Posts Tagged photojournalism
By the time the Aurora theater and Arapaho High School shootings struck my city of Denver, I no longer accepted assignments to cover mass murder. A churn in my stomach stopped me.
I covered my first mass shooting as a photojournalist in 1991: Two suburban Florida families were executed on the same night, likely by the same killers. I covered extrajudicial executions, drug gang slayings and police raids on slums in Brazil. I scrambled to two mass shootings on the same day at separate Colorado churches and aimed my lens at the physical and emotional devastation of their communities. By far the most affecting was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. I was on the scene with my cameras as it happened and on that unstoppable story for two years after.
Then at 9:27a.m. on May 25, 2018, I, my wife and all the other parents of my stepson’s Noblesville, Indiana, middle school received the following text message:
“Shots have been reported at West middle school. Reports of one injury. Police are onsite and school is on lockdown. Stand by for more info.”
I grabbed my camera bag because I sensed that the scuffed and worn camera gear would get me closer to my stepson. To the first responders I would look like I belonged at the scene. I could scan through my longest lens for Callum’s face.
Empathy is a key to successful photojournalism. I had imagined being in this situation every time I photographed someone actually in it. I needed to put myself in in the shoes of the subject before I could know what fleeting emotion, glance, expression or light to capture. This time I wasn’t empathizing. I was living it. To not know if a child you love is safe, to not know where he is, to not be able to soothe or protect him is terrifying.
I photographed as I searched, out of recognition of the dizzying fear and shock on the faces in front of me. The earth was being torn out from under us. I was photographing my reflection.
I finally saw Callum with my own eyes three hours later, through the tinted window of an evacuation school bus. I photographed him scrambling past military-armed police to enter the nearby high school gym. His mother waited there with hundreds of other stunned parents.
Through all of this I had not thought as a journalist. The images I made were loose frames captured reflexively rather than attentively. I hadn’t collected IDs of the subjects. After I saw Callum with my own eyes, 30 years of journalism experience turned on. I was angry, shocked, disgusted and I wanted to fight back. The tool I had for that was the photographs I had made.
My first call was to the New York Times, the client for whom I had photographed almost a thousand other stories. The email response was polite, expressed condolences that it had happened at my kid’s school, and declined the images. For the Times this would stay a short story on the web with a wire photo. That was all.
Journalists use the fatality statistics of mass shootings as shorthand for scale. This number is how we have come to compare events like Parkland, Florida, or the Pulse nightclub shootings with this one at Noblesville West Middle School. I stared at that e-mail, angry and incredulous. Mass shootings are now so commonplace that a high fatality count is the measure of newsworthiness. This shooting, according to CNN, was the 23rd such event of 2018, happening in the 21st week.
I knew from living within this story that the more than 5,000 people directly connected to this school would never be the same. One 13-year-old girl was shot seven times, in the face, neck and torso, before her science teacher took three bullets tackling the armed classmate. Both are alive and recovering. The child shooter awaits trial as a juvenile on attempted murder and battery charges.
Fatalities are unquestionably horrible. Those of us on the periphery can only imagine the emotions and pain suffered by the families at the center of the act. But being both the subject of this story and a journalist covering it made strikingly clear how our focus on the fatalities alone unwittingly leads to the ignoring of the larger emotional damage.
I observed this after Columbine, where the focus of reporting was first on the shooters and their parents, then the 13 fatalities and their families. The 24 injured students and their difficult recoveries received far less attention, and the city of Littleton was only covered as a hotbed of suburban dysfunction. Already by the next morning those of us covering the story could feel a palpable chill from the community for doing a job we considered important: to understand the tragedy, its causes and consequences.
At the time, this chill seemed to me to be solely the result of a few journalists behaving insensitively and aggressively in pursuit of the scoop. Now, as a member of a community that has also been forcibly ejected from its sense of self, I better understand the chill that borders on hostility. We do not want our friends and neighbors exploited for ratings or clicks. We want you to understand that the thousands of seemingly unaffected people on the edge of the story are also the walking wounded.
