It’s a question lots of people grapple with. What makes a good picture? (Or what makes a picture good?). Like the headline says, I suppose the answer depends. On what? Well, purpose and perspective. What makes a picture of my family doing something goofy might be “good” to me because of the memory I associate with it. To you it’s cropped goofy, composition is wrong and light is abhorrent. It’s pretty subjective.
There are categories of photography where the determination is a little more objective. News photography (the field I focus on) fits that bill. Photographs are made, selected and published with the goal of communicating to a large audience. But what makes a few pictures among those stand out? Still an open question. Lots of research has been done on things like novelty. Barthes wrote about studium and punctum. And photographs that are expected to “speak” to a broad audience still speak more loudly to some people than others. That’s where it becomes subjective again.
I’m privileged to be based at the home of the Pictures of the Year International competition. Every year panels of judges come here and evaluate thousands of photographs, selecting the few that will receive awards. Judging just wrapped up for this year. One of the judges, Alex Garcia, has written his reflections on the experience and his answer to that question: What makes for compelling images?
Give it a read.
The last entry was about a column in the New York Times Lens blog. Longtime editor Donald Winslow had a somewhat troubling perspective on the state of photojournalism as a field and the outlook for its future.
Another photographer followed up with a different perspective. Leslie Davis is a young photographer/videographer for the Times. There are multiple perspectives that can be taken with most topics, and this one is no exception. In the followup entry on the Lens blog, Davis finds reason for optimism in the tools and opportunities that are available for photojournalism. She doesn’t dispute that rates for freelancers often are low and there are fewer staff jobs or editorial assignments. But within that environment Davis sees opportunities. Technology has progressed to the point where most people have a high-resultion image/audio capture device in their pockets. The internet and social media offer more opportunities for distributing work. The “unfiltered” nature of those channels means photographers can present the edit they think best tells the story, in contrast to days when the editors decided the focus of the story and the layout.
The two perspectives are a good reminder that there are challenges in the field. Like the rest of journalism, photojournalism is evolving. It’s been doing that for a century or more. With evolution come challenges, but also opportunities. How we respond to the challenges and what we make of the opportunities influences how the field will evolve.
Here’s another link to Davis’ perspective on the Lens blog.
Wow. What a difference a year makes. (A year! How did I get that far behind posting?)
I do have a lot on my mind following the 2016 presidential election, transition and early days of the current administration with respect to photography and photojournalists. We’ll start here though with some broader thoughts.
Don Winslow was the editor of the National Press Photographers Association’s publication, News Photographer, for many years. He’s recently moved to a new position. An interview with him was featured in the New York Times Lens blog on Feb. 15, 2017.
I won’t rehash the whole thing.
The future of photojournalism has been a persistent question for decades. As a teacher of photojournalism history, I can show my students examples of speculation about the health of the profession dating back to the 1970s. I’m sure there have been additional worries even earlier. Every time a significant technology change comes along, speculation about its meaning/relevance to photojournalism isn’t far behind.
This era is a little different though. It’s not just the tools that are changing, it’s the channels. It’s the organizations and owners. It’s the audience. And sometimes it’s the photographers. By agreeing to low rates and contracts that diminish rights, photographers haven’t helped maintain an impression of quality in the information field. It’s made it easier for editors/directors to look for the cheapest way out instead of the best way out. It’s only a mild finger wag. It’s tough to hold out for the profession when the wolf is at the door with his paw out.
So here we are. Winslow has some good thoughts on how we got here and what it means for photographers. Maybe we can figure out where to go from here.
It’s important to read.
I’ll be back.