Donald Weber wrote an essay in March 2015 on the state of photojournalism today. Weber is a World Press Photo juror and a member of VII Agency. Despite the problems World Press Photo has had in recent years, it remains a very prestigious competition.
In the essay, Weber lamented the death of photojournalism has he knew it and as he learned it. And he is correct.
The New York Times Lens blog, in October 2015, posted a piece outlining that staging or faking of photojournalistic images is widespread. The blog has had other articles discussing the declining ethics in photojournalism. The video of a photographer instructing a little girl how to pose in the aftermath of the Brussels bombings has further called into question the ethics and quality of photojournalism today.
In November 2015, Reuters sent a note to freelancers announcing a change in policy. The service would no longer accept images converted from RAW files. Going forward, freelancers were only to submit images that had been created as JPEGs in camera. Reuters noted two reasons for the change. First was timeliness. The feeling being that an in camera JPEG would require less post-processing, would be able to be transmitted to the organization more quickly and, thus, made available for licensing more quickly. The second stated reason was to try to minimize the incentive to work on images in post-processing and do things that were unethical; like cloning.
We can debate the validity of either of these stated reasons and I could provide ample rationale for why neither is a useful change, in particular the reason surrounding ethics. The real issue; however, is that Reuters recognizes a problem and is trying to do something about it.
In the 24/7 news cycle we are enveloped by today, media outlets are clamouring for content and in competition for eyes. Eyes mean advertising dollars. Without that revenue stream, the media outlet cannot survive. The net result is that sensationalism has been substituted for news. The demand, then, from photojournalists is for the most extreme coverage. The biggest fire, the most unruly crowd, the police engaged in the most violent actions. When a newsworthy event happens somewhere on the globe, media outlets descend like vultures onto carrion. They saturate their airwaves, websites and pages with words and images designed to keep you riveted to the television screen or buying the next day’s newspaper, or maybe even clicking one of the ads on the site. In some cases it harkens back to the dark days of the late 1890s when yellow journalism ruled the headlines. It is unseemly. It is base. It is overtly present today as it was then. Today we call it ‘link bait’ or ‘click bait’. The sensational headline intended to get you to buy one of Hearst’s or Pulitzer’s newspapers is now the sensational headline that is intended to get you to click on the link. ‘Breaking News’ has become so overused a term that one wonders if anyone really pays attention any longer. And according to the New York Times blog post mentioned above, if reality doesn’t meet the needs then, apparently, creating ‘reality’ has become commonplace.
Throughout these pages I have spoken of context and the lack of reality in photography. These problems become even more exaggerated when those paying for the work of photojournalists only want the most intense and controversial imagery. The ability of photojournalists to tell stories is diminishing. Yes, there are some excellent essays being created by photographers, but fewer than in the past. A Pulitzer-winning photo essay by Boston Globe photographer Jessica Rinaldi is an example of the good photography being made today. MSNBC has a section of its site dedicated to photography and long-form photo essay storytelling. Photojournalists are forced to eliminate the context and show only the worst of what is happening in a situation; or create it if it’s not bad enough. In his essay, Weber used the example of demonstrations in Kiev, Ukraine. He was seeing imagery that made it appear the city was under siege. He contacted friends who lived in Kiev and was relieved to find that the demonstrations and damage were concentrated to a small section of the city. He went to Kiev himself and worked to show that life was otherwise normal, despite this small area of disruption. To provide valuable context. To show the reality as much as possible.
I can argue that this is not a new phenomenon. Ascher (Arthur) Fellig, better known as Weegee, worked as a street photographer and crime scene reporter in New York City during the 1930s and 1940s and he was an inveterate cropper. He would remove all extraneous elements of a photo to concentrate the viewer’s attention directly at what he wanted you to see. Fellig might argue that the limitations of his equipment required this approach. He worked with a 4×5 press camera having a 127mm lens set to f/16 and a fixed focus distance of 10 feet. I’ll grant that this could, in some cases, mean unwanted or extraneous ‘noise’ crept into the frame, but he still cropped like crazy. He also staged some of his photos but that is a matter for another discussion. It does; however, provide an historical context to the NYT Lens Blog article referenced above. Recall the maxim of being doomed to repeat history if we do not respect it.
