Quantity Does Not Bring About Quality

I teach two sections of an introductory course in photojournalism every semester. Last Wednesday, I handed the students their cameras and sent them out to shoot – 300-400 frames, nouns and verbs. Anything they want.

This assignment is all about volume – the more they shoot, the more used to the camera they get, the faster they’ll get to story telling. I have toyed with the idea of tracking down some eight megabyte SD cards and telling them they have one frame to tell a story … but I can’t find cards that small anymore.

Paul Melcher takes a serious look at the volume of images being produced – and published – and how it is affecting the importance of all images. His stance is pretty negative, but there is truth in statements like this:

What we witness is a constant flow of images, quite like the dirty rivers that cross our cities, which we ignore by force of habit and lack of interest.

So, what do we do about it? There’s no way we can stem the tide of images that flood our lifestreams, nor can we even lessen the number of images that are made around us.

The joy of National Geographic used to be in how it took you someplace new every month, it was 100 pages of surprises, 100 pages of knowledge you didn’t have. Now that everything is out there, it’s hard to impress when the standard is new or unseen.

How do we, as visual journalists, combat that? When everyone carries a camera that’s better then what most pros of a certain age started on, how do we excel? How do we raise awareness?

The stream of images I see on Twitter and Facebook every day is full of places and faces, but what’s missing is how they tie together. What’s missing is moment and context. When I started in photojournalism I strove to be a craftsman, to make sharp, well exposed, well composed frames of important things, again and again. The first two parts of that are now automatic – there are very few cameras out there that take bad photos. 

But the latter two? That’s where the craft now is – it’s not in darkrooms or software, it’s in the moment where we preserve moments.

There’s a difference between sight and vision – it’s the difference between seeing and understanding.

Is it harder now? Absolutely.

Am I ready to give up? Absolutely not – every time I walk into my lab and see those 16 faces with 16 cameras at the ready, I still have hope.

There may not be any more great photos, but there are important stories still to be told.

(Thanks to Sean Elliot for the link.)

Mark E. Johnson

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