In 2016 and 2017, the FBI reports, there were 50 active shooter incidents in 21 states. In those events 221 people were killed and 722 injured — more than three times as many injuries as fatalities. To add the wider affected communities would raise those numbers to the hundreds of thousands, yet we scale shooter events by the fatalities as we add to the ever-growing list.
I was angry that an event I was so closely living would get limited national coverage. But my awareness of the role journalism likely plays in how these events are inspired also shortened my breath that day. Had my diligent, empathetic and careful coverage of Columbine for the New York Times contributed directly to a shooter opening fire in my own stepson’s school? Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, argues that this may be the case.
Five days later the New York Times published a story on the “seemingly contagious” nature of school shootings. It features a disturbing slideshow of images — many of them my own — identifying the visual vernacular of mass shooting photojournalism. “The phenomenon (of school shootings) is feeding on itself,” psychologist Peter Langman told the Times. “It’s gaining momentum, and the more there are, the more there will be.” In one paper, Langman mapped the influence of the Columbine shooters through a cascade of the style trappings they inspired in others. “We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Klebold also told the Times.
I had heard her observations several times before, and as I scrambled to get my pictures into publication on May 25 her sentiment gnawed at my gut. Was my son’s school paying the price for my own coverage of Columbine 19 years earlier? What if the work good photojournalists do to show the human toll of these events was fueling disturbed young men to repeat the Columbine shooters’ actions and bring glory to their own suicides? For decades we avoided coverage of suicide due to its correlated contagiousness.
Our coverage has led, positively, to such movements as Never Again MSD and has fueled and informed political and social debate for more than 20 years. We now better understand what drives these events, who may be likely to aim a firearm at classmates, coworkers or the other, and how to better react as a community when they do. Noblesville West Middle School and the community surrounding it handled the event and its aftermath with far more expertise than any other shooting I covered.
Despite those better outcomes, a debate over a fundamental change in news coverage of mass shootings appears in the pages of journalism professional publications since at least 2015: Should we publish the names and faces of shooters? Criminologists have argued for a decade longer that this contributes to a contagion effect, and the data they use to support the argument are compelling.
Prior to reading these arguments I, like many of my journalism contemporaries, would argue that the name is fact No. 1 in reporting. “Who” starts that familiar list of interrogatives. When two decades of my photojournalism students turned in photographs without IDs, I would flunk their assignment for failure to get the most basic fact. USA Today argued the same in a 2015 editorial. While acknowledging the contagion effect and the need for compassion for victims and their families, that editorial most strenuously argued that withholding names might lead to censorship or a violation of the public’s right to know.
However, these arguments put journalistic dogma before the thoughtful pursuit of professionalism. There are many precedents for journalists withholding unnecessary information, from FDR’s wheelchair to our decades-long avoidance of suicide and bomb threat coverage. We often use our journalistic dogma for good — to argue a first amendment right, to limit undue influence from the outside, to lend voice to the voiceless. But like all dogma, ours is also used as a lazy excuse for not thinking hard enough about what we do. We work too often on autopilot, arriving at the events, collecting facts, quotes and images, and publishing them simply because that’s what we’ve always done. The profession of journalism is far too important to not have constant reevaluation of practice, motive and ethics.
Other researchers argue that the media plays far less of a role than before or that campaigns like #NoNotoriety oversimplify a complex issue. But as a profession, we need to do better.
Professional journalists show their values through their actions. Ignoring a data-supported public concern on behalf of an aphorism like “the public right to know” appears to put our internal needs or wishes above those of the public we serve. Though anyone with web access may find a shooter’s name, it wouldn’t be us delivering it, repeating it and adding to his fame.
Journalism is far from easy. It relies on an instinct about when to put a neighbor’s pain on display for a greater cause of public safety or to fuel the fight against injustice or terror. The practice of journalism must constantly be rethought, however, balancing tradition and experience with the constant evolution of the world we cover.
