Kevin Moloney

Kevin Moloney is a professor of transmedia storytelling at Ball State University's Center for Emerging Media Design and Development. He holds a PhD from the University of Colorado's interdisciplinary ATLAS Institute. His photojournalism work has appeared in more than 960 New York Times stories as well as in most of the world's major publications. He taught photojournalism at the University of Colorado for 21 years.

Homepage: http://blog.KevinMoloney.com

Maintaining Creativity Part C: Gamefully Employed

U.S. Highway 666, Sheep Springs, N.M. © Kevin Moloney, 2003.

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.

Modern Drunkard Magazine’s “Drunks of the Month” Andy Ayers, left, and Shorts McGraw share an inebriated moment of flirtation at the second-annual Modern Drunkard convention in Denver. © Kevin Moloney, 2005.

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.

Punta del Este, Uruguay. © Kevin Moloney, 2005.

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.

A stream of spits shoots from the lips of an idle rodeo cowboy into exactly the right spot in the frame. Caught with a Rolleiflex. © Kevin Moloney, 1994.

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.

Pushing my awareness skills to their top performance at a press conference. © Kevin Moloney, 2006.

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.

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Related Posts:

Maintain Creativity

Maintain your Creativity Part B: Ten Possibilities, Plus One

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What is a journalism school for?

New York Times picture editor Lonnie Schlein, left, photojournalist and educator Paul F. Moloney, in glasses, National Geographic photographer Joanna B. Pinneo, in yellow, and alumnus, Rocky Mountain News photographer and four-time NPPA Region 9 Photographer of the Year Darin McGregor, in dark green, critique the portfolio of student Sean McDonald, in light blue, for a photojournalism class at the University of Colorado, Monday, May 7, 2007. At rear students Theo Stroomer and Ian Kirkpatrick watch. © Kevin Moloney, 2007

 

Yesterday the final decision was made to close the School of Journalism and Mass Communication that is not only my part-time employer, but my alma mater. My father also taught photojournalism part time at this school and graduated from its predecessor College of Journalism at the University of Colorado. The old school will be replaced by a double degree in journalism and another discipline at the university, and details of how that will work remain vague.

Though I and many of my colleagues wish a purposeful change of how journalism is taught at CU would have unfolded differently from this, the decision begs an examination of what it means to have a journalism education. This may still be well served by CU’s plan, depending on how it unfolds. I am hopeful.

 

Paul F. Moloney lectures about sports photography to photojournalism students at the University of Colorado, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008. © Kevin Moloney, 2008

 

I would not teach at a journalism school if I did not value them. For more than a century they have been the training grounds of generations of the world’s witnesses (like all things for better and for worse), homes of the research that help us understand communications’ flows and the social life of information, and builders of confidence in an important profession.

However today not even the working profession of journalism — where reaction to the needs of the market and the social distribution of information is life or death — knows where it is going. Expecting the ivory tower to keep pace where the profession cannot is extreme. Regardless, I and my colleagues, though looking at it from different angles, have not shrunk from that challenge.

Professional journalism will always have skills that need to be learned, philosophies and standards that need to be debated. But in the end it is a profession of experience. Storytellers learn their craft by telling stories. Though my own education at CU inspired me to do the work of learning journalism, almost all I learned about journalism came from watching journalists at work when I was young and from doing the job myself. Journalism schools exist to plant the seeds of what needs to be really learned in real-world practice.

In the two centuries prior to the creation of journalism schools, the art, craft and professionalism of the time was learned through apprenticeship and experience. That will always be available where there is no school to set the stage. A true university education is about ideas rather than practice. It is about learning to think as the acting generally comes later.

Find your mentors in schools and out. And tell story after story.

 

Paul F. Moloney teaches sports photography at the University of Colorado, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011. © Kevin Moloney, 2011.

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Is Google Street View Photojournalism?

Site © World Press Photo. Images © by whom?

This year in the World Press Photo Awards an honorable mention was awarded to Michael Wolf, a prior World Press award-winner from Germany. Wolf’s entry this year was for a series of photographs made of the screen of his computer as he explored Google’s Street View, a service in which automated cameras mounted on vehicles trawl the world to present the street in virtual space.