It does not help that publications which were, at one time, dedicated to the art of the photo essay have disappeared as well. Life Magazine perhaps being the most notable. Over the course of time, some of the most accomplished visual storytellers worked for Life. Names like Capa, Bresson, Bourke-White, Eisenstadt and Smith, among many others.
Street photographers are, in this current environment, uniquely positioned to do what photojournalists cannot. Street photographers can tell the stories. Can provide the missing context. Can show the bigger picture. Can take the time to bring the larger reality to the world.
New media, social media, is a powerful new tool for photographers. At least it can be. Much depends on how it is used, of course. Used as a tool to challenge the increasingly narrowly focused picture presented by the mainstream media outlets, it can be especially influential, compelling and persuasive.
Who will be the visual storytellers of the 21st century? Who will be the next Lange, Feininger or Burnett? Street photographers are who. By using social media to cultivate contacts and help each other spread the stories, a new era of the visual storytelling can be born. There are stock agencies that allow users to sell street photography. Some even allow for the upload of spot news photos within a short time of the event happening. The blinders worn by the traditional media, and as a result imposed on those consuming media content, can be torn off and people can be allowed, again, to see what is happening in their world. Context can be brought back to the story and, as much as is possible, the reality of what is happening can be shown – whether positive or negative. How will you make that difference and cause that shift in perception vs. reality?
This will require photographers to use new and social media wisely and for positive end goals. Not, as so many do, chasing the 21st century phenomenon of Internet faux-celebrity. Too many believe, incorrectly, the idea that virality is synonymous with validity. Too many, and sadly are too often proved true, believe that if they self-proclaim greatness often enough and loudly enough, people will begin to believe it. And, as we know, some will. Self-promotion now, too often, replaces actual talent and ability. Look more deeply; however, and the cracks will begin to emerge. Rub a little harder and the veneer begins to wear through. We can take comfort in the knowledge that these charlatans do not typically stay around long. When called upon to back up their bluster and bravado, and showing they cannot, they fall quickly by the wayside, ceding the conversation to the real storytellers.
Nor am I referring to being prolific, or popular, on Internet photography discussion fora. Those Lord of the Flies-like environs are no measure of quality.
What I am talking about is consistently producing quality work that compels viewers to look and want to look more, to want to know what is happening, to want to understand the context in which the photo exists. Imagery that engrosses, informs and enhances knowledge. Imagery that makes people stop and think. That compels them to see what is happening around them. Not relying on the use of heavy filtration or digital darkroom trickery to make an image look edgy or cool. Like bad HDR, these kinds of lipstick-on-a-pig efforts do not withstand the test of time, do not compel viewers to want to know more, are not destined to be viewed with any seriousness five years from now, never mind 10, or 20, or 50, or 100.
There are, most certainly, some impediments to the street photographer. She cannot, at times, get access to locations that credentialed photojournalists can. There are also advantages. Being local, the street photographer knows how to navigate a place and blend in with the people. Knows how to talk to the locals and get their story. To get needed buy-in and participation. These are things that few photojournalists can do as well; especially today with distrust of the media at such a high level. The almost natural distrust of the media that has developed in more recent years is a point of leverage the street photographer has. That does not mean the street photographer should exploit that advantage to the detriment of the subjects or the story. Doing so would bring the street photographer down to the level of the other media. Rather the street photographer should use their access to shine light on what otherwise would not be seen. To tell the untold or unseen story. To provide the necessary, and otherwise lacking, context.
While this may seem like a wholesale condemnation of the media, that is not my intention. Traditional media has been under pressure from cable news organizations for years. Now, those cable news outlets are under pressure from increasingly fractious organizations that provide very slanted and biased coverage. Even those are under pressure from Internet-only publications that can be much more nimble and responsive to changing stories. What traditional media, particularly newspapers, are experiencing is an economic reality. The result, some might say, is a race to the bottom. Really, it is simply matter of economic survival.