A few days after the shooting, my wife and I found ourselves at a school lunchroom table with other parents. None of their children had been in the room and all were physically safe. Yet tears streamed down the faces of sleepless, stressed, unable-to-work parents lucky enough to mourn only the loss of a sense of security. They had lived too close of a call to quickly step back into their prior lives. We were all enormously fortunate — we didn’t have to bury anyone, sit beside a hospital bed for weeks, help a child through the intense counseling required after witnessing a horror.
We will recover, but we want you to understand that we exist.
This article originally appeared in the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter on October 18, 2018.
Henri Cartier-Bresson… Garry Winogrand… Helen Levitt… Robert Frank… André Kértész… William Klein… Jacques Henri Lartigue… Marc Riboud… Raymond Depardon… Elliot Erwitt… Joel Meyerowitz…
I started this list as I thought of who all the great street photographers might be. But I stopped early, realizing that in photojournalism (or any of its other pseudonyms) we all photograph life in the street.
Some of these photographers have made street photography the central aspect of their work, like Winogrand and Levitt. For others, like Frank and Klein, it is the piece of a complex work puzzle that made them most famous, or led to other opportunities.
It started when I was asked recently by student Danielle Alberti:
“The second you put the camera up to your eye, it seems strangers suddenly become very aware of you, and often suspicious. And because it’s in public, it’s rare that you’ll have enough time for them to relax. So we often find ourselves doing the subtle ‘lower the camera and hope autofocus works’ trick. Of course, when this trick works, I think it works well. But do you have any other street photography suggestions that might help when you want to photograph an interesting stranger without disturbing the scene (or pissing someone off)?”
This is a very common problem for young photographers (and old). We love how photographing someone pulls us into their world. But street photography can feel a bit more like an attack, or sniping. You’re often making images without explicit nor even tacit approval.
This is also the single hardest thing to which young students of photojournalism must adjust. Even those who have worked cameras for years grew up posing family or making live images of friends with whom they are comfortable. Then I come along and ask them to hunt. It’s an initially daunting task.
Many sense that the world has changed and the streets are meaner to a camera than in the past of Cartier-Bresson, Levitt and Evans. I do agree that there was perhaps a sweet spot, when cameras were familiar enough and photos not easily published in a way that the subject would feel harmed. There may be some truth in the idea that today, with the Web’s ubiquity and possibility, that any image can affect or harm you.
Maybe today, a camera can steal your soul more easily than before.
But I think this is only a partial truth. On any given street, in any time, you could find the camera-suspicious alongside the camera-nonchalant. The situation hasn’t changed that much. And official restriction on images has waxed and waned throughout photography’s two centuries.
So how did the greats act on the street?
Wait, watch, shoot. Cartier-Bresson was the cat. “Like an animal and a prey,” he said in The Decisive Moment, an educational program produced by the ICP and Scholastic in the 1970s. A nervous hunter, he scanned the world in front of him to anticipate the moment where something slight or something grand would unfold.
“That’s why it develops a great anxiety, this profession. because you’re always waiting… what’s going to happen? What what what what?
In photography you’ve got to be quick quick quick quick. Like an animal and a prey, braaam like this. You grasp it and you take it and people don’t notice that you’ve taken it.
I’m extremely impulsive. Terribly. It’s really a pain in the neck for my friends and family. I’m a bunch of nerves, but I take advantage of it in photography. I never think. I act. Quick.”
Cartier-Bresson was as subtle as he was quick, carrying one small camera and typically one small lens. He often saw a setting and waited patiently for a character or moment to complete the scene, making only a frame or two. “You shouldn’t overshoot,” he said. “It’s like overeating or overdrinking. You have to eat, you have to drink, but over is too much. Because by the time you press and arm the shutter once more, and maybe the picture was in between.”
Granted, now we have cameras that can make more than ten frames per second. How could you miss?
You miss by becoming a massive presence on the street. The big cameras that do that can be intimidating enough. But add to that the assaulting power of a motor advance ripping at you like a machine gun, and suddenly everyone feels attacked rather than honored by the image.
Indeed we may soon find that some of the most important street images are being made with ubiquitous and inoffensive cell phones.