The debate over the award (as is often the case with World Press Photo) is interesting to read.

The criticisms ring with complaints that they are not his pictures, that it wasn’t him standing there slicing those moments from time, that he’s not out in the world struggling with the rest of us.

These criticisms are a bit navel-gazing in that they are mostly about how we define ourselves as photojournalists, not in how we define what photojournalism does. The boys at dvafoto have an excellent post on these points. You can see Wolf’s comments and thinking in an interview in the British Journal of Photography.

Photojournalism (and photography in general) has a long history of overvaluing process when the only thing that matters is the result. What really matters to the reader? The process or the picture? The complaints smell a bit of “you took the easy way out.” That’s not a legitimate argument.

I don’t specifically care that Wolf chose to use the automated, surveillant and serendipitous cameras of Google. I also would not care had he used screen grab software rather than a camera to make the pictures. Using the camera here just smells of a strange justification and trying to find a way to make himself the photographer. The result is the same as a cropped screen grab but with lower quality. And as others have pointed out, screen grabs from surveillance cameras or TV have been published alongside what we consider “real photojournalism” for a very long time. (A notable difference is that these sorts of images have not won photojournalism awards in the past that I know of. Correct me in comments if I’m wrong.)

Wolf’s collection of images is fascinating, powerful, opinionated, curious and somewhat addictive. I like them very much. They are art as Girl Talk’s remixes or John Cage’s Chance Music are art. But they are not photojournalism. By presenting this work with a venerable photojournalism award, the World Press Photo jurors have declared them photojournalism, even when Wolf himself apparently does not.

My argument against these images as photojournalism is over the lack of context. As photojournalists we all know how critical it is not only to understand how an image we make or publish would be read, but also what the circumstances are surrounding those images so we can correctly inform the reader. We’ve all made photos sliced out of air that without context might mean something entirely different than the story we were there to tell. In our outtakes we all have images that might accidentally lie, and as photojournalists we have the responsibility to make sure those don’t see the light of day as journalism.

What is happening in these images? We can assume, but we cannot know. Wolf can assume, but he cannot know. He was not there to see the moment unfold and interpret its meaning. He could not follow up with the subjects to clarify what just happened.

Wolf uses the term “curate” to describe these images, and I think that is closer, but still not correct. He is collecting things out of context and interpreting them from personal experience, but not the background information. A curator has context and background from the maker of the images. Wolf lacks even that. An editor of photojournalism should also gather the background and context from the photographer/witness before publishing. Wolf can’t (realistically) do that either.

Our job is an imperfect one. We inevitably contextualize important events through the filters of our own eyes, our own lives and our own experiences. But we should do the same through the objective circumstances of the scene. It is the valiant effort to understand the scenes we photograph that makes us journalists. It is not the process we use to capture the images.

World Press Photo’s jurors surely knew this would be a controversial award. I find nothing wrong with Wolf’s work other than the label put on it by the jurors of the contest and by Wolf in entering it there. There are many appropriate venues and labels for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” but Press Photo is not one.

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Fame is Narrative

Photo by Vivian Maier, Linked from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

What makes the difference between a recognized artist and a dabbler, an amateur or a dilettante?

I am sure there are formulas, Ph.D. dissertations and many entire books on the subject. I’m not writing this as an expert, only an observer.

And I’ve been observing the case of Vivian Maier, a long-time amateur street photographer whose work was only discovered by accident in 2007 and attributed to her shortly after her death in 2009. Her images were uncovered by a few auction buyers who purchased her negatives and found themselves intrigued by the images. Through their efforts her work has since been published in blogs and international publications and exhibited by museums.

Photo by Vivian Maier, Linked from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

Much of what makes the work compelling is the story behind it — a reclusive and private nanny who never really shared her images and found recognition only after the end of an austere life.

That could be tragic. We all want to know in our own lifetime how our work is received. But then again she appears to have intentionally stayed out of sight. Maybe the tragedy is that we have thrust an intensely private person into the spotlight with our admiration.

