Choosing to Do Good

In less than 48 hours, I’ll have two new groups of kids sitting in the Photo Cave here in Athens. They’ll wander in to my Introduction to Photojournalism class with all sorts of backgrounds – most will have been shooting since they were very young, but most will never had thought deeply about visual storytelling. A few have known, for years, that this is what they want to do.

I run a very small program – it’s just me at the moment – and that has good sides and bad sides. The good side is kids who do the Visual Journalism emphasis have some consistency as they’ll take all of their classes with me. The down side is kids who do the Visual Journalism emphasis have some consistency as they’ll take all of their classes with me. If you don’t like my system, well, we’ll both struggle.

There are a lot of ways to approach photojournalism and not many of them I would call wrong. You can want to tell the story of conflict, or the environment, or of social justice, or of public affairs, or of sports or of community – all of those are perfectly valid approaches and we talk about most of them over the course of three semesters.

For me, conflict is the least attractive. I never had a desire to cover wars, I never enjoyed chasing fire trucks. To me, those are the things you end up covering if you haven’t covered the other things well enough – conflicts, whether at the local gang shooting level or the genocide level – comes from not understanding. As journalists, our role is to help with understanding, to show not just what happened, but why and to share what it means.

I am not an overly religious person, but I will say I have been blessed to have David LaBelle in my life. I’d known of him for many years and, when I finally met him eight years ago, I truly felt lucky. Has has come to my workshops (and me to his), he has come to my classroom, he has sat at my table at home. He has been for me, and many others, a true blessing.

In a recent piece for Ruralite, he writes about what he loves to tell stories of, and this segment prompted this morning’s post:

I was once a news photographer. I monitored the police scanner and responded to all manner of breaking news. It was my job. I found it to be a great adrenaline rush. The urgency, the sirens, the flashing lights: the excitement of the news beat was seductive and contagious. Images of human tragedy were necessary to win contests and strengthen my portfolio.

For me, those days are past.

I warn students if they choose to do good with their cameras, they shouldn’t expect the band to play for them. Positive storytelling is not a popularity contest.

It is entirely possible that I am not leading my kids down the path to success. We talk about scanners and interacting with victims, but we spend a lot more time talking about people and caring.

So if it’s true my guidance is flawed, well, then so be it – I’ll stick to my belief that great journalism helps to explain, helps us understand. It makes us feel something so that we can react for the betterment of our community.

It helps us to care.

Mark E. Johnson

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