If Cartier-Bresson was the cat slipping elegantly and unnoticed from portico to portico on the street, Garry Winogrand was the nervous, fast-walking, bemused, gleeful, grunting American bear rumbling down the sidewalk.
His approach was as different from the French style as his images were. He waded into the stream of street traffic and deftly snatched salmon from the upstream flow.
Joel Meyerowitz described working the streets with Winogrand in Bystander: A History of Street Photography:
“Yeah. Oh yeah. You know, he set a tempo on the street so strong that it was impossible not to follow it. It was like jazz. You just had to get in the same groove. When we were out together, I wasn’t watching him — we were both watching the action around us — but I did pick up on his way of working and shooting. You could see what it was in his pictures. They were so highly charged, all you had to do was look at them and you began to assume the physical manner necessary to make pictures. They showed you right away that they were an unhesitating response.
Walking the streets with Garry gave me clues to being ready, to just making sure that I was. I had been a third baseman, so being ready came naturally. I was a quick study on that stuff, darting and twisting and the kinds of moves that were necessary to get a picture.
You know, if you hesitate, forget it. You don’t have but a fraction of a fraction of a second. So you have to learn to unleash that. It was like having a hair trigger. Sometimes walking down the street, wanting to make a picture, I would be so anticipatory, so anxious, that I would just have to fire the camera, to let fly a picture, in order to release the energy, so that I could recock it. That’s what you got from Garry. It came off him in waves — to be keyed up, eager, excited for pictures in that way.”
Winogrand was so keyed up about making photographs that he is said to have left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 300,000 unedited images at his death in 1984.
With those numbers you might have expected him to have loved the motor drive. But he used the same little rangefinder cameras as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and others. He was just a relentless hunter.
He also moved quickly, pushing his Tri-X film to ISO 1200 and higher so he could shoot a 1,000th of a second shutter speed at f/16 and never miss a moment from blur or focus. He did this through much wider angle lenses than Cartier-Bresson. He marched down the street, straight toward his subjects and whipped up the camera the moment he or they passed. It was like a surprise punch. He wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t look and wouldn’t engage. He simply marched on with a bemused smile.
Of course, in my classes he would also be forced to engage with subjects in ways he didn’t. I require IDs and full captions to build reporting skills and skills of engagement with subjects. The game changes when you must shoot at, then talk to, a subject.
Winogrand’s work is amazing, visceral and live. But it did not need the journalist’s caption. “I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”
Helen Levitt, who died only last year at 95, had an eye for busy streets. Though the famously private Levitt said little about her working methods, she did tell New York Times photo critic Sarah Boxer in various interviews, “You’re talking about the past, honey. I’ve been shooting a long time.”
When asked if she followed people to photograph them, the nonagenarian said, I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t remember following anybody.”
“I go where there’s a lot of activity. Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.
The streets were crowded with all kinds of things going on, not just children. Everything was going on in the street in the summertime. They didn’t have air-conditioning. Everybody was out on the stoops, sitting outside, on chairs.
In the garment district there are trucks, people running out on the streets and having lunch outside.”
Was she disarming? Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tells NPR’s Melissa Block, “She’s very quiet. She’s like a cat — very slight. She moves softly. There’s no imposition of a mood or a tone or a need. If the picture didn’t present itself she would not have ever forced it.”
But Levitt did admit to Block that she used a right-angle lens from time to time, deceiving people around her about where her camera was aimed.
Perhaps Helen Levitt simply made a natural act of photographing on the street, analyzing not the act but the result.
So how do you roll, then, looking for Cartier-Bresson’s complex fleeting moments, Winogrand’s sanguine street document, Frank’s dark beat poem or Levitt’s sensitive and charmed glance?
Body language is everything. We have a choice of being quick like Cartier-Bresson, elusive like Winogrand, or disarming like Levitt.
Carry yourself with sincerity no matter what method you might choose. If you appear to have the right to be there with a camera, passers-by will assume you do. If you relax, appear to be having fun and mean no harm, you might be more easily tolerated.