Tragedy (and overcoming it) makes a powerful narrative. And that narrative, as much as her work, is what is propelling Maier onto the world stage as an artist. Other tragic photojournalism figures have caught our attention this way, from Robert Capa’s companion Gerda Taro to João Silva. Capa, Chim and Werner Bischof have tragic narratives in tandem with their great images. The story of young Dan Eldon’s death in Somalia would have lingered in our hearts and minds for a relatively brief amount of time. But he left behind his own narrative journals, and those were aired by his mother and sister in an excellent documentary on conflict photographers.

Drama isn’t the only propeller of narrative, though. Character plays an important part too. It’s very hard to think of a canonized artist who was not a great character. Georgia O’Keefe, for example, caught the public’s attention intensely after her work was interpreted as sensual or sexual despite her objections. With that interpretation, she became a character in the art world and more famous as a result. Then after moving to New Mexico in the 1940s she created an entirely new character of the reclusive desert artist. Rarely is her work seen without either persona in mind by the viewer.

When we decide to become photojournalists we are often choosing a character already — one of a world-traveling bon vivant as Andre Friedman and Gerta Pohorylle created in the invention of Capa and Taro. Or we imagine ourselves grizzled war correspondents like Ernie Pyle, artful cowboys like Bill Allard, sensitive investigators like Donna Ferrato, or artists of the ephemeral like Sylvia Plachy or Martine Franck.

Of course art is important. No amount of character can be made up for (for long at least) by a lack of talent. This brings me back to Vivian Maier. In a very recent article in Chicago Magazine, Colin Westerbeck, a former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and coauthor of an outstanding tome on street photography, said in an interview, “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.”

No, she doesn’t. The work is familiar even where it is compelling. It lacks, perhaps, the higher purposes of academic art where the artist strives for a statement, an irony, a challenge that may only be evident to academics or those who bothered to read the analytical preface of the book. In addition, she cannot control how the work is being edited now, so we see her gems mixed with frames she might have discarded.

Photo by Vivian Maier, Linked from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity. I’ve been watching her images appear on John Maloof’s blog since before her fascinating narrative began to unfold, and they had me from the start. Hers is the work of an artist who worked only for her own satisfaction. The opinion of friends, relatives, editors or critics was never sought. The images are wonderful because they are done only for her personal pleasure, yet they still surpass the work of a million other amateurs working contemporaneously.

Yes, she is an artist with a great narrative.

As much as we would hope our being defined as “artists”  is a result of our work alone, the art is only a sliver of the formula. What is accepted as art and who is defined as an artist is as much about marketing our narratives as it is about anything else.

In marketing that narrative we must also craft our work to the expectations of the critics, the editors and collectors who will buy it, or the academic analysts who will deconstruct it.

For ourselves, though, we need to stay pure and chase what intrigues and satisfies ourselves — all those others be damned — as Vivian Maier did.

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You can help support John Maloof and Anthony Rydzon in their efforts to make a documentary film of Maier’s life at Kickstarter.com.

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It’s not really thankless job afterall.

Sonya Robison, of rural Yoder, Colo., was attacked in 2006 at home and missed a couple of payments while deciding whether to abandon the home because of her trauma. She decided to stay, and negotiated a repayment plan with her servicer. Though Robison was current on payments, she went away for Christmas and returned to find the locks changed and the house "winterized." The electricity, gas, and water supply were all turned off. The servicer said it was a mistake, and they would cover the costs of turning everything back on. She suggested she just skip one payment. By the time she made the next payment, they sent it back and initiated foreclosure proceedings. But it turns out the party that's filed the foreclosure does not appear on any deed or note. She is suing the bank. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

Aspects of the journalism profession can seem lonely. Though we meet an endless stream of interesting and compelling people in our reporting, connection to our readers, viewers or listeners is mostly one-way. And though we now have comment sections on publication Web sites, those comments are rarely about our craft and even more rarely about the photographs. Comments tend overwhelmingly to be critical of the subject matter or the others who bother to comment.

I’ve always wondered what reaction my pictures might have, both for telling a story and for their craft.

