I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of photojournalism ethics, photojournalism’s role and how that intersects with photography of issues/events like immigration. The discussion was part of a segment on KCUR (Kansas City) radio’s program Central Standard.
Welcome back (again). It’s been on my radar to return to this forum this summer. Today seems a good day to make that happen. My op-ed in the Washington Post.
I love photographs (no surprise), and I love history. So the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division is an awesome place for me. I use the website a lot to find examples to include with my History of Photojournalism class, but I also can spend hours just roaming through the collections. There are just so many things to look at.
And now I can have some of those images automatically appear in my Chrome browser. And so can you.
An intern at the Library of Congress took on a project to develop a Chrome browser extension that would “increase the awareness of and interaction with” images in the Library of Congress collection that have no known copyright restrictions. By installing the extension, every time you open a tab in Chrome you’ll see a randomly-selected photograph from that collection. If you click on the title at the bottom of the background image you’ll be taken to the Library of Congress website information for that photograph. It’s an easy way to see things in the collection you might not otherwise encounter.
Here’s an example from my browser after loading the extension:
You can read about the project and find a link to download the extension on the Library of Congress The Signal blog here: https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2018/08/free-to-use-and-reuse-pilot-browser-extension-supports-exploration-of-historical-images/
One thing to note is that the downloaded folder for the extension must remain in the same location on your computer for Chrome to find it. Otherwise it won’t load.
And congratulations to Kenyon College student Flynn Shannon, who developed the extension.
We’re a visual society. It seems like every year new statistics come out about how many images we are exposed to on a daily basis and how many more photographs were made in the previous year than in all the preceding years put together. People respond to images, and they seek them out.
And yet photographers aren’t valued.
The latest case: The New York Daily News. Owned by Tronc, the Daily News staff was cut in half last week. The carnage included the elimination of the entire photography staff as well as two photo editors. Yep, the entire photography staff of the newspaper is gone. A 100% reduction.
Tronc isn’t the first owner to cut staff, and the Daily News isn’t the first paper to let all its photographers go. The Chicago Sun-Times famously did it a few years back before rehiring some visual journalists. Other papers have eliminated their photographers as well. It seems a little more galling in that the paper was first founded as the Illustrated Daily News. It’s slogan below the name for years was “New York’s Picture Newspaper,” and a camera has been in the logo of the paper since it was founded. It’s still on today’s edition.
The rationales have included having reporters take pictures with their smartphones, relying more on agency/wire photographs and publishing pictures from the public. Those rationales overlook a few key points. Agency/wire photographs aren’t necessarily locally oriented, which is the reason a lot of readers turn to their local paper. And while reporters and citizens can be in the right place at the right time, pointing a camera or phone and clicking at something (as we’ve done since the introduction of the Kodak) isn’t the same as recognizing the moment that visually relays the story and uses the tools and grammar of photography to highlight the important elements.
Photographs can make an impact on readers, and local photographs matter. The industry continues to face challenges, but newspapers are also important sources of local information for their readers. Good visuals should be part of that information. Getting rid of the people skilled in making them shouldn’t be the path to success.
Yesterday, Feb. 1, was the 50th anniversary of an event that was captured in one of the most prominent enduring images of the Vietnam War. On Feb. 1, 1968, Eddie Adams caught the moment that S. Vietnamese brigadier general Loan executed a suspected North Vietnamese infiltrator in the street in Saigon.
Plenty of people have written about the image, the circumstances around it and its place in history. I don’t need to repeat their work. It’s worth a revisit though because of the place this photograph has, the weight it’s perceived to have had and the thoughts of the photographer who made the image (and won a Pulitzer because of it.) Adams said two people died at the moment of the picture. The prisoner’s death is obvious. Adams referred to the impact the image had on Loan as well. It changed his life.
Some articles about the photograph:
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.
There were differing interpretations of the rules that govern journalism in this country on the University of Missouri campus today. Journalists, practicing their trade in a public space, were hindered as participants in an event they were attempting to cover decided they would make the rules.
A little background…..
It’s been an interesting semester at the University. A number of issues related to graduate student support and religious and racial intolerance have led to student demonstrations and expectations of responses from the university’s top officials. The responses have been found to be lacking in details or evidence of understanding of the students’ perspectives on the issues. Admittedly, that description is a bit oversimplified. The end result however is that concern by students, faculty and staff over a lack of leadership resulted in the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri system. Later in the day the Columbia campus chancellor also announced he would leave that post by the end of the year.
