Archive for category Future of Journalism
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.
Hah! Sorry for the tease. Really, there will be a full blog post here soon. But in the short term, know this:
I’ll be presenting on Transmedia Journalism at the NPPA Business Blitz Road Show in Boston on July 14, in Austin on September 29, and possibly in two more cities to be announced. My co-presenters include my former student Matt Slaby of Luceo Images, Allen Murabayashi of Photoshelter and intellectual property attorney and photojournalist Alicia Calzada.
Registration info is here. Join us for interactive presentations on the future of photojournalism, the media business, your freelance career and the future of storytelling.
This is a sermon, so feel free to mutter an occasional amen or shout a hallelujah. And like any congregation of believers, you probably already know some of the things I’m going to say. But we are here to reinvigorate our faith, so please be seated while I take the pulpit, thump the mic and clear my throat.
You are living in the best time in history to be a photojournalist.
It may not seem like it considering the ever-present industry bad news. (Yeah, I just heard you mutter, “this guy is nuts.”) Old media is in trouble. New media is thrashing around for an economic model for news. Dayrates have been stagnant for a decade. Rights are being grabbed. Amateurs with cell phones are covering breaking news. Journalism jobs are going away. And this week Eastman Kodak slid closer to bankruptcy. But Horace Greeley, a 19th-century journalist and inveterate forward thinker once wrote, “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”
So what makes now so great?
To start, you have an enormous array of tool choices. For a recent New York Times shoot I eagerly packed in my bag a vintage-1948 press camera, a medium-format TLR and a DSLR. I used all three on the shoot, swapping sheet-film holders, cranking 120 through a Rolleiflex and twitching images through the pixel array of the little high-tech wonder alongside them.
We are now deep enough into the digital age that the quality of that equipment has reached heights we could have only imagined a few years ago. And with the recent and expected announcements of new gear from the big digital players, we are in for astounding advancements this year.
But we also have the entire world of film cameras to use, with all those delicious differences in look, point of view, depth of field and other things that make various cameras see the world differently. As Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, recently told NPR,“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” Today we can still use pretty much all of the photographic technology ever invented.
Yes, you can buy color transparency films in 620 and 127 sizes (hand-cut and rolled by a few dedicated souls) and new single-use, screw-base flash bulbs (from Ireland), if you’re willing to pay the price. Online you can buy kits to make cyanotypes, argyrotypes and kallitypes. You can buy the chemicals to mix any developer formula concocted or to embrace the silvery glow of a daguerreotype. “Everything that we have made in the past,” said Kelly, “is still being made somewhere in the world today.” And it is available to us thanks to the reach of the very same Internet that has upended our old business models.
In some areas there is even expansion. More black and white films are available now than there were in 1990. With their manufacturers out from under iron curtains or no longer forced to compete for shelf space with the big three film makers, more than a dozen brands of monochrome film are readily available. Some have been made in Eastern and Central Europe for decades.
My favorite leisure camera of the moment is a folding Kodak/Nagel Vollenda 48 from the 1930s. It takes 127 film (thank you, Croatia) and gives everything at which it is aimed the feel of the decade in which the camera was made. It took the place of a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. I love all of that variety. Sure, about all of it can be modeled with good digital technique, but art is in the process, not just the product.
And the latest round of digital technology has brought us fantastic ISO capability that will probably reach a usable six digits before we can say “existing light in a coal mine.” We now have rich color even on the extremes of exposure and more dynamic range than I could have dreamed a decade ago. Remember all those color correction filters we used to have to carry around just to get accurate color? Now they’re a button and knob on the camera or two sliders in your raw conversion software. Soon enough we may see professional light-field cameras that allow focus correction in post-production.
In an advancement that would make filmmaker/photographers like Robert Frank, William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Tim Hetherington jealous, we now have HD video available in our camera bodies with a sensor twice the size of high-end cinema film. The once high cost of entry into documentary film production has just dropped faster than one of Herman Cain‘s shoes.
