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What photography can and should document

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Photography
Wordcount: 3017 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The social crisis of our time, however, calls for a redefinition of what photography can and should document.

Obviously, not all documentary photography has to be didactic in pointing to a possibility of social change. But there is a need for discourse among documentary photographers about the content of work, and its relationship to the social movements of our time.

The social movements of our day are more complex. It’s often harder to find the sense of political certainty which filled the vision, and inspired the dedication of these artists who came before.

Photojournalism relies upon the notion that photography captures an objective record of reality for viewers. Yet, at the same time, a clearly defined system of rules and conventions governs the professional practice of photojournalism, delimiting the range of appropriate images and shaping the form those images take. Paradoxically, news photographs are valued as neutral records at the same time that they are admired as carefully crafted pictures. Photojournalists earn kudos not only for what they show, but also for how well they show it.

Documentary photography was tied, historically, to both exploration and social reform. Some early documentarians worked, literally, “documenting” features of the natural landscape.

Others worked, like Lewis Hine for the great social surveys of the early part of the century. Their work was used to expose evil and promote change. Their images were, perhaps, something like those journalists made but, less tied to illustrating a newspaper story, they had more space to breathe in. A classic example is Hine’s image of “Leo, 48 inches high, 8 years old, picks up bobbins at fifteen cents a day,” in which a young boy stands next to the machines which have, we almost surely conclude, stunted his growth.

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Documentary photography supposed to dig deep, get at what Robert E. Park (a sociologist who had worked as a journalist for daily papers in Minneapolis, Denver, Detroit, Chicago and New York) called the Big News, be “concerned” about society, play an active role in social change, be socially responsible, worry about its effects on the society in which its work is distributed. Photographers like Hine saw their work, and it has often been seen since, as having an immediate effect on citizens and legislators.

Today, we see this work as having an exploratory, investigative character, something more like social science. Contemporary documentary photographers, whose work converges more consciously with social science, have become aware, as anthropologists have, that they have to worry about, and justify, their relations to the people they photograph.

Photographs get meaning, like all cultural objects, from their context. Even paintings or sculptures, which seem to exist in isolation, hanging on the wall of a museum, get their meaning from a context made up of what has been written about them, either in the label hanging beside them or elsewhere, other visual objects, physically present or just present in viewers’ awareness, and from discussions going on around them and around the subject the works are about.

Documentary projects typically go on for years, often focus on social issues rather than news events, and are usually independently conceived and financed by the photographer, rather than commissioned by a publication. Documentary is often assumed to be subjective, to have a point of view on the subject being investigated, but it is also presumed to be honest reporting and photographers in this mode do not generally resort to setting up shots. These sort of projects are sometimes sold in pieces to magazines but with the decline of mass circulation magazines like Life, the usual goal has become to publish the whole project in book form.

Photojournalism is used here to refer to the coverage of current news events in an extended format, both in the investigation and shooting stage and in the final story product which normally consists of more than one photograph. Because these projects are time-sensitive, they may take months but not years to complete.

Photojournalism is usually commissioned by a publication, such as a magazine or newspaper, but will sometimes later appear in book form as well. While documentary projects are usually driven by the personal interests or convictions of the photographer, photojournalism’s subject matter is generally determined by what is deemed news-worthy by the media.

The question of whether an image appropriately “reflects reality” is an issue that documentary photography and photojournalism has contended with throughout their histories.

The global audience is changing, and photography needs to reflect this in order to remain effective. Readers are disillusioned at the manipulation they are slowly becoming aware to via pseudo-documentaries on society and politics by filmmakers.

That the camera cannot lie is true only in the sense that the images it captures must have existed in one form or another at some particular time.

We are familiar with historical photos that have been retouched to include or exclude political figures. We are less familiar with the potential of new technologies for falsifying images, particularly those that appear in newspapers and magazines.

Photojournalism, photography that accompanies stories intended for newspaper and magazine readers, has a long and cherished tradition of truthfulness. The faking of photographs, either through stage direction by the photographer or through darkroom manipulation, unfortunately, also has a long tradition.

However, computer technology puts photographic faking on a new level of concern as images can be digitized and manipulated without the slightest indication of such trickery.

If the manipulation of photographs is accepted for any image, the public will naturally doubt all photographs and text within all publications.