Let your intent for photographing appear on your face. If you are charmed by someone’s antics, smile as you photograph. If moral outrage shared with a subject drives you, carry yourself with concern and sincerity.
Never appear critical, unless you are as big as Garry, as surly as Weegee or as fleet as Henri.
When caught, engage. Walk up with a charmed smile and explain who you are and why you’re photographing.
Be ready to share. Offer images to your subjects and they will feel less like they’ve been exploited. Give them your e-mail address. Don’t ask for theirs.
Expect the protective concern of parents. Children are one of the most fun of street subjects because they live their young lives with little restraint or self- consciousness. But thanks to the creeps out there, they may fear for their child’s present and future safety when someone makes a picture.
Photograph those kids just the same, if possible without affecting the scene by asking first. But as you do, glance around for parents, and if found, make eye contact as soon as possible with a nod and a smile. As soon as you can, introduce yourself and offer a business card and copies of the pictures. Proud parents will love the images and trust more the person who is unafraid to say hello.
If there are no parents apparent, ask the children where they might be and find them. If unfound, give the child a card, because Johnny or Mary will surely talk about “that nice bearded photographer with the sunglasses who took pictures of me in the park.” You’re asking for calls to the police if they don’t know who you might be.
But there is no specific recipe for success. You will surely find fun, pleasant and trustworthy people who feel honored by your attention. And even the most bright-faced young photographer with the biggest smile will encounter people accusing her of being a freak, a creep or a terrorist.
Get your street legs by photographing public events. People are not surprised by being photographed for no apparent reason at a parade, festival or event. Then take your confidence out to the everyday world.
Though you have a right to photograph on the street in the U.S. and most places, when you encounter resistance, apologize and walk away with a smile. You’ll never convince them of your rights anymore than they will convince you with their indignation.
Make those images. Explore the visions and moments of the street and leave a document of the 21st century as valuable as the one our predecessors left of the 20th.
…Michael Ackerman… William Albert Allard… David Alan Harvey… Werner Bischof… David “Chim” Seymour… Weegee… Edouard Boubat… Willy Ronis… Bruce Davidson… Jodi Cobb… Walker Evans… Josef Koudelka… Ben Shahn… Martine Francke… Roy DeCarava… Miguel Rio Branco… Leonard Freed… Antonin Kratochvil… Manuel Alvarez Bravo… Dorothea Lange… Marion Post Wolcott… Dan Weiner… Wayne Miller… Diane Arbus… Graciela Iturbide… Danny Lyon… Berenice Abbott… Martin Parr… Eugene Richards… Larry Towell… Alex Webb… Sylvia Plachy… Lee Friedlander…
Others have written at length on this subject and their work is a valuable resource. For further reading have a look at:
Bystander: A History of Street Photography, by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz
Thames and Hudson, London, 1994
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.
In the last post 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 that might be immediately apparent.
So here’s part two, the photographers that opened the 20th century. This is the generation of photographers who picked up the new small cameras that shot roll film and started documenting life in action. They created what we consider photojournalism out of a near vacuum:
Jacques Henri Lartigue — Lartigue picked up a camera as a very young boy and aimed it at his adventurous family at the end of France’s Belle Epoque. His best-remembered images are of auto races, early airplanes and cousins leaping in midair. His early images are of the fascinations of a young wealthy boy of the gilded age, but they show a joyful innocence unmatched in most documentary work. They are exuberant, ecstatic and defy the limitations of the photography of a century ago, capturing peak action and decisive moments with very slow plate cameras. To any child — which is what he was when he made his best-remembered images — there are limitless possibilities and no hard rules. His work shows the possibility in working without any adult-world-imposed constraint. He lived a long life, working as an illustrator and painter, then again as a photographer after his rediscovery by John Szarkowski and the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s.