Then yesterday I received one of the most charming phone calls of my career. An 88-year-old Washingtonian was compelled by an image I made to write a letter to the editor at the New York Times. And better yet, he sleuthed out my phone number and called me to read it to me over the phone.

The smile has yet to leave my face.

The letter:

Letters to the Editor
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, N.Y.  10018

RE: New York Times October 28, 2010 Business Page 1

Dear Sir: On the Times October 28 Business page is shown a photo by Kevin Moloney placed above a report on Housing Foreclosures.

This photo captures all the elements of an Edward Hopper painting of his late 1920’s period.

Looking into two windows of a house we see a seated woman before the left window – with a dim light on her coming through the window curtains. On her left is a brown desk or bureau with a small red object on top and the four rear window-panes provide photographic balance to the sitting figure.

The face of the young lady half in shadow, half in light evidences isolation, loneliness as well as sadness.

Turning to the adjoining apartment we see that the window is shut and the dimly lit room contains a bureau, with a green plant and an empty chair with curtains drawn. Our sight of the empty room with no person present emphasizes the isolation of the young lady in the adjoining room. The red object resting on the bureau in her room  balances the green plant on the bureau in the adjoining room.

From the outside, the two windows are framed in a blue paint line and both windows are united into a central panel by a flat surrounding black wooden frame. The photographic portrayal of the isolated individual in her dimly lit surroundings reminds one of  a Hopper painting.

Yours sincerely,
William R. Haley*

*As a graduate of Princeton ’45  I have had a continuing interest in art. In 1990 I endowed the James F. Haley Lecture Series at Princeton. The speaker earlier this year was the Director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Thank you Mr. Haley.

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The Importance of Being Present

A days-old portrait for the New York Times. Know your subject's story and feel it with them. © Kevin Moloney, 2010.

I was walking on a  beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.

I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.

When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.

We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.

There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.

That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.

Cattlemen's Rodeo, Okeechobee, Fla. Awareness and lack of distraction help your attention and catching a complex moment. © Kevin Moloney

Cattlemen's Rodeo, Okeechobee, Fla. Awareness and lack of distraction help your attention and with catching a complex moment. © Kevin Moloney, 1992.

But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.

We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.

It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.

Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster sheds a tear as she describes her boot camp drill sergeant and how that woman influenced her life. Hoster was suing the top-ranked enlisted man in the U.S. Army for sexual harassment. After talking quietly to her about her ordeal, I feel this picture was given to me rather than taken from her. © Kevin Moloney, 1997.

I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.

No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.

Another days-old portrait of a generous and sympathetic subject. Ease them into the situation that intrigues you. Be aware or your own preconceptions about the person and how that may alter how the reader sees them. We are ostensibly telling their story, not ours. © Kevin Moloney, 2010.

We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.

Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.

And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.

If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.

Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.

On the Niger River, Mali. Savor the incredible moments this profession brings you. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

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The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:

July 14, 1995

I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.

I watched people pass.

Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.

An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.

Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.

A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.

The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.

The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.

The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.

Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.

She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.

Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.

Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.

I turned back toward the other street.

A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.

The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.

“Um trocadinho?”

Angoon, Alaska. You may never have a chance to return to the fascinating and magical places photojournalism can take you. © Kevin Moloney, 2003.

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Excuses, excuses.

Economist

President Obama on the magazine cover and in the original photograph with Charlotte Randolph, president of a Louisiana parish, and Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard. Right image © Larry Downing/Reuters (hotlinked from nytimes.com)

I was unhappy to see today that Britain’s venerable Economist joined the ranks of other foolish magazines that unacceptably alter cover images.

Its June 19 cover features an image of Barack Obama in front of an offshore oil rig, looking as upset as Obama seems capable of looking. It’s a strong metaphor that fits their “Obama v BP” headline.

The problem is that there were two other people in the original Reuters image. And in seeing the whole frame Obama is not looking down in dismay. He’s gazing at cleanup materials at his feet or bending an ear to parish president Charlotte Randolph. The context for the downward gaze was entirely removed.

