Category Journalism

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.)

A Narrow Slice if History

Hondros, a film about the late photojournalist Chris Hondros, is now open in select cities. Producer Greg Campbell, a friend of his, spoke with Christopher Booker for PBS News Hour.

Because I think Chris knew very well that there were also not a lot of happy endings after he snapped the shutter on his camera. And I’ve heard him say several times. That’s as much as journalists and photographers are recording history, it’s maybe more accurate to just say that they’re recording a very narrow slice of history. And there are usually some of the most traumatic events of a person’s life and I think Chris really wanted to follow up with stories to try to present a wider picture of what what occurred.

When Assisting Means Employed

David Walker at Photo District News has taken a look at several legal issues related to large-scale photo shoots, ones where “assistants” are routinely hired to help with the production.

The common industry term “assistants” means something different in New York and California. Most of us think of assistants as independent contractors, paid a flat rate to work on a shoot. In two states, it means they are employees and have to be paid at the end of the day, with taxes taken out and have a workers’ comp and unemployment insurance in place.

That is a game changer for a lot of budgets. This is worth a close read.

Storytelling Lessons

My friend Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute has broken down a couple of Super Bowl commercials to help us become better storytellers.

Worth clicking through for the other ad breakdown.

“I am not useful for my camera if I die.”

Karam Shoumali told the story of Syrian photojournalist Hosam Katan on The New York Times’ Lens blog a few months back, it’s worth reading to understand how Syrian journalists have covered and been affected by the war there.

Look Versus Feel

The New York Times’ Todd Heisler writes about covering tragic events like the church shooting in Texas.

Because of this, it is important to make images that go beyond grief and crime scenes. Step back. Give a sense of place. Show not just what a scene looks like but, more important, what it feels like. 

That last part – about making images that show what stories feel like … that’s the goal!, that’s always the goal. My friend Billy Weeks puts it this way: “Photos of something vs. photos about something.”

You can spend your career making photographs of things and, if you’re technically competent and reasonably personable, you can have a decent career I suspect. I’ll admit my early years fell into that category – I was a good photographer, always made a usable image and was easy to work with. I look back on some of those stories from the start of my career and I’m not always sure anyone would feel anything. They’d know what happened, but they might not care deeply about it. Lots of record shots, a recording of what was before me.

That’s where my students start because it’s where we all start. Master the mechanics, figure out the aesthetics, put it into practice in the field. Figure out what the story is, figure out who the story matters to, find the character that helps us understand and then make an image that will make an emotional connection, make someone who wasn’t there, who doesn’t know, feel something.

That’s the real challenge in photojournalism. It isn’t about getting sharp photos, it isn’t about getting proper exposures. It isn’t about having the right lens or the newer sensor or the better job at the bigger publication. Every time we raise a camera to our eye, regardless of who is before it or who will look at it, it is our responsibility to make an image that lets a viewer know what that moment feels like.

That’s when the power of photojournalism becomes ours,

Pieces of Advice

Independent photojournalist Yunghi Kim, who has put a lot of effort into help educate others on good business and copyright practices, has assembled a nice collection of comments from ten women photojournalists.

I love this from Jane Evelyn Atwood:

I don’t like to be called a “female photographer”. We don’t refer to Salgado or Cartier-Bresson as “male photographers”. I feel that calling us “female photographers” perpetuates the idea that we are “lesser than”, in some way. It defines us by gender rather than by the quality of our pictures.

The term “female photographer” is sexist.

All of the women in this piece are worth studying.

Women in Photojournalism

This, to me is a must- and first-read on the topic: Andrea Billups look at Women in Photojournalism, Opportunities and Independence.

Why we still have this conversation in 2017 is beyond me, but we will keep having it until there’s no longer a need.