Why does photojournalism addict us and make us want so badly to do this even though there are better ways to make more money?
The answer struck me when reading this recent book by Jane McGonigal. In Reality is Broken she describes the four defining traits that make a game a game. They are a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation.
McGonigal’s book is about far more than this (see her TED talk here), but reading that fired the Sylvania Press 50 flash bulb over my head. These qualities of a game engage us, tug us along in pursuit of the goal, challenge us to do it within the rules and then reward us when we’re done. That is all exactly what photojournalism has done for me (artistic expression and “doing good works” aside).
So what is our goal? We work to make an image that tells a story. That’s the simple goal. We could also extrapolate that to other grand journalistic goals like informing a democracy or bringing positive change to the world.
The rules? This is where I think photojournalism differs from any other kind of photography: We must do this within the ethical boundaries and best practices of our profession. We make images of reality unfolding — no alterations before or after the image is captured. The story must be grounded in facts (or truth, whichever term you prefer) and not deceive the reader. We also work to not misrepresent the subject. Their story must be told truthfully, no matter how flattering or unflattering that ends up being. That’s a pretty tight set of rules.
Feedback? We grasp our progress through a variety of means. First, we see the images we make and feel satisfied or dissatisfied with our performance. The digital age has sped this up enormously as we now see the result seconds later with a quick “chimp” of the image on the camera’s screen. Feedback increases when our editors use our images, our readers respond to them and awards judges honor them. The progression from shooting to Pulitzer medal tugs us ever forward.
We do all this voluntarily, as there are better ways to make more money, and more secure — even safer — professions available to us.
McGonigal also argues that the games make us happier. When we are fully engaged with a video game in particular we are inspired to play at the very top of our skill level. That can happen with a simpler game too, but video games are designed to keep pushing us further to better performance. When we reach that point we achieve what she and other researchers describe as “flow.” This term was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (cq that in a caption…) who described it in a book by the same title as, “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning.” In a Wired interview, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
I’ve been there as a photojournalist, when a fleeting moment magically erupts perfectly in front of me and I get it in a split second, when the subtleties of a story are unfolding for my camera, when I hit the focus on a sudden game-ending double play. I get it mostly when I am feeling happily challenged, or when I am reporting a story that may ripple through society. I feel it when I am working on the very edge of my skill level. And that, McGonigal says, is what a good game inspires you to do.
Also like the play in many well-designed modern video games where moral complexity is one of the features of the game, our work has nuance. Part of what drives us is that sense of social concern and the deep involvement with moral implications of our work. In order to advance and earn the feedback of the powerful image or the holy-grail “social change,” we must maneuver through thickets of complexity. Some might “score” most easily by being aggressive shooters, marching into a sensitive scene with cameras blazing. I’ve seen this more often than I like — a camera shooter inches from the nose of the bereaved victim scoring points with the illusion of intimacy. But the vast majority of us know that sincere intimacy ultimately wins for all involved. To earn those images we tread delicately and wisely, and earn our access to the story.
McGonigal argues that reality needs to be restructured to be more “gameful” and to keep us in a state of flow in places where we often are not — like when solving social or environmental ills or even while at work. I argue that photojournalism is one of the possibly few professions (bond trader might be another) where there are inherent gameful conditions that inspire flow. But perhaps we work in something more like a board game, where it is as much up to us to keep our flow as it is to the design of the game.
How do we do that? It’s probably different circumstances for each of us. And the lack of flow or engagement might be what we’ve long called “a slump.” I’ve had great editors who can inspire flow by encouraging the thinking and analysis that leads to great work. I’ve also had terrible editors who can crush flow in a single sentence. McGonigal writes at length at how game-world ideas can work in reality to inspire flow and the happiness and productivity it can bring. But one of the keys comes from another simple definition by philosopher Bernard Suits who said, “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
His point was that a game is about the rules and obstacles. Though it would be simplest to pick up the golf ball and carry it down the fairway to drop it in the hole, that game is less fun and ends too quickly. It’s a walk in a park with a lame purpose. Golf works because of its difficult unnecessary obstacles. In photojournalism we have a host of obstacles most of us would declare very necessary. But some are not.
A classic example of unnecessary obstacles was Jim Brandenburg’s Chased by the Light project where he made only one frame a day for 90 days. Few of us can imagine the self-inflicted pressure of deciding when in that 24-hour period to make a single shutter click. Is the exposure right? Is it in focus? Is this that moment? And yet most, if not all, of those single images are better than the portfolio work of the rest of the working nature photographers out there.
Technology has removed many of the obstacles that prior generations faced — making sports pictures with a press camera or twin-lens reflex for example. Making a usable image has never been easier. That’s great for me when the obstacles to getting the story-telling image come from the story itself. When photographing an emotionally intense scene, an unfolding crime, a fast-action sport or when needing to be stealthy fast, I appreciate equipment that is as invisible to me as possible. I have flow from the story already and don’t want the obstacles of difficult gear.
But not all stories are like that. When I am photographing something that doesn’t require those easy-to-use modern cameras, I find myself wishing I were making that image with my infinitely slower, much more obstacle-rich old press camera or my beloved Rolleiflex with its 12-shot roll, backward screen image and strange viewing angle. When the story is too easy, I crave mechanical obstacles. I want to feel like I am playing at the top of my skills.
The better way, most certainly, would be to find how that story can go farther, how I can go deeper into it and work at the top of my mental skills without the artificial obstacles of a leaf shutter or sheet film. But often for me, happiness comes from having the very unnecessary obstacles of quirky old gear, or the circumstantial obstacle of a foreign language, or artificial limit of one camera and one prime lens.
There is a great risk of semantic misunderstanding by describing our profession as gameful, to use McGonigal’s term. I would be cautious to describe it as a game because of how we too often see games as meaningless pursuits and time not productively spent. Photojournalism is a serious profession that enters the lives of people at both their best and their worst moments. To imagine a journalist as out to score points is both inaccurate and offensive. McGonigal does not argue we should make reality less serious. She argues that we should take what makes games work so well and apply that to reality.
Though photojournalism is not a game in terms of what that label may imply, it is certainly gameful. Perhaps that’s why we love it so much. And understanding those gameful characteristics may be a valuable way to keep ourselves engaged with our profession, out of slumps and working at the top of our skills.