Alfred Stieglitz — Photojournalism is inextricably attached to the art of photography, as we make thorough use of light, form and composition in our work to change the world. No single photographer or curator did more to battle for the status in America of photography as an art or to promote its practitioners. His own work is often documentary, capturing steaming horses on cold New York mornings, and street life on the edge of night much as his European contemporaries Eugène Atget and Brassaï did in Paris. He promoted many photographers on or linked to this list, from Paul Strand and Edward Steichen to Ansel Adams who, in addition to his famous landscapes, documented the Japanese internment camps of WWII. Though his photography career crosses the 19th and 20th centuries, his influence was strongest in the years between the world wars.
Edward Steichen — Few working lives spanned more interesting changes in photography, more genre of the art and more positions of influence than those of Edward Steichen. He began his career at the dawn of the 20th century by making an amazing array of portraits of the luminaries of the day, from J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt to Pierre August Rodin, Henri Matisse and George Bernard Shaw. His portrait style has resonated through subsequent generations from Yousuf Karsh and Philippe Halsman onward. That work moved him quickly into the world of fashion where his images helped define the styles of magazines like Vogue for a generation. Himself a WWI Signal Corps aerial photo veteran, Steichen volunteered for duty in WWII, was commissioned by the navy at the rank of commander, and formed a team of photographers to document the war in the Pacific. His team included notables Wayne Miller, Charles Kerlee, Fenno Jacobs and Horace Bristol, among others. His own images, made of combat when he was already in his 60s, are notable for their capture of war action and the strange, graphic beauty of naval aircraft carriers. On war’s end, Steichen took the position as the first-ever curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York he mounted the “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955 which gathered images from around the Cold-War-stricken world to illustrate his point that, “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself. And that is no mean function.” The massively successful exhibition helped define what photojournalism was at midcentury and influenced most of the work that has come since. Inclusion in the exhibition launched the careers of many photojournalists around the world, and the exhibition catalog has remained in print for more than 50 years.
André Kertész — Cartier-Bresson once said on behalf of himself and others of his generation, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.” Kertész started photographing in Hungary before WWI, and through his service in the Hungarian army in that war. After developing his style — one of intricate and graphic compositions, geometric patterns and decisive moments — he moved to Paris in 1925. His work there was warmly received, but in 1936 he accepted an offer to go to New York, both to work and escape the Nazi threat building in Europe. He stayed until just before his death in 1985. He was also an early adopter of small handheld cameras allowing him to catch fleeting moments and travel lightly. Kertész’ work is artful, perfectly crafted, subtle, delicate and deeply inspiring. In perusing it you can see not only his brilliant seeing, but premonitions of all that followed.
Paul Strand — Strand was not a self-described photojournalist and he is certainly better known as an art photographer. However he was instrumental in breaking the photography of the early 20th century away from the soft-focus romantic “pictorialism” of the day and showing that the power of the medium is crisp realism. He made powerful documentary portraits and photographic essays, and his art remained rooted firmly in the real world. And in anticipation of the early 21st century and visual journalists like Tim Hetherington, he was an accomplished cinematographer and film maker, documenting New York, the Spanish Civil War and the struggles of Mexican fishermen in his cinema career.
Erich Salomon — Advances in photojournalism come on the heels of technological advancement. From images of the still and quiet death on mid-19th-century battlefields to the galloping horses of Muybridge, film speed, camera handling and lens speed have all influenced the state of the visual art. But until the 1920s, candid, handheld photography with a small camera was a challenge. Though “press cameras” and SLRs had been around for decades, the first camera that actually allowed the kind of photography we now relish was the Ermanox. It was a 645-format plate camera with a focal plane shutter that could shoot up to 1/1000 second (also not new), but it had an incredibly fast f/1.8 lens. On that format it was as difficult to engineer and had less depth of field than a 50mm f/1.0 has in the 35mm era. Complicating its use was that the focus at that narrow depth of field was done simply by guessing the distance. The master of Ermanox use was Erich Salomon, a German Jewish law school graduate who introduced himself as “Doctor.” With little prior photo experience, Salomon picked up this new little camera (one nearly universally shunned by professionals) and started talking his way into venues where no one had yet ventured with a camera — courtrooms, political meetings, the homes of the famous. He always dressed impeccably, conducted himself with the manners of a person who might be expected to be at such scenes and made pictures either overtly or by concealing the camera. Soon his images were being published by Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung — a political weekly that had pioneered visual reporting. Salomon was fluent in several languages and a talented political observer. Politicians either loved him and invited him into their worlds, or hated him and worked to make sure he was spotted at scenes. He also pioneered the technique of handing over unexposed film with supplicating apologies when caught where he should not be, and keeping the exposed films for publication. Though he had considered emigrating to the U.S. where his images were also being used by the new illustrated weeklies, he kept putting it off until in 1943 he and his family were forced into hiding. They were betrayed by a meter reader who noticed the heavy gas consumption at the house where they were staying in Holland. Salomon was killed at Auschwitz in July 1944.