The learning curve has become impossibly short as we can experiment furiously and see the result immediately. The digital age also means unprecedented speed of delivery. In the decade some have called the heyday of photojournalism — the 1980s — to get an image from a revolution in Iran meant sweet-talking a diplomat or a traveler into carrying your film on a flight from Tehran to Paris or New York. It was days from event to publication. Now with a satellite phone and a tablet computer a photojournalist can publish from Libya a split second after the image is made.
Combine the incredible power of digital photography with the variety of analog and you can do anything.
But what about that business model? Indeed the methods we’ve used for a century to make a living seem to be going away. They’re not dead yet, though, and that gives us time to transition and reinvent how photojournalists live on their good work. Almost a century ago a few business-minded photographers and a few German magazine editors created the freelance model we’ve used so far. They created that out of a vacuum that we don’t face.
Pieces of the solution for an economic puzzle are popping up all the time. In my 25-year career I’ve spent haystacks of money chasing personal projects that at best have returned break-even cash. We are driven to document whether we have a patron or not, and in the past that was just one of the costs of doing business. But now thanks to the Internet-made idea of crowdfunding a good project can have hundreds of patrons who may not only cover the cost of field production but also provide a little financial breathing room. Pay close attention to Emphas.is, Kisckstarter and IndieGoGo to see where that leads. Watch how photographers, agencies and collectives like LUCEO Images repurpose work for alternative venues and media, and then both make money and market themselves in the process. Frankly, you have it much easier than Jacob Riis did.
Keep your eyes on other media for answers as well. For example the music industry is in the grips of an economic chaos that looks remarkably like what the news media has been facing — loss of markets, lack of control over the means of distribution, ease of amateur production and distribution, and the free and open spreading of their product. Out of that, musician and entrepreneur Trent Reznor has figured out how to make piles of money from giving away most of his music. It’s the Nine-Inch Nail meets the Long Tail.
Like for Reznor, the Internet’s reach is a valuable tool for photographers to sell their work. Once forced to use agents and portfolio reps to market themselves, we now have — for better and for worse — the unfiltered channel of the Internet to find new buyers, collectors and clients. It is a crowded market out there to be sure. Everyone wields a camera, thinks they are brilliant and shares their images for free with everyone. But competition forces us to think harder, work harder and be better image makers to rise above all that noise. And this is not a new phenomenon.
When in 1888 George Eastman put the first point-and-shoot camera into the hands of the public, professional photographers across the land surely panicked about the loss of their businesses. But that and its cheap offspring, the Brownie camera, helped launch a century of stunning photography. Why should we be afraid of all the dilettantes? As photo blogger Jörg Colberg aptly put it, “Isn’t it funny that you never hear writers worry about the fact that everybody knows how to write?”
So here’s the most important fact to remember: Rather than killing the professional photographer, early 20th-century advancements allowed professionals to reinvent the art itself. In 1914 Oskar Barnack put some cine film in a new little camera he crafted in his workshop and the age of 35mm photography was born. Innovators like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Capa and Eisenstaedt were more than great photographers. They were revolutionaries who picked up surprising new “amateur” equipment, filled it with fast new films and revolutionized the way we see the world.
This is that moment all over again, where new and innovative technology in brilliant hands will change the paradigm. Like me you’ve daydreamed about shooting alongside the likes of those guys in the last paragraph and helping to redefine what photojournalism would be for a century. But this is your time, and you have the opportunity to upend everything just like they did.
Seize it. Foment revolution. Change the history of our art and our profession.