As part of the student response, African-American student leaders had erected a tent city in an open space on campus. When the system president’s resignation was announced, supporters who had gathered there celebrated. Journalists were there to document the reactions of the participants. And that’s when the rules became an issue.
Student leaders and their supporters wanted journalists to stay at a distance from the tents to allow a space for privacy. Some decided that journalists, including photographers, were too close and they would be moved back by participants linking arms and moving forward as a human wall, pushing anyone in their path ahead of them as they announced “We’re just walking. We have a right to walk.” As a photographer, also a student, attempted to make photographs the participants pushed into him and raised their voices to say, among other things, that he didn’t have the right to take their pictures. They raised their hands to attempt to block photographers’ views of the space behind their wall.
Except this is a public space. The University of Missouri is a public institution. The quadrangle in question is an open, publicly-accessible space. Photography in public is legal and within the rights of anyone to do. Making up the rules because you don’t want someone to do something within their rights isn’t acceptable.
Compounding the issue, a university staff member inserted herself between the participants and the photographer, further claiming that the photographer was not allowed there. It’s ironic that the staff member who works within the student life division of the university proactively attempted to deny a student his rights. A faculty member of another department on campus (not the School of Journalism) also told a student with a camera he had to leave, that media had to back up and respect the assembled students, ignoring that some of the people she was attempting to get removed were themselves students. She also summoned “muscle” to help remove another reporter from inside the wall. (There’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRlRAyulN4o. The muscle comment si toward the end, but the staff person inserts herself at about 2:00 telling the photographer to back off from her personal space after she got in the photographer’s face.)
What some of these participants failed to understand is that the student photographers have actually been at the site, talking with the student leaders and covering the story longer than some of the participants themselves have been involved. They’ve built relationships with some of the leaders. They are respectful if a person, when asked, declines to talk with them or just asks for a bit of privacy before letting someone in.
When the rules on the ground diverge from the rules on paper, journalists have to assert their rights to work in public spaces while exhibiting concern and empathy for their subjects. They are also taught to recognize when not to escalate the situation, giving those who would bend or outright make up the rules room to do just that. The photographers tried to explain. The participants didn’t want to hear.
In the grand scheme, the bigger story is the actions of a lot of people to say the conditions and leadership aren’t acceptable and the response that occurred from peaceful efforts. These attempts to exclude people from a space where they have rightful access is a small chapter of the story, but it is, nonetheless part of the story. Unfortunately, it’s also an old one as people through history have attempted to prevent photojournalists from witnessing history and sharing the view with others. But as much as leaders want to say “that’s not for your story” or “someone else already did it” they have to accept that their ability to enforce that position may be limited by what the rules allow.
The faculty and staff members who were identified as interfering with photographers’ ability to document (and calling for others to assist in forcible removal) have been identified and called out for their actions. However, they too are not the biggest story of the day and shouldn’t become so either. They should be made aware that what they did runs counter to the rules. They should apologize. They should be held accountable. They should not be threatened or be subject to the internet equivalent of “some muscle.” We need to be better than that.
The rules on the ground shouldn’t be what a group thinks they should be, and while passionate students may not fully understand rules of access and rights for the public and journalists, the faculty and staff members shouldn’t be making them up either. Other than educating the public, I don’t know what the answer is other than for photographers and other journalists to continue to firmly but politely assert their rights to work in public spaces. The problem is, education for those who don’t want it isn’t going to be much of an answer is it?
If we examine a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear—but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented. – Edgar Allen Poe, 1840
Long before Susan Sontag wrote On Photography, others put pen to their thoughts on this medium of photography. Edgar Allen Poe was a subject of a photographer’s camera, but he also apparently was a fan of the medium. The Daguerreian Society recently posted a column Poe wrote for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in 1840, just about a year after the Daguerreotype was officially introduced to the world.
Poe gives a simplified explanation of the process of preparing, exposing and developing a Daguerreotype plate, but he also conveys what he sees as the significance of the invention. The quote above communicates his perception that the photograph preserves its ability to present the nature that is recorded even at close inspection. Poe also recognized that at that early stage in the development of photography the impact it might have couldn’t be foretold. While he saw use for making accurate photographs of the moon, how could he conceive that 130 years later humans would be using cameras on the moon?
I like Poe. I like that he liked photography. And I like that he reminds us that as fantastic as we may think something is, we probably haven’t seen anything yet.
* The daguerreotype of Poe is of unknown origin and is in the public domain in the US. This version comes from the Getty Museum’s Open Content Program.