I’ve long felt there are three types of photojournalist out there. Which are you? Or two? Or three?
The Photographer’s Photographer
The Photographer’s Photographer is one who makes pictures for the approval of other photographers. We strive to best each other, impress each other, intrigue each other and feel like modern Cartier-Bressons.
The pictures that result from this effort are amazing in our eyes. They are complex, layered, full of “deeper meaning” or social criticism, and great light. They may even rack up industry awards.
But these images can also be baffling to our readers.
Through my career I have probably more prone to being this photographer than the other two types. I want to excite myself with my work, and my all-time favorite personal images are puzzles of serendipity, or light, or composition that may well just look like a mess to my neighbors. I often imagine non-photo friends wondering “why the heck is that on his wall? I don’t get it.”
The Editor’s Photographer
We live in an image-glutted world. Our modern job description goes beyond the old “just the facts ma’am” idea of reporting the news to also catching reader attention among the unfathomable number of images that cross their device screens, daily papers and HD screens each day. We all strive to make interesting pictures.
If our readers are glutted with images, think of our editors. They get all the same their readers do, plus the feeds of wires, agencies and pesky freelancers. They are buried in them and have a mandate to make their publication stand out on the rack or screen.
Often the most successful photographers in this business are the ones who know exactly what trend, what style, what look, what content is wanted by those editors.
These shooters make money, and we (as above) self-obsessed Bresson aficionados hate them for “selling out.”
I want to be this shooter as well. My freelance career survives because I try (not always succeeding, but I try) to make sure my editor’s needs are met. I need to make a living and I want to not be a bitter old hack when I retire.
But who should we really be serving?
The Reader’s Photographer
This post is an homage to this rare kind of photojournalist. The one who thinks only of the readers and what details and moments they need to understand and feel the story. No gimmicks. Nothing that can’t be read in three seconds of attention to the page or screen.
This kind of photographer’s images jump off the page or screen not just because of complex layers, cool trendy techniques, or moody toning. They jump out at the average person for their honesty, understanding, and ability to tell a story.
If you really want to understand what your readers want or appreciate in a photo, look at what non-photographers choose from among their own pictures or yours. It grants deep insight into what in a photo is valuable to your reader.
I know one photographer who is purely a reader’s photographer. Find his work here. And I don’t just say that because I’m related to him. He really does only care about what his readers think, and they love his images. He speaks directly to them — not around them, over their heads, or to only a select few of them.
How would you describe your purpose as a photojournalist? If you use that time-honored definition of “visual reporter,” or “visual story teller,” then aspire in this direction.
We have elements of all three of these photographers in us, and balance can add immense value to our work. I want to stay intrigued with my own work so I don’t burn out. I want to be proud of it. I also want to complete the job well, earn a living and get more calls from those editors. But if I am really a photojournalist then the readers should be the highest of my concerns.
#1 by Danielle Alberti on August 10, 2009 - 12:33 pm
Fascinating post, Kevin.
I’ll admit, the first time I saw that top image, I couldn’t understand your attachment to it, because it looked like a mess to me. But as I grow as a photographer, I love it more every time I see it. I too am a photographer’s photographer. I love getting a strong reaction from people who really know what they’re looking at. And if I can appeal to that audience, I think I’m more likely to get the kind of criticism that I need in order to improve.
But thanks to your post, I’m going to think more about the reader’s perspective. Though my current method produces images that I’m happy with (as I’m more of a hobbyist than an aspiring professional, my personal happiness tends to be a big factor), our first obligation as journalists is to the reader. And if the reader can’t appreciate our work, I’d also make the argument that we haven’t done our subjects justice.
Thanks again for another thought-provoking post!
#2 by Erin on August 10, 2009 - 2:21 pm
Good post, Kev.
I recently joined a popular photo mailing list thinking it would be a good place for feeback, but more often it feels like the internet bubble of trendy photojournalism. People congratulate popular posters and are quick to judge less popular or less experienced photographers. I appreciate criticism, but twice I posted stories and received comments from people that made it obvious they hadn’t taken the time to view the entire project, but took the time to give their opinion anyway.
It’s still helpful to look at other peoples’ work, and not all the feedback is so haphazard, but it’s silly to limit the value of an journalistic image only to what other photographer’s think.
There are plenty of images I love that are probably too artsy for a newspaper, but my favorite photos are the ones I know other people understand and appreciate. If I really like something, I usually show friends and family before throwing it out to the sharks. When on assignment, I pay attention to color and light and moments, but I also keep in mind what will tell the best story for readers. I like Paul’s photos of the boy with lots of freckles, and the same boy 40 years later, sans freckles. Simple and honest, and I’m sure Larry Silver loves the portraits. A trendy photographer would probably crop out his head from the nose on up…
#3 by Paul F. Moloney on August 11, 2009 - 6:49 am
Thanks for describing me as a “Reader’s Photographer,” Kevin. I shall always treasure this since you originally described me this way in your class at Colorado University years ago.
You pinpointed and made me fully illuminated of the ultimate goal of my photography. It was a moment and comment I shall never forget.
To this day and into the future, it is the stimulus that drives me to make pictures.
Erin, Larry Silver indeed enjoys the portraits, and we’ve promised each other to keep in touch via our rapidly developing e-mail technology.
Erin and Danielle, may your future in photography be chock full of satisfactions and clear communication of your feelings.
I remember so well when environmental portrait photographer Arnold Newman asked his Friends of Photography seminar students in 1985: “Tell me about your background and reasons for being a photographer?”
My first remark was, “I was a professional before I was a photographer.” He nodded his head up-and-down and meaningfully smiled.
Then I told him that my Greeley Tribune editor, Floyd E. Merrill, said a few days after I joined the staff as sports editor in 1956, that photography was in my job description, and I had limited experience or little liking for it.
Bless his heart, Mr. Merrill took very good care of my needs — a magnificent tutor and teacher.
We shall never stop learning, will we?