist Howard Becker notes, “Today’s photojournalists are literate, college educated, can write, and so are no longer simply illustrators of stories reporters tell. They have a coherent ideology, based on the concept of the story-telling image. Nevertheless, contemporary photojournalism is, like its earlier versions, constrained by available space and by the prejudices, blind spots, and preconceived story lines of their editorial superiors…” The skilled photojournalist responds to the world emotionally and intellectually by documenting it with honesty and humility.   For W. Eugene Smith, “Up to and including the moment of exposure, the photographer is working in an undeniably subjective way. By his choice of technical approach, by the selection of the subject matter…and by his decision as to the exact cinematic instant of exposure, he is blending the variables of interpretation into an emotional whole. “ Photojournalism, for Rothstein, in photojournalism, “a photograph is not the final effort; only its publication.”

 

The demands on photojournalists to make such a wide array of images on deadline can be intense but very rewarding. Media mergers, corporate downsizing, and new technologies that help create content cheaper, faster and more efficiently, but the job market in photojournalists has decreased significantly. Because publication deadlines are critical to news and information, photojournalism as a career choice may not be for everyone.Photojournalism’s distinctive candid and unobtrusive style is a very powerful form of communication that has become popular in commercial and wedding photography.

Pictorial reportage is the most universal of all languages. It is an indispensable tool of freedom in these days when so many people are oppressed and personal freedom is restricted in many parts of the world.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

For FSA photographer and educator Arthur Rothstein, “photojournalists are observers of people and events whose report what is happening in photographs; interpreters of facts and occurrences who write with a camera; skilled communicators who images are transmitted visually via the printed page.” Although we need to expand this definition to include the digital age. 

The task of this essay is to reflect on explain photojournalism  as a form of visual reportage.

For Rothstein continues, “The Photojournalist has a distinct and specialized mission: as the representative of a large audience of newspaper and magazine readers he [she] must report to them in pictures, efficiently and rapidly, the dramatic highlights of a fast moving event. The goal of a news photographer is the publication of a single picture or sequence, which is direct, straightforward, factual and realistic.

However, “news photographers are not mere button-pushers, but highly trained in news gathering,” processing images, and working under pressure. Further, a photojournalist’s goal is to edify information by providing a visual reference for the viewer. Moreover, a news photograph offers the viewer perspective and context — they bring before us slices of time and moments that inform us, shock us, and sometimes make us laugh. A good news picture, in short, makes us care about the world around us.

Photojournalists do not make pictures independent of a medium such as a newspaper, magazine, or any other visual media. Moreover,, the best image is always dependent on how it is displayed and the context in which it is used. Photojournalists are keen observers of the world around them. Everything visible provides the raw material for visual storytelling.

Rothstein observes, “Certainly the concept of picture reporting is as old as man’s drive to tell as story through drawing pictures. The use of the camera makes the pictorial presentation of information more efficient, faster, and makes it available to more people.”

The power of photojournalism resides in its insistence on being holistic and humanistic. The photojournalist, in turn, must be faithful to a moment of truth, as he or she perceives it. Photojournalism, at its best, must engage the viewer to consider twice what they are looking at. In fact, it is only when the image is cataloged in the memory and reconstructed through conscious action that we are able to move from merely looking at something to truly seeing the contradictions and universalities of the human condition.

Photojournalism can bring about change by raising public awareness about social problems such as  Eddie Adams’ photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, Kevin Carter’s 1984 image of a starving child in Africa o Jeff Widener’s picture of a protester blocking a tank in Tiananmen Square

Photographs capture decisive moments and fleeting instances that sum up human experience—sadness and joy, triumph and defeat, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Further, photographs can capture the roller coaster human emotion by freezing a moment for the collective memory of a community. As Brian Horton (2003) contends, “Moments that are part of our history—big and small. In each case, the venues may be different, but the mission is the same—to inform, to report, to carry the scene to the readers, whether they are thousands of miles away or just down the street. To show them something they might not have had a chance to see themselves. To grab a moment of history and preserve it for the future” (p. 14).

