Category Photojournalism

Control, Don’t Clean

My mentor and friend David Sutherland delivered the same message to first-year photography students at Syracuse University for four decades:

Fill your frame. Control your backgrounds. Wait for moments.

I still teach this mantra today (though I add a fourth: Care).

My friend Stanley Leary has written about his mentor and friend, Don Rutledge, and the way he used backgrounds to layer more information into his images. A deeper exploration and explanation of how building images carefully can deepen your audience’s understanding.

Seattle County Court Orders Media to Turn Over Raw Material

A King County judge Washington state has ordered that the Seattle Times and several television stations turn over all photos and videos f a May 30 protest. Local officials have said the material is necessary for the identification of individuals who committed crimes after breaking off from the main protest.

The National Press Photographers Association has issued a statement that says, in part:

It is dangerous enough for visual journalists to be covering the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over the death of George Floyd. The last thing visual journalists want is to be seen as an arm of law enforcement, aiding attempts to gather evidence. In an era where there are cameras on nearly every corner and in every pocket in America, it strains belief that police cannot get the evidence that they need elsewhere. This is exactly what state shield laws are meant to protect against.

Associated Press Switching to Sony for all Still and Video Photojournalist

If you ever needed a sign that mirrorless was the future, it’s today’s news that the Associated Press is moving to Sony equipment for both their still and video photojournalists.

While not a huge sale (or lease, more likely), the impact on both profesisonals and amateurs of this move could be immense. Canon and Nikon have had a stranglehold on the professional photojournalism world for almost half a century, so the fact that the AP (which may be the largest employer of photojournalists in the world) is switching is … shocking.

Maybe I need to try one of them out …

(H/T to my colleague Kyser Lough for the initial tipoff.)

Detroit Officer Charged for Firing at Photojournalists

Corporal Daniel Debono has been charged with felony assault after firing rubber pellets at three photojournalists covering protests in late May, according to The New York Times.

All three were leaving the scene of a protest and had identified themselves as journalists when the incident happened.

Color in a Dark Time


You can look at this post on the Leica blog two ways: with lust over the newest Leica rangefinder or with lusciousness at the images Huw John created with it.

I, I choose both.

Covering Protests

Current and former students are now covering protests across the country. We spent some time in classes on spot news coverage, but nothing we did prepared them for the events of our times.

Some thoughts on what to do before, during and after covering major protests, regardless of where they occur.

BEFORE YOUR COVERAGE

Assess your technology. How much gear do you have to have? You want to be nimble, so lugging every lens you own is probably not ideal. You also need to ask what happens if you lose equipment, to damage, seizure or theft. Can you get back to work the next day?

Pull out your phone and make a few changes. Biometric logins are great, but are also a risk. Turn off the fingerprint sensor and face recognition for login. If you’re arrested and need to protect the information on that device, you cannot be compelled to give them a password. And, while you’re at it, upgrade to a more complex password.

On your phone, turn on location sharing with your editors or colleagues – if something goes wrong, that gives them a chance to figure out where you are.

Lastly, ask yourself why are you going – and this is especially relevant for students. If you do not have an audience, a platform ready to publish your images, you need to think very critically about putting yourself at risk. This is absolutely not a great opportunity to build your portfolio. There are significant risks in this coverage and if you don’t have the infrastructure in place to help you, you stand a great chance of becoming the news rather than covering it.

If you’re injured, who will cover your medical costs? If you are unable to work, who will cover your rent and utilities? If you are detained or arrested, who will bail you out? If you are arraigned, who will represent you?

DURING YOUR COVERAGE

Two words: Situational Awareness.

You have to be hyper-cognizant of everything going on around you. If you have to think about how to adjust your camera, this is not a place for you to be – your attention needs to be on all the fluidity around you. You have to instantly assess every person near you, where they are moving, why they are moving in that direction, what their body language is saying – your reporting tool, be it a camera or recorder, must not be something you have to consciously think about it.

Listen carefully to both what people are saying and how they are saying it. Not the chants and songs, but the conversations. You need to be reading the crowd. Simultaneously, you need to be reading the activities of the law enforcement agencies – sometimes they will kneel or hug a protestor, sometimes they will charge their vehicles into the crowds. You have to be ready – work the edges and think about your escape routes, don’t get yourself boxed in.

Balance your coverage as you’re doing it. Crowds, smoke and conflict are the standard images here, but is that what this story, this particular protest, is about? What makes the scene in front of you unique? There is a place for broad-based coverage, but there is a need to help your audience connect with those involved in these events. A protest is a large collection of individuals who share a common grievance – ensure that some of those individual stories are being told.