You might wonder how street photography can rise above and gain sufficient traction to be heard above the din. It will not be easy. It will take hard work. The reach of social media makes it possible. The collective of street photographers telling compelling stories and working together to get those stories out to the world can make a difference.
Of crucial importance in this effort are the concepts of ethics and integrity. The need to remain as true as possible to the actual story; not to concoct or stage imagery, not to distort perception through excessive editing, will be critical to success. To, as Weber states in his essay, engage in the act of photojournalism, not merely the style. Consumers of news media are already skeptical. Of the so-called professionals. The level of skepticism of ‘amateur’ interlopers will be even higher. Perseverance will be needed. Fidelity to the veracity of the imagery and the story is paramount. People will be watching. Any misstep in ethics and integrity will be jumped on and the whole of the cooperative effort discounted. One thing working in the favor of street photographers is that many are sticklers for authenticity. Street photographers, generally, have a high level of integrity and will not alter an image for aesthetic reasons. If this idea is to have any chance of succeeding, that will be of crucial importance.
There is another, connected, use for street photography, and that is social justice. We have seen the power of imagery and social media over the course of the past number of years. Two events that come readily to mind are the Green Revolution in 2009 in Iran and the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011. These events first came to world attention through the imagery of local photographers via social media. The position can certainly be taken that, ultimately, these events did not lead to significant change in their respective countries. But it is also the case that, absent violent revolution, significant change takes time. It may be argued that, as the calendar passed into 2016, we are starting to see some of that change in Iran.
Change and a cause need not be on the scale of corrupt or oppressive governments to be valid. Find a cause that you are sympathetic with in your city or town. Perhaps it is homelessness. Perhaps urban decay. Maybe you feel your city does not have strong enough protections for heritage buildings. Whatever it may be, research it to find out what others in your area are doing about the issue. Find out what people in other parts of the country, and world, are doing about the issue where they live. There are likely resources on the Internet that allow like-minded people to share ideas and experiences. Learn about what is happening and then decide how you, and your street photography, can aid in finding solutions to the problem.
If this sounds like a ‘call to action’, that is good. Because it is. Photography is a powerful medium. More powerful than words but also, potentially, more deceptive. Street photography, owing to the documentary and journalistic nature of it, can be even more powerful still. Using the power of photography in a positive way is, I would go so far as to say, the mandate of the street photographer. Are you in?
Without trust, a people cannot stand
Confucius was referring to government but we can apply this quote to photography as well and to documentary photography in particular.
To be clear, this is not a plea for increased levels of so-called ‘citizen journalism’. This iPhone era phenomenon, I feel, gets carried too far in most cases. Too often people purporting to engage in the activity are hiding an agenda and are trying to use the power of social media to further it. They are looking for their ’15 minutes’. We may have hit the nadir of citizen journalism in April, 2015 with the Beatriz Paez incident in California. Sadly, and too often, traditional media cannot move quickly enough to get these pictures, videos and stories onto the air or the Web and the necessary due diligence is not undertaken. The deliberate, plodding today?, approach of ‘what do we know, and how do we know it’ has been replaced by ‘how quickly can we get it out, we’ll deal with problems later.’ The citizen is interviewed and provides their biased viewpoint of what has occurred. It can take days for the full story to emerge. And it sometimes never does. In the meantime, misinformation is being spread like wildfire via the viral conduit that is the Internet. Context and perspective are further eroded, as is trust in the media. This too, is reminiscent of historical eras of journalism before codes of conduct were put in place to help ensure accuracy and objectivity. Have we not learned from history? Are we now in the process of repeating it? That common theme, yet again.
What I am talking about; however, is experienced visual storytellers working to bring a much needed perspective to the news we see and read, and using their skills to shine a light on needed causes and under-reported issues. Not creating news. Not being the news. Not being antagonistic in the furtherance of a personal agenda, nor trying to ‘make a name’ for themselves on YouTube. Virality is not synonymous with validity.
