Definitive Blog Post: Presentation and Evaluation

On the 24th and 25th of February, I presented my research paper Photojournalism Now: roles and responsibilities at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry. The paper I presented and a recording of me presenting it can be seen below with an evaluation of the experience.

Photojournalism Now: roles and responsibilities

Photojournalism in the digital age is subject to many complexities and the role of the photojournalist continues to develop. Current debates and discussions surrounding the practice of photojournalism include but are not limited to: responsible representation, manipulation, citizen contribution and the evolution of digital technology. With photojournalism expanding and diversifying there appears to be less control over the nature and the authors of the content produced. In addition to this, the parameters of the professional photojournalist are in a continuing state of flux: a concept predating digital, but amplified by it (Ritchin 2014: 13).

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It can be argued that photojournalism formed the understanding of photography as evidence, as it placed a demand on the photographer to create visual representations of the event or issue being investigated (Rosler 2004a: 264). The photograph assumed this demanded role of truth teller despite the apparent limitations to representation posed by the singular framed moment. In addition, despite manipulation always being present in photographic history, speculations about photographic ‘truth’ appeared to gain more prominence (Sontag 1978: 52). The launch of Photoshop Version 1 in 1990 meant that the process of manipulation was accessible to anyone, not just the industry (Adobe n.d.). The resulting ease of manipulation provoked a redefinition of photographic meaning in photojournalism. It now appeared to resemble a visual metaphor instead of the original, evidential form desired. It is thought that digital technology has increased the potential of the image to narrate. However it also appears to have cracked the credibility that the photograph used to possess (Rosler 2004b: 188).

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Analogue photography in photojournalism originated around the framing of a moment, which then became heavily associated with ‘straight’ or evidential photography (Rosler 2004a: 264). These singular images were integrated into the current format of news, acting as an entry point for the viewer. However when forming a narrative in photography, usually a sequence of images is needed. It could be seen that the singular analogue photograph is limited in capacity, bound by the frame (Rosler 2004b: 189 and 190).

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In contrast the digital image is a coded entity, considered as fluid and able to exist in both the latent and manifest state almost simultaneously (Fontcuberta 2014: 37). Although still bound by the edges of the frame digital photography appears to have the capacity to change the current forms of narration.

Ritchin likened digital imagery to that of ‘quantum physics’ (Worth 2013b) where the more we try and investigate and examine, the more the data fluctuates. We can extend this metaphor and describe analogue photography as chemistry in both a literal and conceptual sense. Although there are many possibilities, each one can be explained by a series of chemical reactions, constructed and carried out by the practitioner. It has been stated that the purpose of photography is to be ‘useful in the world’ and the capacity of digital technology could take photojournalism further however it needs the practitioner to become ‘proactive’ and take on the responsibility (Worth 2013b). Perhaps the fluid nature of the digital image will encourage new explorations in this field.

 

Photojournalism itself emerged with the industrialisation of news and the surge of mass markets, both contributing to the creation of the illustrated magazine, or photo essay (Warner Marien 2002: 8). The evolution of digital technology has allowed photojournalists and photo editors to explore new methods of narrating an event. Where the photo essay was product of industrialisation, digital technology provides the photojournalist with an escape into new forms of media (Worth 2013b). Time Magazine has certainly embraced this liberation by producing dynamic new features like ‘Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek’ (Ritchin 2013: 59)

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‘Faces of The Dead’ (Ritchin 2013: 94)

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and ‘Watching Syria’s War’ (Ritchin 2013: 92).

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The use of moving image, sound, interactivity and creative data visualisation in these features support the explorations into new, effective narrative forms, which perhaps could not be achieved through the single photograph (Rosler 2004b: 189-190). In a recent interview, Stephen Mayes described digital, online photojournalism as rolling, a continuous stream of information (Worth 2013b). This environment is perhaps suited to a more creative, contextualised and comprehensive narrative moving away from the safety of the photo essay format.

The digital native culture has fully accepted the new form of photographic image; the instantaneous nature along with the developing communication infrastructure has helped shape the current mass image culture. This dynamic conflicts with the ideology of Walter Benjamin who discussed the loss of aura through reproduction and proximity. (Benjamin 1992: 225). The tools of this mass image culture can be integrated into photojournalism as demonstrated by Benjamin Lowy, who used a combination of smartphone photography and the application Hipstamatic to produce his images (Ritchin 2013: 68).

