This article, The Rules of Photojournalism Are Keeping Us From the Truth, by Donald Weber of VII Photo Agency, really hit a nerve with me. My first training in photography was as a photojournalist. Then I began seeking jobs as a freelance newspaper photographer. One AP editor told me after a portfolio viewing, “Your pictures are good, but they are too complex to read well in a newspaper.” I thought about this for a long time, and realized that he was correct. And so was I. Shortly after that conversation, I stopped seeking to publish my images in newspapers, or calling myself a photojournalist.
Reality is too complex to read well in a newspaper- at least the kind of newspapers that we have today.
At the time of that fateful interview, in the late 80’s, the news was still primarily delivered printed on paper, or through three main TV news networks, but USA Today and the Gannett Corporation was in the process of buying out local news outlets, driving them out of business, and flooding the mediascape with a new brand of newspaper journalism- short, colorful, easy to digest, and entirely shallow in its look at current events. Newspapers had always used advertising to finance their product, but it was clear that this new kind of journalism was nothing more than a vehicle to carry advertising. It was also clear to me that this trend would soon change the world of print journalism into something that barely resembled it’s title- something that I wanted nothing to do with. Now I could extend this outmoded word “newspaper” to mean any kind of media outlet that reports on current events, whether it exists in physical form, or online.
I still photograph in a photojournalistic “style,” but feel it much more honest to avoid calling what I do journalism. Calling it “Art” may seem pretentious, but it admits to the idea that what one individual sees and records through a lens is a purely subjective vision, and can only tell the story of that person’s encounter with events from his own point of view. Images taken from a different angle, a different person’s perspective, or at a slightly different moment might yield a totally different accounting of the events. I don’t mean to imply that there is no place for photography of news, but just that it’s storytelling, not journalism.
What ends up getting published as news serves the publications’ editorial interest, is easy to consume, and is often calculated to tell a story in a way that will offend the fewest number of people, most especially the advertisers and their potential customers. Messy reality is simplified into easily digested morsels so that we can quickly move onto the celebrity gossip without losing our appetites for consuming the products advertised. The messy truth of what the photographer witnessed might later come out in a book, or art exhibition, if we are lucky, and if a real photographer was hired at all. This truth might not even be visible in literal photograph, but better expressed in visual metaphor that hints at the causes of the effect that it witnessed in the moment, or in an extended photo essay that takes the time to investigate the story in greater depth. Unfortunately, nobody in the news business has the bandwidth for the whole story.
That said, I believe that even though the profession of what we call “photojournalism” barely exists these days, what “photojournalists” do is crucial. They are bearing witness to history, and leaving behind a legacy that will carry our stories to the next generations. Too bad that what gets published in the moment rarely reflects the complexity of that history. Now that publications have all but abandoned sponsoring long form photo stories that can build a more complex understanding of events, we risk losing that perspective for the future.