Seven insights for photojournalists from those on the other side of the lens

March 9, 2020

Cameras are virtually everywhere. In our pockets and purses, on our front doors, on police cars and uniforms, on buildings, on iPads students are issued in elementary schools, on robots scanning the shelves of supermarkets, on driverless cars, and flying overhead on drones.

Experts predict we’ll have 45 billion cameras by 2022 and that the current 3.6 billion images we make a day will continue to skyrocket.

There are a whole lot of images being made but not a whole lot of understanding of what goes into a visual representation — especially in journalism, where the stakes are high, the record is more or less permanent, and the outcome can alter the course of a war or topple a politician.

We’ve all likely posed for a selfie or smiled for a casual family snapshot, but visual depictions in journalism are a different matter. I tried to find out why by spending nearly six months watching camera-wielding journalists go about their jobs of documenting life as it unfolded in public.

Sometimes the journalists chatted with those they photographed or video-recorded beforehand, sometimes after, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes the interaction was extended and nuanced. Sometimes it lasted mere seconds. I waited until the images were published before approaching those named in the captions to see if they would talk to me about their experiences.

I eventually accumulated dozens of interviews with a wide swath of people of various ages and races. During these interviews, I asked them about their expectations of journalists, their experience being in front of the lens and how they reacted to the depictions made of them.

Here are some of the findings of my research, which I’ve compiled into a book.

Actions over aesthetics

Only one person I interviewed in my research said they cared about whether the journalist made visually interesting media. In contrast, dozens cared about how the journalist acted and what was done with the resulting footage. An unobtrusive journalist was the most prized, followed by one who interacted at a deep and nuanced level with those they covered.

Important, too, were issues of permission (even when not legally required), respect, accuracy, and representative coverage, that is, that decisions about whom to visually feature weren’t arbitrary.

Expectations grow with experience

Those who had been in front of a journalist’s lens before had more expectations and were also more likely to regard the experience as unexceptional, routine or unremarkable. Those with less experience accordingly had fewer expectations and regarded the experience in front of the lens as exciting and special.

Representativeness over impact

News values and subjects’ expectations can often clash. For example, journalists keen to convey visual impact will often use focal lengths and angles to fill the frame with their primary subject but, in doing so, can alter how the event is perceived by those who see it.

One of my participants, a 45-year-old park development supervisor who found himself in front of a journalist’s lens, noted: “The photo doesn’t really show the number of people — it almost looks like it was a one-on-one meeting and it was more than that. That would be my first reaction. The context isn’t great. It focuses on me and the map but it doesn’t show that we were interacting with a lot of the public.”

Be more than just a fly on the wall

Twenty percent of the sample had no contact with the journalists who documented them and a quarter said the journalists only asked for their names and nothing else. This often precluded a nuanced representation, and also robbed subjects of the opportunity to discuss ground rules with the journalist and to obtain information about intent and how the resulting media would be used.

People appreciated it when journalists obtained more than just a name from those they documented. As one of my participants noted, “I think it would have been better if the photographer had gotten a little more background instead of just my name. I think an extended interaction between the photographer and subject helps the captions and then the people who are featured in it get a better representation. For me, it’s like, ‘I’m there but I’m not there.’ My picture’s there but anything besides my name doesn’t really attach me to the group. To establish the history would be better than just a name.”

Safety in numbers

Being photographed or video-recorded as part of a group rather than as an individual was generally a more comfortable experience and made the subjects less reactive to the camera’s presence.

There’s no right to privacy in public — but people don’t always understand that

Privacy was more of a concern for older adults compared to younger ones.

A retired K-12 school administrator told me: “Older people have different expectations of privacy. We almost think we have this force field around us. Younger generations have been so immersed in technology that our experiences are completely different. If I get a new device, I ask my son or daughter, ‘Can you help me with this?’ I don’t want to spend the time but I also like what these devices can do. There’s a tension for people 50-plus. We’re more cautious and almost scared of what all these technologies can do and if we do one stupid thing, that someone’s going to capture it and it’s going to be out there and irrefutable, depending on the context it’s presented in.”

Inaccuracies, inappropriate subjects, and tough critics

The most negative features of the interaction were when journalists assumed or were sloppy and introduced errors into the resulting captions, or chose to feature people others deemed inappropriate as subjects.

Other negative features included being distracted by the journalist or disliking the published depiction, sometimes because of context-related concerns but, other times, because our perceptions often diverge from those of the camera.

“I always look heavier than I think I look,” one man said, while another man added, “For me, I’ve had a tough year medically so, clearly, from the images, I can see some of the effects of that.”

Key takeaways

It’s important to be able to understand the production stories behind news images, so that rather than merely critiquing or evaluating the surface representation, we get a better understanding of why certain aspects were rendered the way they are and why people feel certain ways regarding how they were depicted.

A fuller understanding of the process can spark conversations that result in improved media literacy and a more informed and civically active citizenry. It can also avoid harm and ensure depictions are nuanced, representative and context-rich.

T.J. Thomson is a lecturer in visual communication and media in the School of Communication, and chief investigator of the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

Editor’s note: Poynter readers can save 30 percent off Thomson’s new book, “To See and Be Seen: The Environments, Interactions, and Identities Behind News Images” (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019), through Dec. 31, 2020, with code RLI19 at