Author Mark E. Johnson

Seeing the South

I have a couple of friends, photojournalists with common but wide backgrounds, and we keep talking about doing some kind of project together. A road trip, an essay, a deep exploration of a place.

But we just keep talking about it, mostly because that’s all we have time for. And seeing pieces like this Andrew Moore gallery on the Bitter Southerner just makes me want to go even more.

Now that’s great storytelling.

Printing Out of Time

My darkroom days are, thankfully, in the past. I was never enamored with the process of photography, it was the message and meaning of an image I fell in love with. The ability to bring someone somewhere, to let them bear witness.

That said, I do appreciate the work of masters in the craft and the Cibachrome prints of Christopher Burkett are enchanting. That his days in the darkroom are numbered is, truly, saddening.

The Good Fight, Business Practices and What’s Next

Rick Smolan is known for his book series A Day in the Life of …, a project that started decades ago. He was recently interviewed by Scott Galloway of L2 to talk about those books, his newest project The Good Fight: America’s Ongoing Struggle for Justice and the business of photography.

Smolan pulls no punches here – the business model is not working anymore. But as I sat through this, thinking about how we old timers lament the days of re-licensing work and sustainable day rates, I started to wonder how we should teach the business of photography going forward and whether we need a zero-base approach to it.

Day rates aren’t what they were, clients want more rights than before, their needs are different due to emerging platforms and so many of us still talk about holding on to the business model of the 20th century … maybe, just maybe, we need to think about a different way of doing sustainable visual storytelling.

I have no idea what that way is, but it seems like something we should talk about at least.

(Thanks to Michael Schwarz for the link to the Michael Zhang piece on PetaPixel.)

The Hypocrisy of a Corporate Mandate Urging Independence

By now, you’ve seen the video montage that Deadspin created, with anchors from dozens of Sinclair Broadcasting Group stations reading the same corporate-issued script. You’ve seen the response from media associations like the National Press Photographers Association (and seen the consequences of that statement), you’ve read the analysis from folks like Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a copy of the script edited to include local references to station KOMO. Some comments:

“Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

By using news time for what is a promo or “public service announcement,” you’re cutting into your service to the community.

(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

Quality journalism dictates that you identify the source of your information. Neither the source of this script nor evidence of the “troubling trend” are provided.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.

Did KOMO review the information this report is based on? Allegedly, Sinclair did a survey – did anyone at KOMO look at the results? Did they look at the methodology? Did they talk to a survey expert about the sample size and composition? Did they ask about any implicit bias in the question structures?

(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

When one media organization requires all of their stations to run compulsory commentary, with out identifying its corporate source, isn’t that using, “their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda?”

(B) At KOMO it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

“Factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility” – that’s a powerful and true statement. But when you do not identify the words coming out of your mouth as being someone else’s, when you do not verify the data upon which those words are based and when you do not identify that these are coming from outside your newsroom, outside your news station and outside your community, you lose that credibility that you claim to need.

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

This is the soft close, this is the, “we’re listening to you but not telling you all we know” finish to make the audience feel good.

Broadcast stations are considered public trustees – because they use airwaves that are owned by all of us, there are certain standards they need to meet, certain obligations they need to fill. As more and more are owned by large corporations (Sinclair currently owns 193 television stations and is in discussions to purchase 40 more), there is a conflict between the public trustee role and the demands of corporate cultures.

Sinclair didn’t cross any legal lines here, but an ethical one has been bridged. Local news organizations should be reflective of and responsible to their local communities. The benefits of corporate ownership should be in taking advantage of scale for business purposes, not in taking advantage of scale to push a political agenda that may not be reflective of the communities.

Having local anchors read a corporate-provided script decrying that, “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda” is the very epitome of hypocrisy and erodes any credibility those news organizations may have.

So what do we do? As an educator, I advise my students to research the entities that are offering internships and jobs beyond just the basic info of location, market share or pay scales. They need to do a deep dive into the newsroom, the local organization and the corporate philosophy.

More so on the broadcast side than on the print side, journalists may have to sign contracts that stipulate everything from how much they’ll be paid to how they can – or cannot – move-on or quit.

I ask my students to look deeply inside themselves, to see if this corporation is a company they would be proud to represent because it will be their name, their likeness, that will be the public face of that company.

A good working environment and culture will go a very long way to make you both happy and successful. Salary alone doesn’t dictate job satisfaction.

