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,

Mark E. Johnson

1 Response

  1. The other night I was watching the TV Show The Voice. Nate Ruess was a guest advisor to all the contestants. I remember one comment that stood out the most for me, “Emotion trumps technique every time.”

    Christina Aguilera often advises the other coaches, “Go with your heart!” when they are trying to make a decision.

    Here are a few quotes from famous photographers also talking about the power of emotion and the heart of photos:

    “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”
    — Irving Penn
    “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”
    — Yousuf Karsh
    “I think that emotional content is an image’s most important element, regardless of the photographic technique. Much of the work I see these days lacks the emotional impact to draw a reaction from viewers, or remain in their hearts.”
    — Anne Geddes
    “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture.” — Eddie Adams

    Those who capture emotion by accident will struggle to do it again, but those photographers who are in touch with their own feelings in a moment and in touch to those around them are more likely to anticipate these moments. They are able to constantly deliver great photos because they are emotionally aware of themselves and their surroundings.

    Emotion, or a feeling, is what can bring a snapshot out of obscurity and make it shine. Sometimes an expression on the face can help bring this to the photograph. Often the direction of light or color of the light can influence the emotions.

    Sometimes you need to eliminate things from the photo to strengthen it.

    Sometimes you just need to put down the cameras and sit for a few minutes until you start to feel the mood. Then you need to figure out what are the visual cues triggering the mood.

    What you include and exclude can change the whole feeling/mood of the image.

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