Thana Faroq was born and raised in Yemen, educated in Canada and the United States, and has returned to her home country to tell the visual stories of its people. She is internationally exhibited and has been a conference keynote speaker. “…people in my photos are never strangers–they speak right to my soul and their stories are my assets to transmit my everyday inspiration into evocative and compelling photographs.”
This interview has been edited for clarity. Images are used with permission.
1. What attracted you to street photography initially?
I have always been passionate about people and to the life they bring to the streets. Before owning a camera, I used to go for long walks enjoying everything that was happening around me. It felt like there were too many lives in one place and I was attracted to documenting these moments first by writing about them, and then when I got a camera it was easier for me to capture everything around me.
2. How do you conceive of, or define, street photography?
To me, it is a visual representation of reality and the untold stories around us.
3. What are your own ethical boundaries in your work?
I’d like to think that I have no limits in my work, but I’m obligated to respect people’s privacy and not show something that they are not comfortable with revealing to the outside world. I delete photos when I feel people aren’t happy with them. I also think it’s required to ask people for approval before posting their photos online.
4. In North America, and the West generally, we take it for granted that it is both legal and acceptable to take pictures of people without their permission in public. What is the situation in Yemen specifically and Muslim countries generally?
I like to take candid photos and I rarely as people for permission. But is not the case with women. Women in Yemen often reject the idea of being photographed. To them photography is about exposing and that is not acceptable, so I tend to ask their permission first. Street photography in my country is not something people are educated about and aware of, so I often get misunderstood. I think this is another reason why I do it. I want people to accept it and get used to it and I want to encourage other passionate photographers to never be afraid to pursue street photography.
5. How do you feel being a woman in a Muslim country impacts and informs your photography?
Being a street photographer in Yemen, and for a young woman to carry her camera and tour around is not something people would be thrilled about. But it took so much courage to introduce myself as a female photographer and defend it as a right. I had to make clear to people that I am not in the street to expose them to something they don’t want. I do this because I want to tell that they exist, and that their existence is worth sharing.
Also, once I am in the street, people become part of my story. They don’t scare me away. I’m part of their world to inform others about the things they are not aware of. I believe street photography can make a real connection between people and that’s what I like about it.
6. Do you need to take any special precautions for your own safety? Or for the safety of your subjects?
No, I never feel unsafe anywhere I photograph in Yemen. I’m always on a new mission and I feel I am protected by the good and valued causes I try to promote through my photography.
7. Tell me about the NGO projects you have worked on.
I worked with several NGOs on documenting the situation in Yemen, especially during the war. My work was mainly related to the situation of IDPs (Ed, IDP is an acronym for Internally Displaced Person) in Yemen. My latest work with the British Council in Yemen is on a project called “Women Like Us”. It is a photo series project that captures the stories of 15 women from different social statuses and classes in Yemen and their experiences of the war, their struggles, their aspirations and their ambitions.
8. What do you want people to take away from viewing your photography?
In Yemen, I started to make photographs not to capture the beauty of life, not to entertain, but to inform and to use them as a means of teaching and learning. I want people to feel that. The goal is always to capture something that would carry a perspective that people are not aware of, and produce images that challenge ideas. The streets provide me with true stories and I feel obligated to deliver them in the way they present themselves to me. I want to provide positive visual content and show something about the nature of my streets beyond what is provided by the media stream.
9. What do you want to tell people about your home?
Regardless of what you hear in the media about Yemen, my country is filled with rich culture and beauty. It is an inspiring place where people would overwhelm you with their generosity and kindness. Young people are passionate and motivated to bring about nothing but peace and change. Even during this difficult time, people showed a lot of resilience and hope.
10. Do you feel, as a street photographer, you have an ability to tell stories that traditional photojournalistic media either can’t, or won’t, tell?
I am in the field and I make myself present and available to look deeper into people’s lives and explore the untold. I am part of this environment. I am not a reporter so the content I provide will be different and unique in the sense that it captures the spirit of my surroundings and not just the shallow surface of them.
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