The criticism over the last two days has been justifiable, and the response from the editor in command as unjustifiable. Economist deputy editor Emma Duncan told the New York Times:

“I was editing the paper the week we ran the image of President Obama with the oil rig in the background. Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop). We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.


“We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.


“I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”

If I could bring her into my classes and ask her to comment on the alteration decision, I doubt she would survive long under questioning from students. I, like most of my colleagues, hope to train students beyond the simplistic “you just don’t do that” argument. Critical thinking is a key to good journalistic judgment, and rarely does the easy answer hold up.

Let’s look critically at Duncan’s reasoning.

1. “We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.”

First, intent is not evident to a reader. Her lack of intent to make a political point is irrelevant. You lose any argument that a decision is apolitical as soon as an alteration is made, because why else would you alter history?

Second, a puzzled reader is a simple thing to overcome. As Wilson Hicks, the venerable editor of Life Magazine noted, it is the combination of words and pictures that most effectively communicates. Few if any journalism pictures can stand alone without a caption. More puzzling than a mysterious extra person is the choice to put a deceptive picture on the cover of one of journalism’s most esteemed publications. Why would she want to erode reader trust by changing what was before the camera?

2. “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke.”

“Obvious” is the key there. Digital alterations of news images is a hot-button issue because as journalists we seek to not deceive readers. I frankly have no trouble with heavy-handed art made from news images in news publications as long as it is patently obvious to the average reader that the image has been rethought, combined with others or torqued beyond question. I have not seen that March 27 cover, but I would guess it is pretty clearly a digital mashup. But this June 19 case is certainly not so. They made this woman disappear in a way that Stalin would envy.

How many of you image-savvy professionals out there would have spotted this as an alteration? Would you flip several pages deep to hunt for the six-point credit that reads, “Photo Illustration by…”?

And if the average person did, would s/he think that the term “photo illustration” was anything more that a couple redundant words before someone’s name? (Having not seen the magazine yet I have no idea if they credited the image in this cryptic way).

It’s OK to be plainly, playfully obvious I think. But this was certainly not a transparent change.

3. “Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”

I think they did intend to bring out the central character here, and I can sympathize with that hope. I am sure their ideal cover involves a clear, simple graphic statement that acts as a metaphor or confirmation of lead story. Having seen neither the Chavez nor Obama Health Care covers, I can’t judge whether they were obvious enough for me. But removal of anything from an image is misleading and can be even if the image is only cropped. There was context behind both those heads, and perhaps even context cropped by the photographer as s/he shot the images. Cut-out images need to be as transparent as any other. Even if those two other examples were as clear as I’d hope, this June 19 image is not.

Here are some questions I’d ask a class:

How many images have been made of Obama? Of the Gulf oil spill? Of Obama at the Gulf oil spill? Is this really the only image out there that makes this point? Isn’t a better answer — one that would maintain the critical trust of the readers — to find a different image?

If all that is impossible and you feel the only image available would not work without being altered, then why not go all out? Why cop out with the simple removal of a person who was there giving context to that image when you could find a perfect Obama, a perfect flaming oil rig and make something infinitely more artful and obvious?

Caricature-like montage illustrations are a cop-out in my book too, but if there’s any place they work it might be magazine covers or opinion pages, so it’s a reasonable choice here — certainly better than this deceptive alteration.

This is an excellent example of why we should not alter journalistic images. Intent to deceive or not, the entire story has changed from the original to the final alteration.

4. “I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”

Then why is this the one and only image that could be used? Why was this frame so important that it needed to be deceptively altered? For me the resulting image says only that Obama is disgusted with the spill somehow. And that isn’t the true message of the original frame. The original Reuters picture says Obama discusses cleanup efforts with local and national officials. So this altered image lies. And if the story is about the damage to business in America, then this image is a total failure. No hint of that message is there.

Like every similar case I see, the excuses are simply excuses. When a publication decides to make an alteration to a news or documentary image it all comes down to laziness. They didn’t take the research time, the creative effort or the thought to find the honest solution. And the resulting justifications (of which there are hundreds) are simply poor justifications.

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