Why Photojournalism Matters
You can learn a lot if you listen to cab drivers. At the very least, you can confirm a thing or two.
On a recent business trip to Minneapolis, I confirmed one of my most passionate teaching points: people really value and depend on photography as a mode of information.
I chatted with Amir, a Somali-American cab driver, about the weather, insanity, and photography as he drove me to the Thurderbird Hotel. Once he learned of my reason for being in his city -- to attend the National Press Photographers Association's national convention -- all we talked about were pictures.
Amir felt that the Sept. 11 attacks on America were insane. I could not agree more -- but that brings to mind one definition of insanity that sticks in my head, one that I often hear Methodist ministers quote: "Insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results."
I cannot help but apply this adage to newspapers around the world that still struggle with the tension of making photography matter in the newsroom. Throughout my career and travels, I have constantly heard frustrated photographers bemoan the fact that many of their writing colleagues and editors "just don’t get it."
As I closed my eyes, I could have been anywhere in the world, hearing disgruntled photographers saying, "They treat us like a service department. They don’t understand our craft. They don’t appreciate our need for time. And they don’t run our best pictures!"
As Amir drove, he continued to talk about how he loved pictures as "windows to information."
Amir had been emotionally touched by the photographs he'd seen in newspapers and magazines reporting the events of Sept. 11 -- as well as two events in his town: the recent death of a fellow Somali and a "big picture of Jesse leaving" by Minneapolis Star Tribune photographer Mike Zerby. I knew this not only from our conversation, but from the papers and magazines that littered his front passenger seat and floorboard.
He, like countless others, expects the media to offer insight, perspective, and surprise through the photographs we deliver.
The content of a picture, not just its artistic quality, conveys powerful meaning and emotion to readers. No disrespect intended to the creative artiste, but newsrooms need journalists -- journalists who are rooted in accuracy and can harness aesthetic appreciation in their work. The content that readers value most from photojournalists is essential information about the world them.
Poynter’s Eyes on the News studies confirmed that people were emotionally affected by pictures and that they are a dominant entry point during the digestion of printed information.
At the NPPA convention, Minnesota's much-photographed governor, Jesse Ventura, barked at a room full of print and broadcast photojournalists: "I don't need the newspaper to entertain me... I need the newspaper to inform me."
Also at the convention, Tim McGuire, former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and immediate past president of the American Society of Newspapers Editors -- and one of my heroes -- gave a talk called "30 Years in Photojournalism and Beyond." Tim's points about the value of photography throughout his career were right on the mark. He cited five tension points which he feels have troubled newsrooms for many years:
- The service department attitude: Are photographers journalists?
- The question of the artiste: Aesthetics over content.
- Documentary photography: How much should we do?
- Manipulating photos: Our awesome responsibility and the burden of truth.
- Between photographers and editors: Accept our responsibilities.
According to Tim, "I think in every newspaper of which I'm aware, the photographers and photo editors are at the planning table deciding how photography should fit into the overall telling of a story." But even as he praised honest, dramatic, and effective photography, he also shared his photographic pet peeve: "I happen to hate pictures of people’s backs."
On most matters I agree with my hero, Tim. However, in 1998, there was a great photograph captured by Tim's then-competing paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall's iconic picture of Governor-elect Jesse Ventura answering questions from the media at the State Capitol. It was a dramatic back picture.
It’s my belief that five priorities must be addressed for photojournalism to matter. Unless we pay attention to these, the medium is in trouble:
- Define your mission. Be clear about your purpose and direction. What is the role of the photographer? Are photographers indeed integral members of the news gathering team and the eyes of the community?
- Content is key. Photojournalists as well as their publications must strive to produce and publish photographic reportage that is compelling and meaningful. No longer should aesthetic value supercede journalistic value.
- An ethic of integrity is essential. Honesty and accuracy must remain the watermark of every image, along with the need for balance in our coverage. Balance serves as a great reminder that there are often multiple truths to be reported in our visual storytelling. Photojournalists must hold fast to the purpose of showing life's many facets, always with the intent to inform rather than to deceive and to help rather than to harm.
- Continual learning is imperative. In this era of swift technological advances, "technophobia" is posture of ruin. Photojournalists must harness the power of change and use it to find ways to improve the quality of still photojournalism, to extend their storytelling skills, and to archive edited images for present and future use.
- Diversity is a process, rather than an experience. We live in an ever-changing world that is condensed by the vastness of the Internet and the speed of telecommunications. As Americans, we think nothing of traveling to far-flung regions of the globe and expecting photographers to deliver images that take us to places we never see and seldom hear about. Increasingly, as journalists, we are more thoughtful about the direction in which we point the camera -- and when we do, we worry that our images might reinforce stereotypes. Yet we should also recognize that we have many miles to go before all of America is involved in the storytelling of America.
In the end, for Amir, Tim, and Jesse, photojournalism really matters. Thinking back, as I fumbled in my pocket for the correct change and asked Amir for a receipt, I looked down at a sun-scorched copy of the Star-Tribune dated June 19, and was struck by the impact of Zerby’s photograph. I picked up the front page and asked Amir, "What does this picture say or mean to you?"
"It means that Jesse is really leaving and that... things are changing," he said.
The world needs photojournalists to help discern what is really happening and what matters most.
Kenny Irby is Visual Journalism Group Leader at The Poynter Institute where he teaches seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and managing diversity. You can reach him via email or perhaps catch him teaching this summer at of the three journalism association conventions:
- The National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Milwaukee, Wis., July 31- Aug. 3.
- The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention in Miami, Fla., Aug. 8.
- The Asian American Journalists Convention in Dallas, Texas, August 9-11.