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However they were met with negativity, head of a photojournalist festival Jean-Francois Leroy stated that using an app reduced the control over the photograph and actually worked to ‘standardise photography’ (Ritchin 2013: 69). Lowy’s images are accessible and familiar, with the aesthetic and format referencing social media such as Instagram. This technique allows the audience to relate and consume the content easily. However the danger of producing this comfortable imagery is that the content doesn’t work to challenge or provoke the viewer, referencing the current trend of main-stream media producing content the audience want to see not what they need to know (TED 2011). The mass image culture has generated an archive of safe, consumable imagery that works to promote, not provoke.

 

Current photojournalism can be perceived as ‘Networked’ (Beckett 2008: 2) with citizens and professionals contributing content. The millennium saw an increase of citizen journalism in media with the 911 attacks acting as the catalyst. Imagery from camera phones became more commonplace in photojournalism as the holder of a smartphone can become an instantaneous producer and publisher. This was particularly evident in the coverage of the 2001 Twin Towers attack and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, which comprised of still image and moving image content.

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The raw aesthetic of citizen camera content often convinces the viewer that fabrication is less likely. Reduced naivety to manipulation has even provoked the public to question aesthetically perfect images, despite any status of legitimacy. The proximity of the citizen to their environment could also improve their representation. This insider status coupled with a greater awareness generates new questions (La Grange 2005: 125). With no belief in the image, and more citizens taking up a camera, is there actually a demand for the professional photojournalist anymore?

 

Manipulation is a process that was present in analogue photojournalism, however it has gained more awareness in the digital age. Both Ritchin and Rosler addressed the February 1982 National Geographic cover in reference to photographic truth (Ritchin 1990: 26, Rosler 2004a: 271). The distance between the pyramids was digitally altered, potentially destroying their historic association to ‘immutability’ (Rosler 2004a: 270).

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The parameters of manipulation in photojournalism have never been defined which has perhaps allowed instances in which images are changed to achieve ‘conceptual accuracy’ and ‘aesthetic pleasure’. (Rosler: 2004a: 276). Ethical guidelines in relation to the practise of manipulation must be defined in the context of photojournalism (and distanced from conceptualism) to avoid the exploitation of the audience through naivety (Bersak 2006).

 

A photojournalist’s role can be to construct a representation of victimisation and suffering. There is a responsibility on their part to photograph in a manner that avoids exploitation and misrepresentation, far from Barthes’ original dynamic of operator and target (Barthes 1993: 9). Abigail Solomon Godeau in her ‘Inside/Out’ essay examined the stance taken by photographers in representation of vulnerable subjects, which is especially complex when the photographer isn’t native to the culture and environment. In Kevin Carter’s well-known image, his ‘outsider’ approach could be viewed as imperialistic as there is no personal involvement or connection (La Grange 2005: 125).

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The distance created in the image reduces the relationship between the photographer and subject to an observing eye (Ritchin 2014: 36). However this is the stance photojournalism desires to achieve objectivity. It has produced iconic imagery Barthes would define, as punctum, drawing an emotional response, but is that enough to help the victim? (Barthes 1993: 26-27). A comprehensive understanding of the subject’s situation might establish continuing support from the audience. Perhaps the future structure of photojournalism should begin with an objective ‘outsider’ image to capture audience attention, which then leads to the larger, more informed body of work producing using the ‘insider’ approach (La Grange 2005: 125). This could work to solve the notion of subject exploitation and misrepresentation.

 

In photographic representation, context is the defining concept, however it is equally important to establish the right context for the final outcome (Rosler 2004a: 263, Johnston: 2011). The photojournalist’s responsibility extends past the action of taking a photograph; the imagery must be circulated to the right channels. Marcus Bleasdale has avoided ‘preaching to the already converted’, (Worth 2013a), choosing to adapt his body of work ‘Rape Of A Nation’ (Bleasdale 2008) into different forms to engage with alternative audiences.

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In contrast to this, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin created the body of work named ‘The Day That Nobody Died’ to comment on the practise of photojournalism (Broomberg and Chanarin 2008).

