It Isn’t the Rules

Although I found much to agree with in the article by VII photographer Donald Weber on Vantage, The Rules of Photojournalism Are Keeping Us From the Truth, which I certainly recommend you read, I think both the title of the piece and his conclusion are wrong. It isn’t the ‘rules’ of photojournalism that are keeping us from the truth, but, as he correctly asserts, the role which photography has come to occupy in the media which largely provides the framework of financial support for photojournalism, and which agencies such as VII depend on.

Photography isn’t used for storytelling, but to decorate the story that has already been decided on by others. Sometimes by a journalist for the newspaper or magazine using a picture, but more often by a media consensus of what the story is about, to which the individual contributions of both writers and photographers are sacrificed.

I think too there is a good argument that competitions such as WPP encourage what might be called the entertainment aspect of photography, images that are used simply because they are dramatic, becoming disaster porn rather than a real attempt to address the issues.  I used to confuse students by telling them that “photography isn’t about making pictures”; important though form, framing, shape, line, texture etc are they are not the end in themselves, but tools we use to communicate clearly our stories.

Its certainly hard to argue with his thesis about the coverage of the events in Maidan Square, where virtually all content focussed on a small choreographed area, the frontline, for which “a media pass was needed. To get a media pass, you went to the Media HQ, showed your press credentials, signed and got your ticket. That day, I was ticket number 230. 229 accredited press before me.” And probably many more after.

Towards the end of the piece he writes:

“What makes photography faithful is not laborious inquisitions into levels of image-processing. Well, that is part of it, but mostly it is our collective faith in the intent of the story.
Eugene Smith once said: “The honesty lies in my?—?the photographer’s?—?ability to understand.” It has nothing to do with aesthetic and technical execution of the photograph, but in the author’s integrity in developing a story.”

In the first paragraph he admits that what he calls “labourious inquisitions” into the image-processing is “part of it.” I don’t feel that the kind of inquiries that the WPP and others make are particularly labourious, and more than being part of it, they are the very foundation on which all else rests.  His comment seems suspiciously like special pleading on behalf of those photographers who have been caught with their pants down.

He is totally right about integrity (as I’ve insisted time and time again), and that must have as its basis such things as not adding or subtracting objects from the image or altering it beyond recognition. As well as not setting up images and presenting them as if they were not set up or obviously misrepresenting them in captions.

Gene Smith would certainly have got himself disqualfied from the WPP for some of the things he did in the darkroom, but these were essentially a minor area of his work. It is certainly hard to draw clear guidelines as to exactly how much is allowable, and in the end it is intention and integrity that matters.

What also for me lets down his piece are the photographic examples, some of which at least I think involve unacceptable manipulation, but I leave it to you to judge on that.

Of course reporting from events such as those in Kiev shouldn’t be limited to a small ‘front-line’ controlled and choreographed for the media, and its always easy to find poor photography of events. But I suspect there were some of those 229 photographers who got their media pass before him on the day he attended will also have photographed elsewhere – and indeed may even have left before he turned up to do so.  Obviously Weber, photographer 230, was himself not having a good day.

I’ve seen good photojournalism from Kiev – and so I’m sure have you. But I also know that many photographers who tried to go outside the predictable failed to get their work published. To find much of the best work from many situations around the globe you will have to look at alternative media and photographers’ own web sites. And perhaps some of the more specialised agencies, and even occasionally on VII where photographers follow their own paths rather than provide media fodder.

My heart sinks when I turn up at any event and see a large crowd of photographers – I covered one such yesterday when there were, certainly at the start, more photographers than the 50 or so protesters. Had I known it would be like that in advance I would not have bothered. But among the protesters I recognised many from the group concerned I’ve photographed at various other of their protests, where often there were only one or two photographers present, that hadn’t attracted the media circus.

It was very much the kind of event where when you see an opportunity and start taking pictures you suddenly find people on both your shoulders and working over your head, with others standing further back asking you to move back… And where every other picture has someone else’s lens poking into the corner of your frame. Usually with one of those red rings round it.  I’ll confess to one of my photographic ‘sins’ here – in a few pictures taken in such circumstances I have occasionally rather desaturated one of those red rings, cursing Canon as I did so. It’s something I think should be written into the rules of what is allowable for photojournalists.

2 Responses to “It Isn’t the Rules”

  1. ChrisL says:

    An interesting but muddled read. Trying to hit too many targets in one go I think. He seems to miss the real digital change disruptions.
    He correctly says digital has not given us visual progress, although that is arguable given the ability to instantly review and correct, but why would it it? It only substitutes one recording substrate with another, the cameras and lenses largely look and work as they always have. (but see new devices later)
    Arguably the disruptive digital change has been in speed of communication and the pressure that places on getting the image, any image, out quickly with not much time for getting storytelling involved.
    The second digital disruption he fails to address, although the 230 press passes tangentially alludes to it, is the ubiquity of the ability to record and rapidly distribute a photograph. The world is saturated with image makers using cameras of all types, tablets and mobile phones. Those all, with the notable exception of “proper” cameras have direct access to the world via the web. Yes that opens the the possibility for a considered storytelling approach which he argues cogently often requires more than a single image illustrated with, for some reason I didn’t grasp badly stitched, panoramas as an attempt to place a story in a single all encompassing image. But where is the market other than a self funded, travel etc.and created one ?

  2. Yes, aboslutely so.

    I’ve never been market-led, and have always really relied on other sources of funding, though needing to get some financial return from photography. I think that this has probably also been true of many if not the majority of photographers whose work I greatly admire over the history of the medium. Of course a few photographers have found very profitable niches outside of the commercial areas but generally the areas of photography that most interest me have not been particularly paying.

    Magnum squared the circle first by taking on commercial work such as company reports, then by chasing the art market, and others are of course going the same way (and I think that explains Weber’s poor examples.) Is bad photography good art is an interesting question and perhaps the answer at least sometime is yes. Or at least you can sell it for very high prices – both through the conventional art market or by doing a Peter Lik.

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