Category Thoughts & Theory

How Salt and Silver Bind Us

Well now I want to go to the Yale Center for British Art to see an exhibition

That BBC video has me thinking thoughts too deep for a pre-coffee Sunday morning, about how to change the way I teach photojournalism and, perhaps, who I teach it to. My classes are not about photography, they are about community, understanding, compassion and helping others build knowledge. That same approach could work in a larger class aimed at other disciplines – using the tool of photography to help better understand science, archeology, history, economics.

It’s truly a small shift in perspective.

I should go make some coffee …

What’s Newsworthy?

The visual coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt has fascinated me for years. Stricken with polio, he was mostly unable to walk without either physical or mechanical assistance, yet the journalists of the time almost never recorded that fact.

It’s perhaps one of the greatest ethical discussions on how we cover those in power – what matters, what doesn’t and what’s the effect of that coverage.

Polio, as a physical ailment, had no impact on his intellectual abilities and, therefore, no impact on his ability to do the work required of being president. But how would the general public have responded? Would they have been able to understand that the damage to his legs had no impact on his ability to lead?

The decision not to film or photograph was, I think, an ethical choice. Journalists collect massive amounts of information, assess it, analyze it, vet it, contextualize it and then publish it. Part of that assessment is understanding what the reaction to it will be, that understanding of your audience is a critical part of the process.

This comes up as nearly 90 minutes of unseen silent films of President Roosevelt are about to be released. Michael Ruane of the Washington Post touches on the issue in the video there, worth a watch.

Food for Thought

World Press Photo has given control of their Instagram account to Alessio Mamo. Mamo won an award in the last contest and the image he posted is from a new project looking at poverty and food issues in India. This was sent to me by Katy Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics and it raised my eyebrows significantly.

First, I’m not sure this falls into the realm of journalism (or at least our American vision of journalism). This segment of the description was really troubling to me:

These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.

That last phrase – “I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table” – that’s not journalism. That’s staging, that’s giving direction. Do we pose people in portraits? Yes, we do, to help them tell their story. But this is going a step further – it is not an image about these particular people, they are being used as props.

The comments, both on the World Press Photo feed and Mamo’s original posting, are telling. As of my writing, the post has more than 15,000 likes on Instagram but the written comments use phrases like shameful, horribly offensive, repulsive, exploitive and “completely devoid of any sort of sensitivity or understanding.”

That dichotomy – 15,000 likes and highly critical comments – are one place to start a discussion on the value of social media. Are all those likes because people like the image/execution/idea? Or because it was posted on the World Press Photo feed? Do they like what several commenters referred to as “poverty porn?”

There’s also the question of how we balance the ability to illustrate a story and the need to document an issue. Is this image being used to tell the story of the people in it? Or are they being used as an example of a larger issue? Are they aware of how they are being portrayed?

I have many thoughts on the purpose of visual journalism and many ways of discussing them, but let’s use this version:

  • Journalism is specific, journalism is not generic.
  • Journalism is precise, journalism is not vague.
  • Journalism illuminates, journalism does not decorate.

Is this specific? That’s unknown as there’s no additional information about these specific children. By hiding their faces, they become generic props like the fake food displayed in front of them.

Is it precise? No, as there’s no sense of why (or even if) these two struggle with food insecurity.

Does it illuminate? No, it’s a decorative image – propped, staged and controlled.

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to accurately and truthfully portray the lives of those we document. This image does not do that, it feeds stereotypes not the hungry.

These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

A post shared by World Press Photo Foundation (@worldpressphoto) on

Know Your Sources, Deeply

Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel and Merritt Enright at NBC News broke a story this week about the First Lady receiving royalty payments that may have come from news outlets … without them knowing it.

Many of the photographs in the Getty Images archive are from a photographer who seems to have an interesting relationship with the Trump family. Regine Mahaux’s images appear to have required model royalties associated with them, meaning that news organizations (of which NBC News found several) were paying the First Lady when they published images of her. They are also reporting that the images have restrictions to be only used for positive news stories.

News organizations have a responsibility to understand where all of the information they publish comes from, which means they may have to investigate all of the agencies from which they draw images.

Of course, having staff photojournalists and your own archive can mitigate this problem – and I do mean mitigate, not eliminate. No organization will ever be able to create and control every image they need to publish.

(Thanks to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for the lead on this.)

“We’re people, we’re not news robots.”

We often wonder if the work we do makes a difference. Sometimes, we get a little evidence of it.

Noelle Lashley was Grady College’s Class Orator at our Convocation and called out Bob Lynn’s book, Vision, Courage and Heart.

We can be afraid. We’re people, we’re not news robots. We just can’t let that fear affect our work.

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.

Reading the World Press Photo FInalists

Michael Shaw has an interesting take on the six World Press Photo finalists over at Reading the Pictures.

There is not one photo that begins a dialogue, that poses a question, that does anything other than hit us upside the head.

The question of what’s the purpose of an image is a long, deep one. Is it just to document?

My belief is that a great new photograph is designed to inform, to educate and to resonate.

The Image, Deconstructed Workshop

High on my list of events I want to get to is The Image, Deconstructed Workshop out in Colorado:

THE IMAGE, DECONSTRUCTED workshop is an immersive weekend photographic experience. Attendees are welcome from all skills levels. The workshop will be held at The Denver Post in downtown Denver, Colorado.

Our faculty is comprised of award-winning leaders in the field. They will help attendees become more aware of their purpose and vision. Importantly, they can help demonstrate how to express this more effectively.