Earlier this year I was interviewed by Spanish scholar and colleague José Antonio Gabelas Barroso and Lara Bernard of the University of Zaragosa. Today Gabelas posted the Spanish version of the interview on Entremedios, the excellent website of his journalism program.
The following is the English version, with Gabelas’ questions in bold:
Your career moves from photojournalism to the narratives transmedia related to journalism. Why this change?
Photojournalism does not occur in isolation from other media forms. It is almost always paired with words whether they are written or spoken. It is often sewn into complex multimedia forms such as video and cinema. I have long watched the whole media ecosystem though my specialization was the documentary photograph.
As I started my graduate studies I encountered the concept of transmedia storytelling while reading Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. This was 2009 and my mind was already very attentive to how journalism might respond to the incredible disruption caused by the internet. In Jenkins’ discussion of transmedia storytelling, I saw a method through which journalism could cease to “broadcast” and begin to perform “bundled narrowcasting.” Rather than attempting to deliver the same journalistic stories to all of the public at once, journalists could assemble a collection of narrowly targeted stories. A story network would be additive for those members of the public who saw enough value in the subject to explore more of the stories in the network.
The profession of journalism has more problems to solve than in the structure of its storytelling. Business models must be reinvented, ethical standards reinforced, and greater transparency of process encouraged. But the storytelling model needs change too.
In your blog, you reflect on multiple occasions about transmedia journalism, what is it that attracts you to write about it? What role does the image play in this new informative model?
Transmedia storytelling in any industry is not readily apparent to the public. Marvel, for example, doesn’t overtly tell its publics that they are the recipients of a transmedia story when they engage with Thor in a comic book, a game and a film. In the U.S. we would describe this as being “inside baseball,” meaning only those who play the sport know what you are talking about. Despite its ubiquity, transmedia storytelling is still something of a secret magic.
Most journalists are still unfamiliar with the idea of transmedia storytelling. We are a bit religious about what we do, often taking our production patterns and techniques as sacred. We unnecessarily tie our ethics to our practices when we should be tying those ethics only to the informative outcome. I felt the blog would help journalists begin to rethink some of those practices.
The image is as central to a transmedia story as it is to a single-channel one. Humans learn holistically, assembling knowledge and information from multiple sources that complement or contradict each other. Each broad media form —language, image, interaction, object, music, odor, flavor — communicates in unique ways with distinct advantages. The photograph is particularly powerful for allowing us to stare at a frozen moment that would otherwise be invisible, to stare at a moment and consider its impact. Video is much better at developing a narrative arc, but it lacks that considering stare.
In the current visual ecosystem, what brings the nature and function of the image as the bearer of meanings and information? Castells (1997) differentiates between informed, over-informed and uninformed, what are those who “only have images”?, do you share this opinion?
The misinformed or uninformed have always existed, suffering from limited exposure to information or selectively absorbing only the information that confirms fears or prior beliefs. There is nothing distinct about the image that fuels this, though. One can remain mis- or uninformed through language as well. We are able to see only what we want to see when engaging in any media. A well-crafted image can communicate quite deeply, and poorly or nefariously crafted words can communicate quite shallowly or deceptively. All media forms benefit from the intellectual and emotional collaboration of other media forms.
The image, like music, communicates emotion very effectively. The most engaging photojournalism capitalizes on this advantage, allowing us to feel the story along with the subjects depicted. Language more often communicates intellectually, delivering context and nuance. Though both are capable of either mode, the best result comes with their combination.
Is language alone better than image alone? Perhaps that is a subjective question that depends on the preferred mode of reception by the receiver. I have known voracious readers who I have found to be misinformed by a lack of emotional understanding. I have known those who “only look at the pictures” to form their understanding, and they lack the context or nuance of a situation. One person would argue that the context is most important, and another would argue that the emotional is most significant. In the end the situation of true “only have images” doesn’t functionally exist. Those who may say they only look at the pictures receive context through language and other media forms from hundreds of other places. The digital age embodies Ong’s concept of secondary orality, doesn’t it?
You’ve worked for several international media. Your photographs have been many times as cover in The New York Times. What does a photograph require of a cover, and a cover to a photograph?
A cover image must be a compelling window into another world (as in Barthes). It must attract the eye with a quick and compelling story that will draw a reader into more photographs or to a written story, video, VR experience, or other. It is an icon, embodying a collective understanding of the story. That can be quite dangerous if the collective understanding is at odds with reality; therefore, a photojournalist and an editor must be very careful in their selection.
It has always been said that “we read images”, however, in this second decade of the 21st century, we experienced an immersion in the iconosphere. Can we continue to maintain the structures, criteria and functions of reading with the images?