I surround myself with journalists, journalism students and journalism educators by choice because we share a common ethical framework and a deep desire to help our local communities, to ask questions in our local communities and to seek answers in our local communities. I appreciate that working for the University of Georgia gives me access to certain benefits because of the scale of this operation but I also appreciate that I am given the ability to work with and react to my immediate constituents – the students and, by extension, the citizens of the state.

Corporate ownership of news organizations is not inherently evil, corporate dictates that do not reflect local priorities is, though. As a public trustee it is incumbent upon corporate owners to allow local operations to reflect the values and needs of those local consumers.

If they don’t, they are participating in yet another form of propaganda designed to control what people think.

Setting Rates for Graphic Design

It’s not just photographers that struggle with setting a rate, take a look at this infographic for graphic designers.

Does that fit for photographers?

I don’t think so. And I’m not sure it fits for designers, either – it accounts for none of their costs and assumes every penny billed goes to salary and that isn’t the case. Granted, the operating costs of a design business are lower than a photography business, but there are still expenses for computers, software, marketing, insurance, office space, internet access, phone services, legal fees, accounting fees and copyright registrations.

Unless they’re doing this as a hobby, which if you read other posts on that site (and I highly recommend you do) you’ll see that design clients think that work is just as easy as photography clients.

Clients From Hell is just as appropriate for photographers as designers.

The Ethics of Self-assigned Work

In a piece for the Poynter Institute from 2017, Kainaz Amaria talks about the moment she realized she wasn’t going to be a conflict photographer and the underrepresentation of women in photojournalism.

But there’s one line in there, one line that I wish every student and young professional would pay attention to:

It’s that I couldn’t justify asking someone to tell their story if I wasn’t sure I had an outlet to publish in.

Nearly every time there’s a major news event, I start to hear rumblings from students and young professionals across the country – let’s go to (insert location of major news event here), it’ll be great for our portfolios.

And that’s when my stomach churns – it’s the lowest level of humanity that wants to profit off of someone else’s plight in life.

I understand the need to tell stories, the need to build your portfolio, the belief that you need major news events in your book to be considered a “real” photojournalist. But here’s the thing – any decent editor is going to look at your work and ask why you made those images. And if your answer isn’t about helping your community understand, then what you’re showing is not journalism. It’s just photography.

And it’s photography that’s been done at the expense of someone else.

Photojournalism is about informing an audience, it is about advancing the understanding of an event or issue, it is about raising and answering questions about the human condition. It is not about moments of drama or great light or clean backgrounds – that’s photography.

If you get that urge to pile in a car and go somewhere just because there’s news, ask yourself who you’re telling that story to. Without knowing and understanding who you are making images for, you’re not doing journalism.

They Exist

Anderson Cooper interviewed the artist known as JR for 60 Minutes and it’s worth 14 minutes of your time. It’s not journalism, it’s art, but it’s interesting how he thinks about his transition from being a graffiti artist to doing these photo installations.

If you have a few more minutes, after the regular segment airs there’s an Overtime segment with a few surprises in it.

(Thanks to Janie Bohlmann for the link.)

Seeing Where You Are

For every photographer who has ever said they need to travel somewhere to make better images, for every journalist who has driven to work with windows up and music playing, you must read this piece by Neeta Satam on how to see stories ethically.

Next week, students in our Documentary Photojournalism course will head a little south for our 13th Annual Woodall Weekend Workshop, three days in one rural community telling its story. They will focus in on one project, working with ten professionals acting as editors, coaches and mentors.

There is nothing unique or special about the communities we choose for them to cover, they are everyday places full of everyday happenings – stories we need to see to understand who we are.

These are the stories of our backyard.

(Thanks to Sean Elliot for the link.)

From War to Fashion

Every now and then I come across someone I’ve never heard of and wonder how I missed them … Toni Frissell is the latest, as featured by Alan Taylor at The Atlantic.

Theres a simple elegance to her work that shows in the fashion and war work, clean compositions and nice moments.

Secrets About Secrets

The New York Times just published 15, 15 women who were never profiled at the time of their death, in a series titled Overlooked.

The controversial Diane Arbus, a portrait photographer who has been the center of photographic discussions since her 1971 suicide, is featured in a piece by James Estrin.

Her work raises a lot of questions about purpose and ethics – no one has ever referred to her as a journalist but her work does document a certain time and place in history. The question I always come back to with her images is whether they are about those she photographed or about her, the photographer, and her own journey.

Worth a few minutes of your time this morning.