Scoopt, the citizen photojournalism arm of Getty Images, claims to have experts who carefully screen images to ensure no digital tampering has occurred. As Far id points out, however, tampering is becoming increasingly difficult to detect with the naked eye—particularly for understaffed organizations trying to push through photos of breaking events.

Yet, human beings continue to die from war, murder, natural disasters; to be born, now in litters as large as seven or eight: to live in harmony and conflict. Newspapers and photojournalism have survived the onslaught of electronic media, continuing to report the human maelstrom of a global citizenry as if it were a vivid reality play m the midst of the non reality o turn-of-the-millennium culture. Almost drowned within media criticism have been the voices of those professionals whose appreciation of the subjective nature of observation and reportage has led to more sensitive and sophisticated practice of visual journalism. In daily practice, digital-imaging technology has led to increased awareness of the ease of manipulating visual reportage, in turn leading to higher not lower ethical standards. At the same time, new technology has made visual coverage faster, easier, and more prolific via digital distribution.

More and more photojournalists are asked to also be advertising photographers shooting fashion, food, architecture, portrait, and editorial illustration assignments. These assignments take photojournalists away from doing meaningful documentaries about social conditions in their community. These economically driven assignments are fuelled by news directors, publishers, and photographers who don’t necessarily distinguish between magazine and television commercial advertising and classic photojournalism documentation. When a young photojournalist is expected to split her time between news and corporate controlled images, it’s hard for her to take herself seriously as an on-call visual documentarian.

Issues and debates surrounding truth will continue as long as media is reported. Even with the saturation of so-called amateur journalists, there will always be motives of greed, a human trait that is undeniable in our society.

Some critics have predicted that in a few years, images — whether still or moving — will not be allowed in trials as physical evidence because of the threat to their veracity created by digital alterations.

Most consumers of the media can easily tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story. But sometimes the distinction is so subtle, only highly observant readers can tell the difference.

But no matter how the tools of journalism change, fundamental ethical concerns still apply. Displaying violent, sensational images for economic reasons, violating a person’s privacy before the judicial process can function, manipulating news-editorial pictures to alter their content, stereotyping individuals into pre-conceived categories and blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial messages were journalism concerns in 1895, are important topics in 1995 and will be carefully considered issues, no doubt, in 2095.

Now, as we witness the dramatic transformations to the print journalism industry, these questions not only reveal how the idea of visual journalism has congealed but also indicate the kinds of issues that both photojournalism practitioners and their audiences will need to resolve in a world in which the printed periodical is no longer the favoured institution through which these images are mediated.

Over the last fifteen years or so we have witnessed the emergence of new kinds of visual story-telling. Digital photography gave us instantaneous feedback; camera phones gave us ubiquitous photography; picture-sharing sites gave us a developing social milieu in which these instant and ubiquitous pictures could be shared.

As a result we have new formal models for presenting visual information. There is more documentary feature production than ever before. Still images are organized as slideshows, browse-and-enlarge albums, or in an irregular temporal flow. Reuters’ Bearing Witness: Five Years of the Iraq War is a brilliant use of multimedia that is not a linear display of images. These new formal properties will redefine visual grammars and inform how and of what photographers make pictures, but they will also be subject to the new contexts and frameworks that will continue to emerge.

The value of information increases not only when it is controlled and withheld but also when it is given shape and purpose, when value articulates with meaning.

We may not remember many of the facts that led to the brief student uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, but you can never forget the image of the lone protester standing defiantly in front of a line of menacing, green Chinese tanks.

Words and pictures become one powerfully effective communicative medium inside your own mind.

Professional photojournalists cannot be in the best places at the right times in order to capture events as they unfold. The future of photojournalism lies with the new breed of moral and aware consumers.

The Internet offers us the chance to reinvent photojournalism by enabling us to blend the best practices from still photojournalism, broadcasting, and independent films. The Internet permits us to blend still photographs with audio, text, video, and databases to make compelling content that is far richer than print or broadcasting typically deliver. This new world of visual story telling gives us a chance to reinvent the form and to adapt integration of various media types to tell the most compelling possible story. Visual journalism on the web offers the chance to tell narrative stories that speak powerfully to underlying truths of the human condition.

The traditional model of print distribution and direct editorial funding has been unravelling from the 1970s onwards, ever since weekly pictorial magazines like Life folded. This demonstrates photojournalism that required an editorial paymaster was in trouble long before the Internet was an issue or the global recession added to its woes.