This is a cross-post with my additional new blog “Transmedia Journalism.” There I’ll be describing my research of the last year and continuing to flesh out the ideas behind it. Here’s what it’s about:
If you are here, reading this, you know that journalism is having some trouble. Not only is the economic model that used to pay for it sinking fast, but journalists are having a harder time reaching the public with their work in a very diverse and dispersed mediascape. This new blog and my ongoing research is mostly about the latter problem, though all of journalism’s woes are inextricably linked. Rather than waiting for the public to come to us for the news, we need to send our work down every conceivable avenue to find the public — new publics too — and win their engagement and loyalty. We need to improve the way we tell stories.
That is where the title of this new blog comes in. “Transmedia” is one of the top buzzwords of the past two years in the entertainment and advertising industries. It is proving to be extremely effective in reaching and engaging the public in those two realms, and there is much about it that we can put to use in telling the informative and factual stories journalists want to tell. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are using transmedia techniques to win more fans and engage them more deeply. That’s something we should want too.
Transmedia storytelling is not just convergence or multimedia by a new name. It’s also not an entity solely of the digital age. The Web is an excellent tool for much of it, but a transmedia story doesn’t unfold there or in any other single medium alone. It can, however, use any aspect of any media from the cave painting to the latest killer app.
Transmedia storytelling and the transmedia journalism I propose tells stories across an array of media — analog, digital and even brick-and-mortar — in an expansive rather than repetitive way. That would mean telling a complex story not only across the usual print, Web and broadcast media, but possibly through books, games, immersive experiences, graphic nonfiction (comics), gallery walls, museum installations, public lectures, public interaction and authorship, or any other medium appropriate to the story. It also means not simply re-editing a story for repetition among those media.
In entertainment it looks (briefly) like this:
Star Wars did it largely by accident. Starting with one film in 1977, the story proved so compelling and engaging that it exploded across the mediascape from films to comics, books, games, toys, fan fiction and video, and any other medium you can think of. Inspired by this, creators of The Matrix franchise in the late 90s designed a similar experience from the start, planning how their story would unfold not only on the screen, but continue through all those other media and more. Since the Matrix tale began more than a decade ago, other entertainment franchises, like the hugely successful Lost TV series, have successfully used transmedia storytelling design to rivet fans and put them to work finding, sharing and shaping stories.
As the new blog unfurls I will describe what transmedia storytelling is, where it comes from and how we can use it within the goals and ethics of journalism. It will come in both appetizer- and entree-sized chunks, but if you’re a big eater you can download the full academic paper. You’ll also see links there to all the pieces of important context and background on transmedia storytelling and transmedia journalism as they are published. Subscribe to the feed or the related tweets to know when there’s something new.
That blog will also be a hub for my ongoing research on the subject, and a place to air my and your related discoveries about it. Post links to interesting examples of transmedia stories from any industry, and send observations and suggestions my way. I’d love to hear them. And what does it have to do with photojournalism? I believe we visual reporters are very used to the idea of telling stories by alternative means.
This post is the barest scratch of the surface of what will come. Look ahead for deeper explanations of what transmedia storytelling looks like in the entertainment media — with many linked examples — places where journalism has gone before, and what transmedia journalism might look like — also with many linked examples. To start a deeper exploration go to the Contexts page there, and stay tuned to it is as the background and examples are posted.
The journalism profession is not short on experimentation with new ideas, new technologies and new storytelling methods. But they seem more like attempts to keep the publics they used to have than to find and engage new ones. I believe by adopting the techniques of transmedia storytelling, we can reach out to new readers, viewers, listeners and interactors in the media spaces where they already are, and engage them more deeply in complex real-world stories. It could certainly be easier than reviving our old model of expecting them to come to us.
In part 1 and part 2 I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:
- Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
- Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
- Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.
Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard than might be immediately apparent.
So let’s wrap this up with a ‘cambrian explosion’ of styles, where the photo essay was codified, scrapped and rearranged in a score of different ways, the portrait took on a whole new meaning(s) and what we reveal of subjects is less rigid. This is a period where photojournalists take the mandate of documenting the world and interpret it personally. This is the toughest list to assemble because the farther you look back, the easier it is to spot the innovators and revolutionaries. Sometimes it takes the length of a career to see what changes or new ideas a photographer brought to the profession. I’ll be conservative in naming people or groups here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t chime in. Drop a name or two in comments, with a few sentences about what he, she or they did to change the face of photojournalism.
