Representation in Photojournalism

Photojournalism is the pictorial representation of events and happenings around the world; predominately part of the action that is represented, is done so through portraits of the people involved. Although the portraiture imagery of cultural history is perhaps more associated with documentary photography, a large part of photojournalism is the representation of the subjects and their story. There is a lot of meaning created through the practice of representation therefore the photojournalist needs to address many aspects when approaching the photographic process. These include the idea of photographic realism, the meaning that will be taken from the image and the idea of context, where it will be displayed. The photojournalism image needs to tell a story and to do so the representation needs to be effective.

Abigail Solomon Godeau explored the stance taken by photographers in the representation of vulnerable subjects, which is becomes more challenging when the photographer isn’t native to the environment. She addressed Diana Arbus’ body of work in which she photographed the outcasts of Western society. Godeau describes that Arbus holds an ‘outsider’ status meaning she hasn’t immersed herself into the environment of her subject and therefore can’t fully understand their situation. In this instance the better approach would be to take an ‘insider’ stance, to delve into the contextual surroundings and as a result, produce an informed representation of the subject which will ultimately be more accurate. However there is always an element of constructed identity in representation, and it is possible that despite the photographer’s best intention that the subject’s themselves could construct a representation that is not entirely accurate. Ultimately it is the photographer’s role to immerse themselves in the environment in which they are photographing in order to produce a contextually informed representation using the ‘insider’ approach.

The idea of using different methods in representation could be utilised by photojournalists in order to produce new, innovative images. Although portraiture and art photography is created for a different purpose than photojournalism, there are approaches that the photojournalist could consider and adapt. Sara Davidmann is a fine art photographer who investigated the identity and stories of transgender individuals through a collaborative photographic project. The subjects had an active role in their representation as they felt they had been misrepresented negatively in the majority of previous imagery.


The notion of collaborative negotiation in representation is one that photojournalists could apply to their practice as it allows the subject to have greater control over the manner in which they are being depicted. However this means the photojournalist would have to compromise to get a shot with which both the subject and photographer can relate to and feel satisfied. This could mean that the photographer might come away with images that are less visually powerful however the representation will be more accurate in terms of how the subject wishes to present themselves. In addition to this, text-based photographic artist David Rule has investigated how the use of text can compliment, contradict or even replace the pictorial representation. The idea of linguistic context is not new in photojournalism as an image is always accompanied by a caption or story however we are yet to see text fully incorporated into the image itself. Perhaps the notion of using words and images effectively together could be a new, effective approach for the photojournalist to consider. Martha Rosler is another example of a photographer creating a relationship between text and imagery to create an alternative perspective on the concept of representation.


Her project The Bowery worked to avoid the obvious representation of alcoholics who would inhabit this area; instead of photographing the alcoholics themselves she photographed the doorways in which they passed time, and coupled these with words which worked to symbolise and associate with the social impression of an alcoholic. Although this work was conceptual in nature and perhaps criticises the obvious representational approach that photojournalists typically take, there is definitely a lesson to be learnt in experimenting with different forms of representation. Fred Ritchin claimed that we as a society have become desensitised to violence so perhaps an alternative technique will negotiate this issue and produce imagery that will attract attention in a new way. These projects negotiate the idea of context in the aesthetic and linguistic sense, a concept that a photographer must continuously consider when photographing their subjects, as a photojournalist image is meant to inform.

Overall representation is a concept that is negotiated in all forms of photography however in order for photojournalism to progress, they perhaps need to move away from the obvious forms of representation to which the audience could be desensitised due to the saturation of imagery in the current environment of photojournalism. Lessons can be learnt from practitioners such as Sara Davidmann, David Rule and Martha Rosler in relation to approaching representation differently. The idea of aesthetic and linguistic context must be addressed by the photojournalist to ensure the image is interpreted correctly. In addition to this, the photojournalist should consider the ‘insider’ stance explored by Abigail Solomon Godeau to ensure they have the contextual information which will ultimately create an informed representation. However it must always be remembered that representation is a process which is constructed and subjective; there will always be an element of performance for subject and an element of artistic ideology from the photographer. As long as the issues accompanying representation are addressed and negotiated, the photojournalist can work to produce an informed, accurate representation which will both inform the audience and please the subject.



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