The skilled photojournalist responds to the world emotionally and intellectually by carefully visually recording  it with honesty and humility. The power of photojournalism,resides in its insistence on being a holistic and humanistic enterprise. The photojournalist, in turn, must be faithful to a moment of truth, as he or she perceives it. Photojournalism, at its best, must goad the viewer to consider twice what they are looking at. In fact, it is only when the image is cataloged in the memory and reconstructed through conscious action that we are able to move from merely looking at something to truly seeing the contradictions and universalities of the human condition.

 

The History of Photojournalism. How Photography Changed the Way We Receive News.

PROMPT:

Discuss the Golden Age of Photojournalism.
Why did this time span, “push the field to new heights?”
Explain some of the most important innovations and innovators from this period.

 

 

Cultural Values and Tastes

One example of how societal values influence photojournalism is a cultural taboo against making a photography of an open casket funerals. For Baird, “A taboo is commonly defined as something that is forbidden by a specific society. Other taboos in the U.S. press  include  pictures of dead bodies and nudity.

The term ideology  refers to the dominant belief systems in a society that through values and norms exert forms of power over our daily lives––perceived and real. As Tractenberg argues, “Somewhere between what the lens depicts and what the caption interprets, a mental picture intervenes, a cultural ideology defining what and how to see, what to recognize as significant.”

Finally, when a news photograph is presented to viewers the integrity of the photographer may be scrutinized, especially in an age of digital manipulation. Credibility also refers to the amount of trust a reader has in the institution of journalism as factual source of information in which to base decisions. In recent years, journalistic credibility has come under attack after repeated scandals involving the veracity or truthfulness of some reporters’ accounts at major U.S. dailies. Incidents of plagiarism, deceit and fabrication have rocked the industry. In photojournalism, deceptive practices and photo manipulation by a few individuals have damaged public perception of the medium as a whole. No longer do people buy into the old adages that a “camera never lies” or a “picture is worth a thousand words”. Therefore, it is important that image not be staged, contrived, or manipulated in any way.  Photojournalism requires an understanding how news is defined by the institution of journalism as well as the public. As Tractenberg argues, “Somewhere between what the lens depicts and what the caption interprets, a mental picture intervenes, a cultural ideology defining what and how to see, what to recognize as significant.”

 

Values and Accountability

Photojournalists respond to news. Unlike reporters, who can verify a story after the fact, photographers must be on-the-scene as close to the time of something is happening or they will miss the news as it is breaking.

Imagine someone trying to photograph a football game three hours after a last second score is made to win the game for the home team. Making a picture of the winning team leaving the locker room does not convey the story nearly the same way as capturing the final decisive moments of victory. From photographing a Fourth of July parade to the battlefront, photojournalism puts the photographer in the center of the action.

Photojournalism is very much about action and reaction, living and dying, winning and losing.

Photojournalism is about life and the relationships between people, events, places, and things. Sometimes, the meaning of a news image extends beyond its original occurrence and through repetition comes to symbolize culturally shared values and beliefs. Images such as the U.S. marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima function as ideological benchmarks for a specific time in history.

Some of the characteristics that define photojournalism include:

Immediacy
Intensity
Intimacy
Graphic appeal
Proximity,
Conflict
Consequence
Prominence
Novelty

Content refers to the information captured in a single frame. Similar to the construction of a sentence, news pictures should have, minimally, a subject, verb, and direct object.   Visually, these elements provide the content as well as some of the context for the story. The 5 Ws of reporting who, what, where, and why, are not always immediately evident in an image, but this where the cutline or caption plays a significant role. Even though most images have a subject, (who,) and a verb, (action), the what, when and how, the context may not be understood until an explanation is offered in the caption. A well-written caption that is accurate and concise gives the image authority in conveying the story.

Therefore, photojournalism is not only concerned with the technical and aesthetic aspects of an image, but more importantly it is predicated on the reporting of factual events. A photojournalist may make a technically clean and beautifully composed image, but if the content fails to inform the viewer, it may not e effective. From a critical /cultural perspective, news images are products of culture, which are understood within the context of d established societal norms, values, and belief systems. One example of how societal values influence photojournalism is a cultural taboo against making a photography of an open casket funerals. For Baird, “A taboo is commonly defined as something that is forbidden by a specific society.

The term ideology in this context refers to the dominant belief systems in a society that  exert forms of power over our daily lives. As Tractenberg argues, “Somewhere between what the lens depicts and what the caption interprets, a mental picture intervenes, a cultural ideology defining what and how to see, what to recognize as significant.”