The concept of “reading” images is a lingering apology from an early time when images were considered inferior to words as a means of communication. My father was also a photojournalist. When he began his career, a photograph was only to be used to illustrate a point made by a writer. In an effort to argue against this early-20th-century prejudice, photographers argued that we also “read” photographs in effort to elevate the image in the perception of logophiles.
However, we do not initially ingest a photograph element by element, scanning left to right or top to bottom. A photograph is observed as a unit first and understood emotionally before a viewer will then explore its constituent parts if so moved. As we do with a text, we ingest the image and compare it to our understanding of world contexts, our own life experiences, prejudices and belief systems. As you observe in (Lazo, Gabelas Barroso, & Covacho, 2013) we do not consume any media in isolation.
This relates well to your observation of the iconosphere through a particularly salient American example — Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” of 1936. I write about it in Transmedia Photography (Moloney, 2018, p. 175). The image is an icon of an era. As such it tells us more about who we are than who the subject was.
This always has been a problem for both the producers and viewers of images. We producers must consider not only what we see in the moments before our eyes, but also what the distant viewer is likely to bring to the image. The viewer — though it is unlikely — should be media literate enough to know that they see the image through an individual filter. Photojournalists and editors are easy to educate on this. Viewers are not.
What processes, factors and functions have changed between the subject-reader-viewer of images in the analogue era, and the interrelationships that take place in the digital age?
Though manipulation of photographs is as old as the photograph, we lived through a period of naïve trust in images in the analog age. It was assumed to be too difficult to lie through photographs, therefore, they could be trusted. This, of course, was far from true.
The digital age has made the malleability of the photograph more evident to the general public. Digital manipulations are now far easier, and that has exposed other ways of manipulating photographs while the subject is in front of the camera. This is both good and bad, of course. The good is that the public is less naïve. Media literacy has taken a step forward. The bad is that images that contradict a viewer’s beliefs are often suspected of being manipulated, even if they are not.
What role does the image play in the toxic atmosphere of lies and postruth, what responsibility do authors, publishers, citizens have? How can they recover credibility, journalism in general, and photojournalism in particular?
Though this is an assumption not based on any data, I presume that the ease of manipulation has increased the number of manipulated images intending to deceive the public.
Responsible citizens of a democracy would hopefully confirm what they see through the multiple sources of information available on any subject. This requires time and some effort, though. There is probably a study out there that has determined what a tiny percentage of viewers of images or other content on social media undertake that task.
One of the very few remaining advantages “professional” journalists have is the argument that they are more careful, that their internal ethical codes and best practices are designed to limit error or deception. To seize this advantage would require greater transparency of the journalism process. We must be less of a “black box” mysteriously making the daily sausage. We need our readers and viewers to see inside the complexity of our process. This may also limit the impact that negative events like Jason Blair at the New York Times and others have on journalism’s credibility.
More specifically to photojournalism, both photographers and editors must make a more concerted resistance to the temptation to make or select the most dramatic image in favor of the most informative image. Photographers want viewers to latch onto and share their images on social media. “Click bait” images draw more attention. But this compounds the problem of trust rather than mitigating it. Lange’s image mentioned above does this. It is early click bait.
Before, sensory perception and direct experience was the way to access to information and knowledge. An empirical and experimental knowledge. Today the Big Data offers another type of information and knowledge. How does it affect this change in the access and process of knowledge, both the design of the algorithms and their interpretation? The images should be labeled. If you don’t do it, you are not in Google (95% of traffic in the West); if you do it, you are at the service of the computer protocols and the patterns and profiles generated by the algorithms.
This is merely a new form of curation. In prior generations information was first curated or filtered by cultural norms, deemed acceptable by tribes, governments or religions. In the Modern era it was curated and filtered by an editorial class that controlled access to the information markets — publishers in a simpler term. Now this role is taken by algorithms controlled by entities like Google, Facebook, WhatsApp and others.
When I was young I learned how to appeal to publishers so my information would get through to the public. Now we must learn how to appeal to an algorithm. In many ways an algorithm is an easier opponent, both for reporters of journalistic information and creators of disinformation.
What do you think about the following statement deserves?
“I am interested in the holistic approach, interconnected, and in the interpretative scheme, in which web content developers, interactive content developers and “lineal-story-telling” television producers can really work together, and they can really create something that is completely new, completely different. (Interview made to Krotoski, 2012, September 20) In https://docplayer.es/84364801-Palabras-clave-periodismo-digital-comunicacion-transmedia-hibridacion-de-lenguajes-audiencias-activas-ecosistema-digital-narrativas-transmedia.html
This is a good description of how I see transmedia storytelling helping journalism. Their creation, though, won’t be a single new “thing” but a logic for how the media we create interacts to inform the public. Disinformation purveyors are excellent transmedia storytellers. Journalists should battle them on these terms, or we will lose.