One of the best pieces I’ve seen is this two minute video by Ryon Horne and Ben Gray of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – look how it changes at the 24 second mark. Stunning.

AFTER YOUR COVERAGE

Take a few minutes to calm and center yourself. Adrenaline is going to be racing through your body, you need to let that subside so you can take a critical look at what you have just witnessed.

Dive into your workflow. You have a procedure for processing images, videos and notes – now is not the time to skip it. Back up your data, get your metadata in order. You are covering historic moments, you don’t want to risk losing this work.

You are going to have a strong desire to edit for the most dramatic moments, but is that the story you need to tell right now? Live video and social media have already saturated the internet from whatever event you were at, now you need to piece together what you heard, saw and felt into a cohesive body of work.

You, as a journalist, don’t need to do a highlight reel – you need to unpack the narrative, you need to give your audience an intellectual understanding of what happened, not just provide an emotional response. Avoid the temptation of a card dump, where everything that’s reasonable sharp ends up in a 100+ image gallery – that’s not journalism.

Set the scene, give your audience a sense of scale, give them a sense of the emotions at play, show the passions, show the fears, show the interactions, show the aftermath. Show the why.

Once you’ve published, assess your data and gear. Double-check that your workflow worked, that you have multiple copies of your data and that the metadata is in place. Was anything damaged? Clean your lenses, wipe down your mics and cameras, charge your batteries, repack your bag,

Lastly, remember you are the professional. That means that you act accordingly all the way through. You prepare appropriately, you act appropriately and you publish appropriately. As hard as it is, you don’t chant, you don’t hold a sign, you don’t wear a slogan-inscribed t-shirt, you remain as impartial as you possibly can – your coverage of the event is your way of signifying its importance.

Sinclair vs. Mashable and the Consequences of a Lack of Focus

There are dangers to writing before finishing the morning coffee and I entered that realm today. I saw a link online to something that had been brewing, I tapped out an impassioned response with a call to action on Facebook and hit the post button.

Within a few minutes, it had a couple of shares and likes. Then the phone rang. The caller ID said it was the general counsel from the National Press Photographers Association.

First Rule of the Day: When your attorney calls, answer. Sending them to voice mail is never, ever a good idea.

Mickey Osterreicher had seen my post and wanted to walk me through some of the issues. Within seconds, I could feel the sandpaper on the brain, rubbing away my shiny surface words and explaining the nuances of the copyright infringement case that Stephanie Sinclair had brought against Mashable.

Then I removed the post. And I hate removing posts. So, here, for transparency, is what I had written:

The dismissal of Stephanie Sinclair’s copyright suit against Mashable is … stunning, really. Living in our current “sharing society” is providing a lot of challenges for those who make a living creating things, be they photographs, videos, writing or graphics.

I know some of my friends here will scream that information needs to be free but I’d counter that it needs to be both accessible and sustainable. I can’t walk in to Target, pick up a pair of sneakers and walk out with them – there were expenses involved in sourcing material, building manufacturing equipment, assembling them, packaging them, shipping them and displaying them. The fact that I need sneakers or want others to see these sneakers doesn’t relieve me of a theft charge.

When photographers post images to social media that is part of their marketing, it is designed to show what they can do so other entities can pay them to do more. In the Sinclair case, it’s especially egregious because she had already said no to this usage case. I’m not a lawyer, but that seems to indicate a willful infringement case.

This decision contradicts several other cases that have been decided regarding the lifting of images from social media posts (see Morel vs. AFP). I am hopeful there will be a successful appeal, but, until then, my existing Instagram posts have been set to private (which prevents embedding) and my willingness to post images there or here, to Facebook, Instagram’s owner, has dwindled significantly.

Thanks to Alicia Wagner Calzada for sharing this NPPA post and the work she and NPPA continue to do on behalf of the visual journalism industry – this is why membership matters.

Why did I pull it? Because I confused ethics and law.

Legally speaking, the case was decided correctly. The terms of service allow for the embedding of non-private posts. Sinclair, myself and what I assume are the vast majority of Instagram users (and we are users, not clients) agreed to let Instagram’s API give the option of embedding our posts into other mediums. The image wasn’t infringed, it was uploaded onto Instagram’s servers and, to do that, Sinclair had to agree to certain terms.

Again, we are users of their service – they set the terms and conditions. We don’t negotiate with them, you click a button and whatever is in that end user license agreement is what you’ve agreed to.

Now, ethically, that’s a different situation. Mashable requested permission to use the image and offered a (paltry) fee, which she declined. Which is within her rights – she controls the right to copy and display her work.

So, Mashable having seen the image elsewhere, did what it was legally allowed to do – it embedded the entire post in lieu of the individual image.