Weegee — If being a newspaper or wire photographer was “feeding the machine” as has often been said, Usher (Arthur) Fellig fed it the morsels with the most gristle. As a freelance New York crime photographer in the 1930s and 40s, Fellig earned the nickname “Weegee” for his uncanny ability to beat the cops to a shooting. They assume he had his fingers on a Ouija Board to get there. In reality, he had a police radio in his car with a darkroom in the trunk, lived in the center of the crime in Hell’s Kitchen, and ran on the motivation of a paycheck. He was one of hundreds of Speed-Graphic-wielding freelancers plying the same trade, but Weegee had a rare sense of humor and irony in his images of New York’s underbelly, and Barnum’s penchant for self promotion. He was the star of a particular way of working that still includes many hot-spot-hopping freelancers and wire contributors. But he is the one that got the MOMA and ICP exhibitions, and yes, he would have pointed that out to you.
Magnum Photos — Magnum Photos is not the first photojournalism agency, nor the first group of photographers to coalesce. Magnum changed the idea of the ownership of images, insisting that the copyright of the work remained the photographer’s property. The prominence of the photographers who founded it — Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger — gave the cooperative and its subsequent members the leverage to change business practices in the profession of photography for the better. It remains the preeminent photojournalism agency, and the style of its members has influenced every subsequent generation of photographers and photojournalists.
W. Eugene Smith — Smith had the news sense of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the understanding of combat of Capa and the technical polish of Walker Evans. He is also our model of obsessive-compulsive, irascible and addicted artist of the real. But his greatest contribution was in the redefinition of the photographic essay. In 1949 he broke with LIFE’s script for a photo essay on a country doctor in Colorado to photograph what he saw (and a little of what he wished to see). That essay and subsequent ones on Dr. Albert Schweitzer and nurse-midwife Maude Callen reshaped the way we approach the long form of photojournalism. An essay on a Spanish Village under fascist rule is arguably the template National Geographic has followed since for covering a place. His last essay on mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, is one of the most powerful and complete reportages on the environment ever published. And his failed essay on Pittsburgh at mid century is one of the most beautiful, compelling and epic failures of the profession. He was also a compulsive audio collector, amassing thousands of hours of documentary sound from a New York City loft from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. His personality was a cautionary tale for how to act and how not to act, but his essay work will echo for the foreseeable future.
Robert Frank — While Smith was crafting the public, mainstream photographic essay for LIFE and Magnum Photos, Frank was creating a model of the personal photographic essay. On a Guggenheim grant in 1955, Frank crossed the U.S. photographing the world’s foremost power with the eyes of a foreigner. The Americans was an overtly critical look in the mirror for most Americans and flew directly in the face of Steichen’s contemporaneous Family of Man. Walker Evans was one of the few who saw the value in the images. “It is a far cry from all the woolly, successful ‘photo-sentiments’ about human familyhood,” he wrote. Where Smith’s stories may assemble virtual bullet points in the images chosen, Frank’s are personal, subtle and tease the emotions of the reader. Smith’s images were about the emotions of the subject. Frank’s work has influenced the craft as deeply as Smith’s and his approach has emerged in the work of others from Larry Fink to Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson and probably you. He is an artist, poet and filmmaker, and says he lost his Leica in 1962 and didn’t mind.
William Klein — If Frank’s work was about the distance and ennui of American society, Klein’s poked your nose and boldly stated that New York is Good and Good For You. His 1956 book by that name grabbed you by the shirt and dragged you into the streets of the city at close range, with very wide-angle lenses in a way that wouldn’t let you escape. Klein took that energy into the fashion world where he and a few others created the look of fashion images in the 1960s.