The use of second screens attached to the gift of ubiquity and mobility (laptops, tablets, smartphones), is it producing a new ecosystem mutation affecting producers and audiences?
This requires more planning by producers, but that planning is often neglected. The advantage of this change is that the public can double-source information if they are motivated. That act should be enabled and encouraged. This is a problem, however, for traditional media producers who depend on captive audiences for advertising. Without captive audiences such as we had in the 20th century, advertising-funded business models suffer.
Before the content was the king, today is the strategy, which necessarily passes through the platforms and their social networks, which segment, distribute and share content. Do you think this has already contributed to the creation of new journalistic formats? New stories?
Strategy is certainly important, and this is one of the core elements of effective transmedia storytelling. However, no story — no matter how innovative the platform, the strategy or the implementation — will be successful without strong content. The most technically innovative game, most interactive multimedia site or app, the most labyrinthine transmedia story will fail if the story is bad.
In your thesis Porting Transmedia Storytelling to Journalism (2011), you conclude that the stories that most lend to the transmedia story are those that obey long-term investigative journalism. Can you explain the reasons?
I have since reached a more complex conclusion. Transmedia journalism stories might be designed from the start, and here a long-term investigative piece lends itself well to the form. These stories can be serialized across media over time, and the timing and order of the interaction of the public is not critical. They are not “breaking news.” However, breaking news can be seen as a feral form of transmedia storytelling. When a disaster strikes, or a political event unfolds, the readers will assemble and contextualize the story on their own, through multiple sources in print, online, on television, through conversations online and off… Journalists sometimes build their own stories based on the work of journalists in other media companies: reporting on, reacting to, or correcting information they do not originate. If we step back from the single media company — such as the New York Times — we see reporting on Trump’s latest bizarre action or statement across many channels. Some are repetitive, others are additive, and the public assembles them into the larger picture.
Investigative journalists would benefit from designing transmedia experiences for their publics, bundling together targeted narrowcasts aimed at specific audiences. Journalists feeding a daily news cycle are benefiting more and more from understanding how their work interacts across the mediascape.
The portrait is one of the photographic techniques that arouses more emotions, it is the possibility of the subject to look through the eyes of the otherness, of whom it photographs, but also to discover himself from a external position that allows a scrutiny more effective and specific. As a professional photographer who has made multiple portraits, what do you think the human being looks for in his own portrait? And in the portrait of others?
A portrait is a game of Telephone. Do you know this game? Maybe Juego de Telefono? One child tells a brief story quietly into the ear of another who then passes it to the next. Once the story is told to the last child in line he or she is asked to repeat it. It never matches the original, and it is always funny.
This game of Telephone is evident in Lange’s portrait: First, the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, is aware of the presence of the camera and is holding herself in a way she would like to be seen. This may have no bearing on who she actually is. Perhaps she is saying to the world, “I am a thoughtful mother, concerned about when my delayed husband will return.” Dorothea Lange then sits in front of her waiting for a gesture and expression that communicates what she wants to say about the situation or the person in front of her. This may be a search for the iconic as much as the informative. Lange is likely looking to tell a wide story about the circumstance of thousands of people, not just the story of the individual woman seated in front of her. This argument is supported by the fact that Lange never asked Thompson for her name. She was not “this mother,” but “all mothers.” Then, when we view the image more than 80 years later we not only see what is in the picture, but what is outside of it, in our contextual understanding of the time. It summarizes for us the economic and environmental devastation of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in America. It is an icon, for better or for worse.
I have long felt that the portrait is the most dangerous photojournalism genre, even though it is the most common. When we view a portrait of another person we most often only see ourselves in it. There is too little information to “know” (conocer) the subject, so we imagine far too much about them. I think images of the subject in action, within the context of their lives, is more telling. Two contemporaneous images of mothers from Spain may illustrate this well:
David Seymour’s image is of a breast-feeding mother at a land distribution meeting in Estremadura also made in 1936, left, and Robert Capa’s image is of a mother watching an air battle over Barcelona in 1939. As with Lange’s image, both of the Spanish Civil War images show women beset by the circumstances of their time.
When we look for the first time at Lange’s image we imagine Thompson thoughtfully considering her own family’s plight and that of the nation during the Depression. We believe she is considering the same contexts we are when we view the image. However, she is most likely only thinking about the strange circumstance of being photographed. From the hidden faces of the two daughters we infer that the young girls are crying when they are more likely giggling. We only see the story we expect, not the very sparse facts that are in the photograph.
