Thursday 23 May 2013

Defining "News Photographer" for the future

During recent photography workshops we have been running many of those attending described themselves as “a professional photographer working in the news business” while others described themselves as “photojournalists”. The title “Photojournalist” is an occasionally abused title but for those professionals who are attending our courses who communicate their picture stories to a sophisticated audience I think it’s quite fair for them to describe themselves as a photojournalist. 

I began to wonder, is there a difference? Is it just about self-perception or merely a name tag? Does a news photographer see themselves as a working professional who is given assignments and their job is to produce a picture to match that assignment? And is a photojournalist someone who actively chases stories or looks for new ways to illustrate recurring themes through photography and not just waiting for assignments? Both, and a mixture of both, at the present are valid roles. Or is it maybe time to find a new definition? But I am wrestling with the question “what future for photography in a news environment in the next five year and onwards?” and what status and role, will these photographers have? Before I could examine this further first I thought it was important to research the actual definition of the roles.

A quick look in the Concise Oxford Dictionary for “news photographer” reveals a blank as does a search on line. A search for the word “photojournalist”, the noun derived from photojournalism reveals a definition “1. The art or practice of relating news by photographs, with or without an accompanying text, esp in magazines”.

Words defined, I can continue with my train of thought and picked one of the latest breaking and ongoing news stories, the Boston marathon bombing, to use as a test bed for my thinking. Pictures from the bomb blast moved to the wires quickly. First it was video grabs of the explosion and then still images of the aftermath, Reuters had two photographers covering the race. Even more quickly pictures moved on social media. In fact most of the pictures you will remember are probably either shot by amateurs attending the race, citizen journalists or police hand outs intended to stem the flow of misinformation about numbers, names and pictures of those being hunted and arrest status. 

There are of course one or two notable exceptions of great pictures shot local professional photographers who were at the scene when the bombs went off. Rarely are amateur pictures shot at the same time as a professional pictures better – it’s not only about the technology professionals use but the well practised skills of reacting quickly, composition, focus, thinking about context, drama, shape and form and exposing well when shocking scenes are unfolding all around you. But it’s rare that professional photographers are on the spot – hence the unstoppable charge of citizen journalists and social media. The expectation now is that news consumers will see it all, the actual moment of news from explosions at the Boston marathon, an adulterous kiss, the nude royal to the last dying breath of fallen dictators such as Gadaffi, and of course all available free. 

So where does the rise and charge of citizen journalist place the professional news photographer? I suspect somewhere between the white rhinoceros and the Dodo in terms of long term survival. But it affords a true “photojournalist” a great opportunity.  If you look again at the definition of photojournalist  “The art or practice of relating news by photographs, with or without an accompanying text, esp in magazines” three words jump out, art, text and magazine. As a start replace magazine with tablet (I think the Oxford dictionary might need a quick update) and add two more defining words, sequence and in-depth. On this basis of art (good photography), text, in-depth and sequence of image you have the foundations of long form story telling – at Reuters we call them The Wider Image, a phrase we use to brand our in-depth story telling photography. 

For sure people expect to see breaking news pictures immediately; they want to be “in the know” and they want to demonstrate that ”knowledge” by sharing it. The power of this phenomenon was the driving force behind the Arab Spring affording everyone, with internet access, a voice.  Pictures from social media, whether they are accurate/unbiased/representative  or not (another blog another time) are here to stay – just have a look at the background of Matt Mills McKnight pictures from the May Day demonstrations. One person chatting on their phone, two others film as they amble by an arrest scene no doubt posted to social media within minutes.  

Seattle Police Department officers surround an arrested demonstrator during May Day demonstrations in Seattle, Washington May 1, 2013. Protesters clashed with police in Seattle on Wednesday as a May Day rally that began peacefully turned violent after dark, with demonstrators hurling objects at officers who responded by firing flash-bang grenades and pepper spray. REUTERS/Matt Mills McKnight

So, why my optimism, why is this an opportunity? Simple; news consumers are re-discovering that they want to have the breaking news explained and looked at in-depth in a way that is unbiased, factual, beautifully shot and sequenced to draw them into the story. They also want the source of the story to have credibility and principles of trust and accuracy. This gives rise to a market for thoughtful, intelligent news gathering and sophisticated photography – something that cannot be carried out by amateurs or on smart phones. Take for example the Tsarnaev brothers accused of the bomb attack whose ethnic homeland is the mainly Muslim province of Chechnya – readers want to understand the thinking behind the attack. What is Chechnya like?  What impact life in Chechnya might have had, if any, on the decision of the brothers to bomb Boston? Photographer Maxim Shemetov answers some of these questions with his picture story “Inside Modern Chechnya”. Another example – India is publicly examining the way women are treated after the high profile gang rape and murder of a woman and the more recent rape of a child.  Photographer Mansi Thapilyal documents the families who have suffered their children going missing backed up with facts and statics – a moving insight.  And a third example – is the global gun culture package; stories from Australia, Switzerland, Philippines, Germany, Russia, Brazil and the U.S. a visual attempt to try to explore nations relationship with guns. An attempt to look into why there have been proportionally so many more mass shootings in the U.S, including the shooting of 26 people in Sandy Hook Elementary school and following the political twists and turns in the lobbying for gun control, when in other countries where guns are almost equally available, these shootings are rare or non existent. 

Muslim men arrive for Friday prayers at the central mosque in the Chechen capital Grozny April 26, 2013. The naming of two Chechens, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings has put Chechnya - the former site of a bloody separatist insurgency - back on the world's front pages. Chechnya appears almost miraculously reborn. The streets have been rebuilt. Walls riddled with bullet holes are long gone. New high rise buildings soar into the sky. Spotless playgrounds are packed with children. A giant marble mosque glimmers in the night. Yet, scratch the surface and the miracle is less impressive than it seems. Behind closed doors, people speak of a warped and oppressive place, run by a Kremlin-imposed leader through fear. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Chandravati, 30, poses with trousers belonging to her missing three-year-old daughter Muskaan inside her house in New Delhi April 28, 2013. Muskaan went missing while playing in the neighbourhood on October 30, 2010, according to her family. Between January 1 and May 8, 2013, 725 children in Delhi were reported missing and are untraced, according to data from India's Zonal Integrated Police Network website. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal 

Police patrol in the Nordeste de Amaralina slum complex in Salvador, Bahia State, March 28, 2013. One of Brazil's main tourist destinations and a 2014 World Cup host city, Salvador suffers from an unprecedented wave of violence with an increase of over 250% in the murder rate, according to the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies (CEBELA). REUTERS/Lunae Parracho

Coming back to my original point of “what future is there for news photography in the next five years and onwards?” I believe it’s all about integrity, high quality, intelligent photography but backed up with sophisticated news planning, being prepared to cover breaking news, identifying developing news themes before they break, communicating your plans with your colleagues and background reading and research. And it’s also an opportunity to differentiate yourself and raise your profile as a photographer.  If a photographer thinks all these additional points are bureaucratic and old fashioned and has nothing to do with “proper” news photography and all they need to do is wait for an assignment or a story to break as they have always done in the past, I doubt they’d have read this far down my blog. If you think these points are an essential element to your photography whether you are working on an assignment you have been given, (even one as simple as company results press conference, a political change or even a major sporting event) or you are beginning to visually examine a developing news theme you have spotted locally, you are probably a journalist who uses a camera professionally. The future for you as a photojournalist, in my opinion, is bright.

All content copyright Reuters

All content copyright Reuters

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