Elliot Erwitt — I once sat at JFK with a fresh copy of Erwitt’s Personal Exposures catching the annoyed glances of fellow air travelers because I could not contain the out-loud laughs as I paged through the book. As a journalist Erwitt is incisive, catching one of the iconic moments of the Cold War among others. But he is most notable for an irrepressible humor in his images that has never — to my knowledge at least — been matched by anyone. His work is a stream of dry and witty jokes, slapstick humor and uncanny timing.
Ron Galella — In class I often ask new students if they would consider the paparazzi to be journalists. There is no genre of documentary photography more maligned than those who chase celebrity the way Weegee chased murders, and the students’ responses reflect that viscerally. But if the moment be real, I argue, what’s the difference? The idea of doing it still makes my skin crawl, but I have to admit that it is the journalism of the low-brow we all crave from time to time. The granddaddy of these used-car-salesmen of the profession is Ron Galella, the paparazzo who would not let Jackie O out of his sight, resulting in lengthy legal battles. In one case he was given a requirement to stay 150 feet away from his favorite subject. The second required him to stop photographing her for life. Marlon Brando punched him in Chinatown. Sure, there were celebrity-following camera jockeys long before him and will be as long as there are celebrities. But Galella took dauntless obsession and anything-for-the-shot to new heights (or should that be depths?).
Josef Koudelka — There are a few regions where reality and magic blend in the eyes of artists and the words of poets. Latin America and Eastern Europe have both produced remarkable photographers whose work reflects the magic realism of Borges, Márquez or Llosa. If I knew eastern European authors I would include a few of them in simile too. His images of the rituals and lives of Slovakian gypsies are infused with the magic we imagine in their lives. They are intimate images the way Frank’s are, but the emotions come not just from the photographer but seemingly from the subjects themselves. And his work on the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 demonstrates a bravery fictionalized by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Sebastião Salgado — He began his professional life as an economist for the International Coffee Organization but soon drifted to photography through which he has documented the social and political circumstances of the people most directly affected by the production of that and other commodities. This is firmly in the traditions of Riis, Hine and the FSA among others. But what makes Salgado’s work different is a fusion of the magic realism of Álvarez Bravo or Koudelka combined with the compositional complexity of Cartier-Bresson, and a skill for revealing the dignity in his subjects, no matter their circumstances.
Mary Ellen Mark — Many photographers have relished photographing subjects at whom you might like to stare — Richard Avedon’s In the American West, Diana Arbus’ work — but Mark developed early a style that blends social documentary with the made-you-look quality of subjects on the fringes of society. You may sometimes be shocked, but you never want to turn away from her empathetic stories.
Arnold Newman — Until the latter half of the 20th century, the posed, formal portrait was as much about vanity as it was a document. Portraits reflected the Old Masters in style and composition more than they really illustrated the life or personality of a subject. Perhaps the greatest practitioner of the environmental portrait was Arnold Newman, who could coax personality from a subject and reveal it in a telling environment better than anyone. There have been portraitists who have lit better, composed better, been more stylized and flashy, but few have taught us so much about the subjects themselves.
Charles Moore and Peter Magubane — Few Western photojournalists ever find themselves covering strife and revolution in their own backyards. Both of these men — Moore in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement and Magubane in South Africa under Apartheid — photographed their own cultures, neighbors and backyards in upheaval. It is always more difficult to photograph one’s own world than it is to photograph the foreign. These men, and others like them such the “Bang Bang Club,” Micha Bar-Am and others in similar circumstances have had to turn the cameras onto their friends, neighbors and families to tell the story of a revolution, and in the process created documents that explain deeply from within the story itself.