It involves seeing oneself as a publisher of content and a participant in a distributed story, the form of which helps reshape the content of the story. Rather than just producing a single image or small series of images to be sold into another person’s story, multimedia on the web has numerous advantages for visual storytellers.

“Both media are time-based, as opposed to space-based. A print layout is about space — the eye wanders; the viewer controls the time and rhythm. Time-based, of course, means the show is driven by the audio and is viewed over time,”

“good slideshows, I think, have a very different rhythm than video — less literal. Slideshows need to lean on the strength of the still image — these punctuated moments in time that visually meld with the audio.”

As a result, photojournalism at the beginning of the 21st century find itself maturing beyond the naive idealism of early and mid-20th-centur positivism, and even beyond the dark cynicism of late-20th-century post modernism, toward a profound sense of purpose: Good visual reportage may very well be the only credible source of reasonably true images in decades to come. The heart of photojournalism is reporting human experience accurately, honestly, and with an overriding sense of social responsibility. The key to earning and maintaining public trust is increasing awareness of the process of visual reporting and its potential to inform or misinform.

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Published in Life magazine in 1937, Robert Capa’s photograph shows in one instant the suddenness and loneliness of an anonymous soldier’s death. It has been suggested that the photograph was either a chance occurrence by the photographer shooting blindly, or it was staged for the benefit of the camera. He photographed in China, on the beaches of Normandy, in Israel, and finally in Vietnam, where he was killed by a land mine./10 Capa consistently produced images with strong emotional impact and high technical expertise.

Those Capa images that have been chosen by his brother Cornell Capa and by Magnum to represent his life’s work emphasize the qualities of drama and heroism and thus have had a crucial role in sustaining the Robert Capa legend.

Robert Capa’s saying, often quoted, that “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” has helped reinforce the important elements of drama and the heroic photographer that have been emphasized in the Magnum style.

Capa’s most famous photograph, “Death of a Loyalist Soldier, Spain 1936,” often celebrated as the greatest war photograph of all time, creates drama with a close-up depiction of the moment of death and conveys a macho persona with the clear implication of Capa’s decision to place himself in close proximity to danger.

His choice of a type of lens that closely resembles normal human vision, probably around 50 mm, gives the feeling that we are right next to the soldier as he falls.

The fact that the viewer can see the landscape around and behind him indicates that Capa is clearly not hidden safely far away with a telephoto lens (which would compress and narrow our view of the background), but is closely engaged with the action.43 Capa’s photographs of D-Day where he is obviously in the surf with the advancing troops has a similar effect of dramatizing events by being as close as possible to the action, and thereby also endowing the photographer with even more daring and courage than the heroes of the moment, the invading soldiers, since he had a choice that the soldiers did not: to photograph from up close or from afar.

While many of Robert Capa’s photographs of war, such as “Death of a Loyalist

Soldier, Spain 1936,” do not seem particularly dramatic viewed now, in the 1930s they were hailed as “the finest pictures of front-line action ever taken.”44 Certainly, this kind of close-up view of war was relatively new to viewers who were more used to images of fighting’s aftermath. However, captions applied by the picture magazines certainly played an important role in the creation of Capa’s images as dramatic. As Fred Ritchin notes, Capa’s Spanish Civil War photographs were often accompanied by captions such as “In the Heart of the Battle: The Most Amazing

War Picture Ever Taken,” and “You can almost smell the [gun] powder in this picture,” and the most famous, “This is War!” in the British magazine Picture Post.45

Robert Frank’s book, The Americans. Frank traveled around the

United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955/56 taking photographs of people at funerals, on the street, at drive-in movies, in restaurants, driving cars.

Rather than rely on neat geometrical compositions to create abstract patterns, he focused on fleeting, contemplative facial expressions or included empty space to lend his photographs a sense of sad loneliness and of disjuncture between people.

In his photograph “Elevator – Miami Beach” the young elevator girl looks wistfully off into the distance as her rich-looking patrons blur past her out the door. It’s not possible to know whether it is her sadness the photograph conveys, or Frank’s.

While the documentary aspect of Frank’s work in The Americans is highly subjective, like much of Magnum’s own work, he uses the element of artistic expression to create a whole different visual style, leading viewers to conclusions about his subjects at odds with the conclusions drawn from work in the Magnum style.


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