Martin Munkácsi — Munkácsi is perhaps most famous for making the image that inspired Henri Cartier-Bresson to drop a paint brush and pick up a camera. The image — of a trio of boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika — is his most often reproduced, thanks to HC-B. But behind that image is a career as an action photographer. In Europe before WWII he was the toast of the fashion and sports photography world. Anyone who assumes sports photography is only possible with autofocus and ten frames per second needs to look at his tightly cropped, shallow-depth, razor-sharp images of goalies diving for a save or polo riders in mid-strike made in the 1920s on 4X5 and larger plates. Skiers breaking over cornice lines, dancers in flight, and models in mid leap hallmark his work. He went to challenging lengths to get his images — laying in the surf with a bellows-focused camera to photograph swimsuit fashion in the 1930s. Like his Hungarian compatriots Andre Kertész and Robert Capa, he was drawn to the U.S. before the war, and like Kertész, he languished here among much less inventive editors and publishers.
Alfred Eisenstaedt — Eisenstaedt’s career began in Germany in the late 1920s with the illustrated press that arose there and ran into the 1990s for LIFE magazine, for which he was one of the first staff photographers in 1936. His last photographs were of Bill Clinton and family in 1993. He used small cameras from the start, making active images in low light on the heels of Erich Salomon. A few of his images are enduringly remarkable — Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels glaring with hatred, The V-J Day kiss in Times Square, a parade of gleeful children marching behind a drum major. But by today’s standards most of his images — though technically solid and timed well — seem boilerplate. We feel we’ve seen them so many times before. But what must be remembered in looking at his vast body of work documenting most of a turbulent century, is that Eisenstaedt didn’t have Eisenstaedt to emulate. He is the template for most of what we do. His journalistic sense was impeccable. Not only did he define the genre of photojournalism in how he worked, but he defined what it looks like to be a professional photojournalist. There is some Eisie in everything we do.
Henri Cartier-Bresson — He said that Kertész did it first and that Munkácsi influenced him. Can we put him on this list? I will argue yes, and not because he’s my hero of heroes. HC-B’s influence on all photojournalism since the 1940s is so wide and so deep it would be remiss to consider him derivative. His innovation comes from taking Kertész’ form and grace and combining it with Munkácsi’s timing to define that decisive-moment photojournalism and street photography we so love. He produced, directed and filmed documentary films during the Spanish Civil War and again in the U.S. in the 1970s. He fused high art and incisive journalism more directly than anyone before, and cofounded one of history’s most influential cooperatives to promote it.
Robert Capa — As seen in the last post, war photography was not new and the bon-vivant photojournalist persona was not either. But Capa amplified both to as-yet-unseen levels. Capa was a talented self-promoter, inventing a name with his collaborator Gerda Taro (also an invented name) to make his work seem more valuable to editors. He photographed and filmed conflicts from the Spanish Civil War to the Japanese invasion of China, WWII, and Indochina where he was killed in 1954. His gritty few frames of the Normandy landings on D-Day are some of the most iconic images of the biggest conflict in world history. His style and approach have influenced all war photography that has followed, from David Douglas Duncan to Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey and the late Chris Hondros. His high-stakes, high-living style has become the cliched image of the gambling, loving, champagne-drinking world photojournalist, so much so that Hitchcock fictionalized him in Rear Window. And on founding Magnum with Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger, he was instrumental in reclaiming rights to their images for photographers.