Ernst Haas and Alex Webb — Color photography has existed since the beginning of the 20th Century, but it did not reach maturity until color print reproduction was common and affordable in magazines. Until Haas and Webb, color was a secondary element in a photograph — more detail, more reality but less so an element of design. However Haas made color a principle element of mood and emotion, and Webb uses it as a structural element of composition. For both, color was as primary a reason to make an image as the moment in the scene, the social or historical significance or other graphic elements of the photo. They see color better than their predecessors.
Annie Leibovitz — Whereas Newman was out to find and photograph the person behind the celebrity, Leibovitz developed a style in the 1980s of photographing the celebrity in front of the person. Her subjects reveal not their innermost selves, but the crafted stage persona they have all developed and that is the source of their fame. And like many styles and approaches, Leibovitz has been emulated with failure more often than success as many photographers strive for stylization over substance in portraits. In addition to the portraiture, Leibovitz also revolutionized the way we document celebrity behind the scenes with her complete access following the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s.
And who comes next? I see trends away from the crisp realism of the last century toward an edgy, blurred point of view that feels like the pictorialists taking on the subject matter of Lewis Hine or Robert Frank. Who is the progenitor of that mood or another possible shift in how we approach our craft or profession? I am just one opinion with one knowledge set. You tell me who comes next.
Please note, most images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.
This is a set of posts about inspirations and influences. I know you may have landed here following a search about camera equipment, but to quote Peter Adams, “A camera didn’t make a great picture anymore than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” Photography is about seeing and making any camera of any sort work for you. This post should cite many examples of that.
A “canon,” as used here, is a list. It may be a collection of rules from a religious authority or a list of the great books, music and art of history. This canon is a rough start on a list of the most influential photojournalists or documentary photographers (largely the same thing) to have aimed their lenses at the real world.
The idea came to me as I was looking for a favorite recipe the other day (poblanos en nogada if you’re curious). I went to the stack of cookbooks and pulled Raymond Sokolov’s The Cook’s Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know, and found myself wondering who or what would be on a photojournalist’s canon.
This could be approached a few different ways: It could be a list of great works, a list of great essays, a list of great photographers. I chose the last because great works or great essays can be isolated incidents in a career, or can be forgotten or never escape a small readership. Great photojournalists have succeeded in not only repeatedly producing great work, but in getting it seen by masses and collected by institutions.
Why bother? Everyone’s list may be different. Some will argue the merits of who makes such a list. Who am I to decide? But that’s the beauty of a blog. This is ostensibly a conversation, and I make no pretense that I have the final word. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments with a name and a few sentences to make your case.
And what do you care? For many, this should be a reminder of who influenced us to take up the profession whether they are on this list or not. For students of the art/craft/profession, it is a list of those worthy of some study. For all it will hopefully be inspiration to truly innovate in what we do.
In order to have a pattern and avoid excessive repetition of styles, here are the standards I have selected. He or she (or maybe they) should have:
- Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
- Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
- Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.
This isn’t as easy as it might seem to be. For example, take Henri Cartier-Bresson. Of the decisive-moment-layered-geometric-composition style is he the first? Or did André Kertész do all that first? Should Marc Riboud, also one of my personal heroes, be included? Or does his work stand firmly in the same genre as HC-B? The nuances and potential arguments are many. But what the hell. It’s worth a try. If you add to the list, make a point about why they were first or best at an approach. If I were just making a list of favorites, this would be a different sort of list.
In order to make this an approachable read, I’ll start with the first 50 (or so) years:
Roger Fenton — This guy may have been the first photographer to drag a camera into a war zone. He photographed the scene of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Crimea in 1855. Though until the 20th century photography was seen not as art but as document, Fenton may have been the first photojournalist. Granted, his ethics would certainly not pass even 20th-century standards, but he made a few long exposures on sluggish glass plates that for the first time transported viewers to the scene of a major world event.
