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Seeing is believing. Show me.
It's no accident we have so many phrases describing how important images are to our understanding of the world. Even writers are told to 'show, not tell,” in their written accounts.
But few of us think much about the critical role of photojournalism or understand how photojournalists and editors go about their work. Today, Gazette Senior Photojournalist Liz Martin and Visual Journalists Jim Slosiarek and Adam Wesley discuss their craft.
What is photojournalism?
Liz Martin: I'm sure that I'm not the only one who bristles when someone asks me, 'Oh, so are you just a photographer then?”, because there's so much more to our job than taking pictures. As the senior photojournalist, I work with editors and reporters to help tell their stories, visually, not to just illustrate their stories - and there's a difference. Our goal is to help readers connect with the story and show them something they wouldn't, or couldn't, see otherwise, whether that's from the sidelines of a football game, backstage at a cultural or political event or spending time with a family fostering two teenage girls.
We write cutlines that help inform and draw readers further into the story. On stories that are highly technical, like in a research lab, it's even more important I understand what I'm photographing and how it relates to the story.
Jim Slosiarek: One of the best photo editors in the country recently passed away. Mark Edelson won the National Press Photographers Association's Newspaper Picture Editor of the Year nine times. His thoughts on photojournalism and the power of the photograph ring true:
'I start with the belief that words and pictures work together, with neither subordinate to the other, to tell a story. The words and pictures should complement each other, not repeat each other,” said Edelson.
'This is critical: The photographs we use aren't ‘art' - they're information,” he said. 'They may be beautiful, creative, composed perfectly, but the best ones tell stories; they inform and enlighten. You look for pictures that surprise, intrigue, entertain; show people what they otherwise wouldn't see - or sometimes want to see; bring them, at least visually, to places to which they don't have access.”
With digital cameras and lenses becoming increasingly inexpensive and ubiquitous, everyone thinks that they can be a photographer. To an extent that is true. A parent, for instance, can afford the same gear as I have, be given access to the sideline of a sporting event as I have. They can shoot the same action that I do, yielding similar photos.
What sets me and other photojournalists apart from parents with a camera is that I am always looking for photographs that tell the story of the game regardless if the 'home” team is winning or losing. I am a dispassionate observer. Deep down, I want our local teams to do well. It's good for business. Unfortunately, there has to be a winner and a loser. That's the essence of sports.
What elevates ordinary photography to photojournalism? For me it's the ability of the photographer to capture a visually interesting, storytelling image (or a series of images) that can answer the who, what, when and where of an event. The why usually is answered by reading the second sentence of the caption. If the story is long enough, the why can be answered in the photographs. A good photojournalist has a mind-set to be able to do this from every assignment over and over again.
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What are some of the biggest ethical considerations in photojournalism?
Liz Martin: The biggest ethical issue we run into on a fairly regular basis is walking into a shoot and having the subject ask, 'What do you want me to do?” This creates a very frustrating situation for us. Many subjects, and perhaps readers, assume that the photos in the paper are staged to some extent. But unless we're shooting a portrait or an illustration, we do not stage photos for the paper; we try to put ourselves in a position to capture the story as it happens. It's not unusual for us to reschedule a shoot to when a subject will actually be doing something. Even more common is to fall back on a portrait of the main subject. I once went to the DCI crime lab in Ankeny, expecting to be spending the afternoon with an investigator as she worked, only to be told that wasn't allowed, and that I would be shown a demonstration. I could either leave empty-handed, or stay and shoot the demonstration. So I stayed, and I clearly wrote in the cutlines that this was a demonstration done for my benefit.
And, of course, subjects joke all the time about me 'taking a few years/pounds off” in a photo. We may laugh in response, but, again, unless the image is explicitly an illustration (like Cliff Jette's fashion shoots), the final images you see in the paper have only been cropped and adjusted for brightness, contrast and color.
Jim Slosiarek: I've always considered the setting up of a photo akin to making up a quote. A reporter would never dream of doing such a thing. I feel the same way. I try to find times when subjects are fully involved in whatever the story is about, when they are animated and concentrating more on the task at hand than me.
Another consideration is digital manipulation of news photos. I always hear comments from subjects saying to Photoshop them to look thinner. Some are probably just joking, but I'm not so sure. I make a point of telling them that journalism ethics preclude me from doing any of that stuff.
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Do you think about the ways audiences will 'read” your photos - what meaning they'll take from them?
Liz Martin: This is definitely something I keep in mind. It's easy for the camera to lie; we can shoot selectively, at an angle that makes a room look more crowded than it is, or to choose the split second where the subject's expression changed for better or worse.
A lot of staging is happening behind-the-scenes before we even arrive at a shoot. For instance, most political events these days will position the media in such a way that the room looks huge and packed to the brim. Once I shot a photo of a protester holding a sign and I didn't realize until I saw it on the Jay Leno Show that the sign had a silly grammatical error. I had transcribed it correctly into my caption, completely missing the error on the sign, but the photo itself made the subjects look dumb.
It's important for us to understand our biases, too, as we work to avoid conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest. I've come to understand my own biases, and assign other photographers to cover events where I have a conflict of interest.
Jim Slosiarek: I don't think about how my photos are viewed by readers. My responsibility is to the person or people I photograph; to record moments in their lives as accurately as I can. If through my photos someone decides to donate money to one of them (this actually happened) or maybe volunteer or get involved, I call them a good job.
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How do you choose images that tell the story? What are the limitations? What do you wish audiences would keep in mind?
Adam Wesley: One criticism I have read of media coverage in Baltimore this week is that the chosen imagery has been largely of violent protesters and their interactions with the riot police (tear gas, arrests, looting, etc.) and that the estimated 10,000 people who participated in a peaceful march were largely 'ignored.” The balance to strike here is, while rioting and looting should by photographed and reported, is it really the major narrative of the story? This is a complicated decision-making process, especially in this kind of a story that involves race relations, poverty, urban policing and other issues. This highlights the importance of an editing process involving photographers, photo editors, news editors, etc.
'Shoot everything, you never know what you will need” is a piece of advice I received during college from multiple photojournalists. It is a photojournalists job to gather as much variety in their images as possible. This gives editors the best range of choices when deciding what is the most news worthy photo when the print deadline comes around. This also highlights the importance of having news editors and photo editors that work closely together, combining their areas of expertise to make sure the best images go to print.
Imagery in photojournalism should strive to represent the big picture, to give readers an idea of the main narrative of the events.
Which photo runs across the cover of the newspaper is a matter of debate every time a big news event occurs. These debates emphasize the deliberate editing process that should exist in the newsroom at all times so that the photos that end up in print best represent events to readers.
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