Walker Evans — We know Walker Evans mostly through his work for the Farm Security Administration Photography Program where he produced some of his most meaningful images. But Evans was an accomplished documentary photographer before he joined Roy Stryker’s team. More interestingly, he was fired from the FSA. Evans and his work are as straight as an arrow. He took the idea of documenting seriously, using large format cameras to meticulously correct perspective and distortion on images of simple buildings throughout Depression-era America and in Cuba. But his images are far from artless. They prove over and again that art does not need to come from gimmick or visual trickery, and that the subtlety of light, shape and content can send a powerful message about the state of a culture. SX-70 Polaroids he made in the 1960s presage even a current fascination with those films and their phone-app emulators.
Margaret Bourke-White — Bourke-White was not the first woman photographer, but she broke more glass ceilings and social barriers than any other. She was hired as a staff photographer for Fortune on the cusp of the Great Depression in 1929, was the first Western photographer allowed to photograph Soviet industry in 1930, and a staff photographer and author of the first cover of LIFE magazine in 1936. Like her contemporary, Dorothea Lange, she photographed the dire conditions of the Great Depression, and authored a book (with then-husband Erskine Caldwell), Have You Seen Their Faces. She was the first authorized woman combat correspondent of WWII. Her images of the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald are some of the principle historical evidence of Nazi atrocities. With Cartier-Bresson she photographed the partition of India and Pakistan and the violence it spawned, and made moving portraits of Mohandas K. Gandhi on the eve of his assassination. Her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, is a valuable read for any photographer.
Gordon Parks — Parks was a classic Renaissance man: A concert pianist, composer, photographer, writer, and filmmaker. There were black photographers before him, but none who elbowed his or her way through the discrimination of the day as effectively as him. He was born in Kansas and began his adult life as a railroad porter, but as a very young man he picked up a camera to photograph the plight of migrant workers. He progressed from that first roll to photographing fashion in St. Paul, which caught the eye of Joe Louis’ wife Marva. From there he branched to portraits of black society women in Chicago and on to documentary work about Chicago’s South Side in the Depression. An exhibition of that work caught the eye of Roy Stryker who gave him a fellowship with the FSA. His first images there struck right at the heart of how the nation’s Capitol treated its black workers. After the FSA disbanded, Parks moved to Harlem where he worked for Vogue and then LIFE where he was the first black journalist. He photographed Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali and produced a book-length essay on an orphan in a Brazilian slum. But that was just his photography career. He was also a successful novelist and poet, and wrote and directed the 1971 “blaxploitation” hit movie Shaft, for which he also wrote the score and popular theme.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo — Like others on this list, he described himself as a photographer, not a photojournalist. And like others he was a surrealist above all in the early 20th century. But his often political work brought attention to the struggles of a nation. His portraits, art and surrealism inspired generations of photographers from Tina Modotti to Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, Miguel Rio Branco and Cristina García Rodero. He was the first Latino photographer to rise to prominence, and he helped define the style of a hemisphere.
The Farm Security Administration Photography Program — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott. It was the dream team of documentary photography, assembled by economist Roy Stryker to photograph the plight of the American farmer during the Great Depression. The purpose was propaganda, really. But neither Stryker nor his photographers felt they needed to create advertising. The truth of the American economic situation spoke for itself, and as a result we have an incredible document of America at one of its most difficult points. Many of the photographs are the icons of that age, burned into the retinas of Americans born more than a half century after they were made. Most of the photographers went on to long photojournalism careers for LIFE, Look and other popular magazines. Mydans, who with his reporter wife spent time in a Japanese prison camp after the fall of the Philippines, made one of the iconic images of the Pacific War. Stryker carefully populated his staff to allow access to both genders and as many races as possible, to leave no group undocumented. Their work forms a template for cooperative documentary projects and expands on the social documentary started by Riis a half-century earlier. With every subsequent economic crisis, their work has been republished and emulated.
Please note, all 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.