Does that create an ethical issue? Well, yes – if you approach me and ask if I will talk about your passion outside of the grocery store (whether it’s your faith or your football team) and I say no, yet you then start talking at me … ethically, there’s a bridge you crossed. You asked me to participate in something, I said no and yet you went ahead, anyway.

And here’s the other rub on this situation, as Mr. Osterreicher pointed out – due to the nature of the article Mashable was assembling, they probably would have been in the clear under the fair use doctrines of copyright law. The article was commenting on her work and that is allowed.

So where does this leave our industry and, well, me?

It’s a reminder that we have to read all of those pesky terms of service agreements. And, yes, Sinclair’s argument that they are incomprehensible is legitimate – but it is incumbent upon us to seek clarification prior to agreeing and not nullification after usage.

And as for me … I still believe that social media can be an excellent marketing tool for creatives. I’m luck that, in my current role as a teacher, I’m not our marketing my work to generate revenue. I push my images out on social media because I want my students to see I can still (kind of, sort of) do this and because it gives me access to an audience I no longer have.

Is this worth a tradeoff of allowing the embeds? Given what I’m posting on a regular basis, which would have little monetary value to other sites, it probably is. Will I be financially harmed if one of my posts is embedded? No.

But what about my colleagues who are out there, creating work that needs to be paid for so they can create more work? What’s my ethical responsibility to them?

This week, in my now-online classes at the University of Georgia, we’ve been talking about business practices. Everything from calculating your cost of doing business to how do you negotiate your fees. Part of that conversation is what is the impact on the market when you take a low fee for work.

The answer is it drives the overall value of everyone’s work down, that’s basic supply and demand. If, as a publisher, I can pay someone $1,000 for this set of images or $200, I’m going to go with the lower cost provider.

And before you get up in arms about this, realize we do it, too. Buying a car? You’re negotiating for a lower price. Selling a lens you don’t use anymore? You’re negotiating for a higher price. This is basic economics. When there an excess of supply (which, hey, look at how many people own DSLRs out there and call themselves photographers), that lowers the value of the work.

So what’s the takeaway here … a couple of things:

  • Read the terms of service. If they don’t make sense, ask for an explanation from someone else. If you don’t like them, ask for a change. If they won’t change them, don’t use the service.
  • Think carefully about what you make freely available. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to post to social media, but there’s a cost to doing it and you have to calculate what that cost is. If you’re a professional photographer, your social media feed should be an active part of your marketing strategy. It needs to show what you have done and what you can do, but it shouldn’t give away all the value of your work.
  • Lastly, you need to think carefully about your own decision making processes. Does this situation sit well with me? Nope, read my (pre-coffee, pre counsel counsel) rant above. But, when looked at from a bit of a distance, yeah, legally, Mashable was in the clear here. Pushing this probably created some case law, law that we, as creators, probably don’t want out there.

I still stand by my belief that creators need to be compensated for their creations – that is an absolute. We don’t want doctors or carpenters who do their work for fun, we want them to be totally focused on doing their work with a high level of expertise because the consequences of them getting it wrong are massive.

Same thing goes in journalism – the consequences of inaccurate, unsustainable journalism are massive. You want accountability in journalism, which means the journalists have to take it seriously.

And that means they have to be sustained.

Now, I’m going to make another pot of coffee because the consequences of not doing that are not pretty.

Dispsables

The Washington Post sent disposable camera to 25 women and asked them to document their life.

The set of images are at times refreshingly nostalgic and also annoyingly modern. The current fascination with photographing oneself is present, in either out-of-focus selfies (the minimum focusing distance on these cameras is larger than the average arm length) or they handed to camera to others and asked them to photograph themselves.

But there are also some comments about the surprises, about the value of the waiting. Not knowing what you have immediately caused some folks to be more intentional with that moment and, with some others, caused them to not make very good images.

Polaroid at MIT

Not that we can go, but if we could, we should:

The collection was to be on display through June 21.

Images With Value

What is the purpose of a photograph? In our field, we have several standard answers – to tell a story, to inform our community, to evoke a response.

To me, I use a camera not to make pictures but to share ideas, to raise questions and, hopefully, to answer some. I make pictures of things I don’t understand or haven’t seen before. I try not to make photos of things that others have photographed often, but that doesn’t mean I don’t photograph what is around everyone – as a trained observer of the human condition, I try to photograph things that are present but not necessarily known.

Over at The Online Photographer, Mike Johnston writes about the types of images he wants to look at – which is sometimes different than the types of images he makes.

I suppose the most telling question I would ask of a photograph is, why should I look at this? Why should this picture interest me? Or, to put it the correct way ’round: why should anyone else look at this? Why should this picture interest someone else?