It is much easier to correctly interpret the images from Spain, however. In Seymour’s image we assume that the mother is concerned about her prospects for land to work and feed her family. Though we cannot be sure of this interpretation, the odds of it being correct are much greater. In Capa’s image we see a mother staring at an aerial battle and assume she is worried for her and her daughter’s safety. These two images invite us to consider the active moments the mothers are in. These moments represent well a specific time in Spain without obscuring the stories of the women in them. Lange’s image only invites us to consider the state of a whole nation and gives us too little about Thompson. Nonetheless most viewers of Lange’s portrait feel they know her.
Portraits we see of ourselves suffer different problems. Seeing ourselves in a photograph made by another photographer is much like hearing your recorded voice for the first time. As our voice does not sound like the one that resonates in our skulls, a photograph of us does not comport with how we imagine we look.
In the morning we get up, get dressed and stand in front of a mirror. When we pause to look at ourselves freshly coiffured and nattily dressed we freeze that self-image in our minds. We adjust posture, expression, stray hairs. Then we proceed through the day imagining that we still look like that. Then we see a photograph of how we really look and it shocks us.
This obsession to being reflected in a photograph is not a current phenomenon, it has been present throughout history, how and why has the technique of portraiture evolved?
I can only guess as to why the portrait is such a salient genre. There is likely a better historian of this to consult – perhaps John Berger? Barthes? I do guess that the reason is connected to our subliminal seeing of ourselves in images of others. We can view the person and form thousands of erroneous conclusions about who they are.
Our love of personally controlled portraits of ourselves is likely connected to our wish for immortality, perpetual youth and beauty, or perpetual potency. We want to freeze what we love about ourselves. We want to show others who we imagine ourselves to be, or who we wish we were.
The image has entered a new dimension through platforms such as Instagram, which seek not only to democratize photography, but this prioritize the ability to immortalize and document our lives, how much of all that approaches what for you is the photography?
This is not the first instance of the democratization of photography. In 1888 George Eastman disrupted professional photographers with the introduction of the Kodak, the first real amateur camera. In response, photographers had to improve their game to survive. They made content and art the most important aspects of their work where before it had simply been craft. Likewise, professional photographers now must become more careful and more interpretive. Now anyone can make a technically perfect image of very standard content and publish it to millions. Thus, the professional must improve his game.
Self-documentary has always been an effort of marketing more than true documentary. It appears most of us understand this and observe personal “stories” on social platforms as such: marketing.
This presents another problem though. If the images someone posts of himself and his family obscure the difficulties, tensions, ennui, then he might assume the images produced by professional documentarians are equally suspect.
Have social networks distorted image and photo concepts or maintained the same standards? Do we talk about a radical way of understanding the image or only of the modification of the communication channel?
Social networks have sped and scaled the distribution of true and unverified or false images, but so far I do not see that the image itself has fundamentally changed form or role.
History confirms that the image has been and is manipulated. Photographic editing programs facilitate this negligent practice that is used in depending on what contexts might alter political decisions and interventions, what control is exercised in the media to avoid this fraud? How can citizens be protected against possible manipulations from fraudulent information spaces or non-professional photographers?
Transparency is the key for professional journalists. Ethics codes, fact-checking practices, concepts of double-sourcing information, discussions of when and why a source remains anonymous, the process of image preparation and selection all should be available to the readers of any channel. This may be done through FAQ-like disclosures on a site where those processes are shown. On potentially controversial stories there could be notes about “Why we selected this image” associated with a story. Not all readers would believe this information, but over time it would go a long way toward improving public trust of professional journalists. Liars could, of course, lie about this too. Therefore, linking multiple external sources and journals in a story would facilitate public information verification.
Social networks have enabled the existence of a generation of youtubers, instagramers and influencers who have built around themselves, their image and their person, a media universe that project to their followers. His image is the main value that gives meaning and gives credibility to his words. We knew that the image was powerful, but why is this attraction by the image projected by an individual of himself so bestial?
Perhaps we model what we admire. As celebrities market themselves through social media by presenting fabricated images of beauty, success and satisfaction, we take up the same roles in marketing ourselves.
Most social media photographs are derivations. They repeat popular styles and genres. New photographers always begin by copying. It is a very long and strenuous trek to forming some originality in image making. Rather than an explosion of creativity and novel seeing in social media photographs I see an entrenchment of the cliché. Social media is likely more culturally homogenizing than the mass media of the 20th century was.
This can extend to why we market ourselves the way we do. We are copying the influencers.
Lazo, C. M., Gabelas Barroso, J. A., & Covacho, E. H. (2013). Phenomenological features of digital communication: interactivity, immersion and ubiquity. Sociedad de La Información, 25.
Moloney, K. (2018). Transmedia Photography. In R. R. Gambarato & M. Freeman (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Transmedia Studies. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.