Mathew Brady — Six years later this star American photographer arranged a similar thing. Brady was a studio photographer noted mostly for his portraits, including those of Abe Lincoln made — as many assume — by securing the president’s head to a metal rod so he could hold still for the long exposure. Imagine… “Excuse me, Mr. President while I strap your head in place…” But Brady packed up his studio onto a wagon and sent assistants out to the scenes of death and mayhem in the American Civil War, where they photographed aftermath mostly, because dead soldiers didn’t move. They did, however, make images of men posed in bivouacs and other situations where they could hold still for the daguerreotype plates. His crew, which included notables Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, and other period photographers also produced work in 3D for stereoscope viewers. Today we worry about shocking and desensitizing our readers, but back then they delivered the gore in 3D by selling cards in stores. To end this lengthy note, we might say Brady was as much the first photo agent as he was an early photojournalist, running a team of photographers to cover the war. Like Fenton and others of his era, the manipulations of all their images before and after the exposure are legendary. But as I’ve noted here before, ethics evolve. He should be on this list for his innovations. And in an end far too common on this list, he died penniless.
Eadweard Muybridge — Muybridge was as strange as his invented name and certainly not a photojournalist in any classic sense. But his work in settling a bet on whether all four hooves of a horse leave the ground at a gallop make him a seminal documenter of scientific phenomena. Following him one could easily include the likes of electronic flash inventor Dr. Harold Edgerton, obsessive railroad photographer O. Winston Link and photographers of the mechanics of the natural world like Louie Psihoyos or James Balog.
Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier — History is filled with white men, even though women and other races are innovating alongside the counterparts that have generally held the pens and purse strings. These two women came to photography relatively late in life, and broke gender presumptions to make extraordinary portraits on two sides of the world — Cameron in Britain and Ceylon, and Käsebier in the U.S. Their styles were rich, intimate, personal and beautiful.
Timothy O’Sullivan — This Civil War combat veteran, photographer of Gettysburg and one of Brady’s minions made his own distinct name by making some of the first best images of the American West. His romantic pictures of the mountains and canyons of the frontier arguably fueled western expansion by demystifying the region and romanticizing its beauty. On the other side of the planet a contemporary, John Thomson, was exploring China with a camera, for purposes of documenting the reality of that ancient culture for those back in Europe who could not go there. His images are not only beautiful, but filled with intricate detail and volumes of information. Would have National Geographic existed yet…
Edward S. Curtis — Curtis, funded with $75,000 by J.P. Morgan in 1906, set out to photograph The North American Indian. Making beautiful portraits of disappearing cultures was the superficial goal, but ethnologists and historians discredit his work for its romanticism over accuracy. Curtis sought the beauty in the subject and amplified it by dressing his subjects in elaborate head dresses and clothing inappropriate to their cultural history. Despite the fictionalized images, the breathtaking collection he made still provides a document of peoples making a transition into the 20th century and humanizes formerly maligned and belittled peoples. His images have echoed not only down the line of documentary portrait photographers, but in the work of fashion greats Irving Penn and Richard Avedon who made loosely real portraits of visually compelling cultures decades later. Curtis had a little-known contemporary who did a much more ethical-in-our-eyes job of it: Frank (Sakae) Matsura, a Japanese photographer who set out to photograph Native Americans in their daily lives then, often dressed in European clothes and struggling to adapt to a foreign culture. Gertrude Käsebier at the same time applied her formidable portrait talents to photographing Native Americans.
Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine — Riis started a tradition, continued by Hine twenty years later, of using the camera as a tool to document social injustice and grab at the hearts and minds of readers. As a reporter who used the camera to prove his point, Riis crusaded against immigrant living conditions in New York’s slums. Hine saw the camera as his principal tool, however, and used it to fight against child labor. Riis’ flash powder illuminated dingy dwellings. Hine charmed, conned and cajoled his way into mines and factories to photograph the tiny children working there. The work of both helped change old laws or create new ones to protect underprivileged citizens. Their work has influenced all that followed, from the Photo League to the Farm Security Administration and the photographers of the Civil Rights Movement such as Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson to any documentary photographer working for social change.
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.