Photojournalistic Uses of Images

Hi Ellen, I found your site during a google search and read your essays on photography. I am currently studying photojournalism and as part of my course I have to do an essay and have chosen to write on the following,

“There is no such thing as a photojournalistic image. There are only photojournalistic uses of images.” Discuss and make an informed critique on this.

I have a rough idea of what I want to say but wondered if you had an opinion on the subject? I think that it is a very ambiguous question and I am by no means asking you to write my essay but seeing as though you cover many subjects regarding photography on your site, I wondered what you thought of this one.

Anyway good luck with the photo stories and I hope to hear from you shortly as your thoughts will be welcome. ~Hayley

Hayley, I agree with the notion that there are only photojournalistic uses of images. 

The camera captures an image and then that image is used in some way for some purpose. Photojournalism, as you know, is photography that traditionally accompanies stories intended for newspaper or magazine readers. Today, as photojournalism resides more and more in web platforms, as well, the definition requires some modification because the Internet is far more immediate (and manipulatable) than the printed page.

In certain ways all photographs are staged. The photographer is there, in the scene, and the photographer then chooses to capture some small part of the scene to reflect their underlying mission.

One might, for example, be on a beautiful beach with lovely sand dunes and waves but with a small marine community just down from there that is woefully filthy. A conservation-oriented photojournalist would select a wide-angle lens to take in the filth so as to make a point; while the travel photographer would more likely ignore the filth and focus tightly in on the more beautiful parts of the same beach because travel photography is their mission.

It happens all the time. It is the perspective and the mission of the photographer that dictates the approach used.

Photographs do sometimes come to have a level of inherent meaning as a lone photographer consistently details a certain spectrum of life around him or her. Robert Capa, for example, produced a war-time portfolio of huge consequence in his lifetime by bringing his unique eye and perspective to everything he photographed in war zones that he visited. His stance was ‘photojournalistic’ for sure but his unique perspective also biased all that he captured on film. And his bias was quit predictable. Others could and did photograph very similar images in the same war zones but without similar merit because their perspective was different. Their mission maybe differed from his and their life experiences certainly differed from his. 

A photographer’s vision is globally impacted by the trek he or she takes through life. That vision is also impacted by the bias of the organization that he or she represents.

There is growing concern about the integrity of photojournalism as the digital technologies allow for more and more hands-on manipulation of images. Anyone with Photoshop CS4 or even Photoshop Elements software can effect significant changes to any image. Is this faking? Is this un-authentic? Were the activities in the dark rooms of old similarly un-authentic? 

The answer is no. How the image is used is the deciding point. If an image is used to somehow portray ‘truth’ then it should not be additionally altered – I say ‘additionally altered’ because the photographer [initially] decided to focus in on one thing to the exclusion of other things and so altered the landscape by doing so. 

It is impossible, as I see it, for a photograph to be wholly true because the mind of the person clicking the shutter button cannot be extracted from the image itself. They are one.

If an image is used to change minds in any way for any reason then it’s use is no longer photojournalistic. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there is no objective truth, that truth as we know it is always in the eyes of the beholder.

Take the 2008 Presidential election as an example of what I mean: the mainstream media was overwhelming biased in its approach to the candidates and, yet, all those photographs that accompanied mainstream media articles about the election were treated as if they were truthful. But when they wanted to downplay Senator McCain they simply chose to use photographs that caught him in a moment of doubt or indecision, NOT in other moments where his face and posture showed great perseverance and loyalty to his country, etc. The same went for Gov. Sarah Palin and Senator Clinton. AND for the then-senator Barack Obama.

The mainstream media selected photographs to tell their version of the truth. Is this photojournalism?

I think not. 

In my opinion journalism AND photojournalism as we know it died during the recent Presidential election. Professionals and students alike should to be dissecting this troubling fact with the goal of helping us learn something about ourselves from it.

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