Author Mark E. Johnson

When We Take Away What We’ve Made


Two decades ago, Susan Meiselas published a project that looked at how the visual history of the Kurds had never belonged to them – it was made by outsiders, taken away by those outsiders and then, essentially, banned by outside entities.

Magnum has published an excerpt from the 1997 work and it has given me great pause as I wrestle with the questions Meiselas did – what is our responsibility to the communities we cover, particularly the disenfranchised ones? Do we need a cohort of visual journalists to bring the stories of disparate communities back to them?

I’ve long had concerns about parachute journalism, how we tend to drop in on the latest hot spot, blanket it with coverage for outsiders and then disappear. Where is the exploitation line?

Starry, Starry Fakes

I may have a new hero – Dr. Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist who has been looking at ethical issues in science journals, has turned her eye to some astrophotography published by National Geographic.

One of the great losses of the last 20 years has been the relationships between photo editors and photographers. It used to be that those relationships were cultivated, there were meetings and conversations and extended editing sessions where editors went over work, frame by frame, debriefing the visual journalist who was there in the field. They built up a rapper, they built up trust.

Those days are, for the most part, gone. Photo editors in some places are more akin to photo vacuumers – they are charged with sucking up as many visuals as they can to drive engagement and clicks in the digital realm. Without those relationships, even editors at publications as vaunted as National Geographic are going to get fooled.

Independent journalists, alone with their laptops and without a structured, ethical framework surrounding them, are going to have lapses. With the volume of work to do and the lack of interactions, what else do you expect to happen?

For publishers, they need to take a close look at these situations and ensure that protections are in place. Develop those relationships, get people on the phone, ask direct questions about the work – is this the way the camera saw this? Did you alter the original file? Did you alter the scene? Did you use any special effects? How did you get this access? Is there anything about this image I need to know? Do you understand the consequences of us finding a problem with this image later?

In her Twitter thread looking at lots of images, Dr. Bik asks a simple question: “Where does nature photography end and where does art start?”

I’d replace “nature” with documentary. And if you’re publishing documentary or journalism work, then you better be damned sure it’s real.

American Masters: Garry Winogrand

PBS’ American Masters took a look at the life and work of Garry Winogrand and I highly recommend this – it gives a fascinating insight into his street photography and acceptance into the art world. It’s available online through May 17.

Pop Stars and Copyright Theft

Seems like we’ve been down this road before … The National Press Photographers Association and 15 others organizations have sent a letter of protest to Ariana Grande’s management company over a copyright grad that’s inserted into their press coverage agreement.

Left in the Cold

Matt Black has spent the last few years working on his Geography of Poverty project and, last month, spent time in the cold woods of Maine.

This is heart-breaking work, the physical and mental isolation of our elders is hard to process. This work – what Roger May would, I think, call Heartwork – is what we need t be doing with our tools, telling the story of those left behind.

Gordon Parks Retrospective

This short piece by Jeffrey Brown on Gordon Parks is well worth your time, especially if you are unfamiliar with Parks’ work.

Now I need to get back up to Washington, D.C. …

Putting a Box Around the World

Ted Koppel did a piece centered on the Bronx Documentary Center that really looks at the lives of Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington and other photojournalists who have been killed while cover the world’s wars. Worth ten minutes of your time.

Inside the Canon EOS R

Sometimes, I really want to take things apart … then I remember I would be responsible for putting them back together. Which makes me happy when Roger Cicala at LensRentals.com does it.

They last camera I disassembled was an all-mechanical Nikon, things have changed.

Photo Editing and Senate Hearings

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Darrel Frost takes a look at how last week’s supplemental Supreme Court hearings were handled visually.

The dilemma is what can you or should you show in one frame when an event went on for more than that 1/250 of a second. My thinking has always been that you look for an image that is both accurate (meaning, it happened) and true (meaning, it represents the overall story). Does that open you up to criticism? Sure, but part of journalism is looking at the larger story and putting the individual elements within context.

The word-side has it much harder – how would you describe the nominee’s testimony? The other witness?

Calming Ways and Sharp Eyes

Over at The New York Times Lens blog, David Gonzalez looks back at the first African-American woman to be a staff photographer there. Ruby Washington, a South Georgia native, died earlier this year.

“The temperature would go down a couple of degrees because she had that nice, calming way and was nonthreatening with a ready smile,” Ms. (Nancy) Weinstock said, echoing the remarks of her colleagues on social media. “She would observe, step back a little, and she was very observant. She would see before shooting. She wasn’t one to shoot from the hip.”

Worth some time to look at her work.