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The work was pieces of photographic paper exposed to the sun over the course of a day and has been exhibited in the contemporary art community most recently at the Shanghai Biennale. The significance of this work was the conceptual nature, which means it would be most effective in an environment where it would be perceived as art. Although the work is associated with photojournalism, to publish it in the environment of this genre would be taking it out of context and reducing the capacity to communicate effectively. Conceptual photography is a separate genre and needs distancing from the informative imagery normally associated with photojournalism (Rosler 2004a: 259).

 

It would be accurate to state that the digital age has changed the field of photojournalism, however it would be more perceptive to suggest that it has amplified some of the existing issues. The photograph as evidence has had an unstable history perhaps due to the limitations of the single-image approach (Renaldi 2014). The nature of the digital image and the techniques made available through digital technology has facilitated a new mode of delivery, which is more contextualised (Johnston 2011). Though with the format of print journalism and objective imagery remaining ever present, it appears that a balance of reactionary and proactive, insider and outsider photojournalism is approaching (Worth 2013, La Grange 2005: 125).

However there are considerations that must be addressed such as truthful representation, manipulation, contextual information, circulation to appropriate channels and photographic responsibility (Rosler 2004a: 271, Ritchin 2009: 26, Johnston 2011, Bleasdale 2008). In addition, the parameters of the professional in the current state of photojournalism still need establishing in order to maintain quality in the field (Ritchin 2014: 13). After investigating it would appear that when confronted with complexity, the photojournalist (professional or citizen) must produce an effective, innovative narrative with the tools available, which depicts a responsible, informed representation of the subject. It should challenge and provoke a response from the right audience and be viewed in the appropriate environment (Johnston 2011).

 

Evaluation

Having delivered a small presentation in first year and written an academic essay in second year I felt I was equipped to tackle the requirements of this module. However the desire to write a quality paper and the pressure of presenting to an external audience made the experience more worrying. Choosing to examine the current state of photojournalism as a whole was an ambitious idea, and it meant that I had to complete detailed research for each concept I wanted to include, it also meant I had to make compromises on the content of the paper. I believe I negotiated this issue effectively by choosing themes that would flow well in the structure of my paper and completing further blog posts to address the themes that I had to exclude. This means that the release of my research paper will be accompanied by a set of independent  pieces of writing which demonstrates my extended research into other important aspects.

In terms of the research itself, it was challenging to read the amount of material I wanted to read in order to inform my writing, this meant I had to organise and limit my research and really consider which sources were going to be beneficial enough to read all the way through or whether it was a case of selecting the most appropriate and relevant chapters. If I was to attempt this type of project again I would make an effort to read more key, historical photographic texts first before progressing down to the specific subject matter as I believe this would make my investigation and the writing of my paper a more chronological and linear experience. One aspect I found challenging was my introduction and I believe this adapted approach would have enabled me to write a more coherent introduction from the start. In addition I would have liked to research more theoretical photographer texts in order to inform and support my understanding of the medium itself, be able to apply my own ideology and relate this to visual examples in the paper. However I appreciate that while perhaps not all of the texts I would want to have read would have been possible in the time frame, I definitely think that if I was slightly more organised and put in a greater work effort at the beginning, I would have been able to complete more research.

The presentation itself was an accelerating experience I had expected some stumbles however they weren’t the ones I made in the previous practise run which demonstrates that no matter how much you practise, there is always the possibility of nerves to affect you. However I feel that I did present to the best of my ability, making a conscious effort to look up and out at the audience and inserted pauses for images to be considered and between each paragraph break. I also made the conscious attempt to slow my speech down as in the previous practise run I had been faster than practised individual  read-throughs. All these efforts meant that I felt my paper was delivered effectively, despite a few nervous mistakes.

In the questions it was addressed that I had been optimistic in my attempts to compares one genre of photography into a ten minute presentation and paper. I was expecting this question and I was able to answer it by referring to the series of independent blog posts I have written to address that I appreciate there is more to the medium than that which is in my paper. Another question was asking whether the single image approach can ever be effective in photojournalism. To which I responded that as Fred Ritchin stated, the single image can act as an entry point to the viewer and I appreciated that in some contexts it is not possible to view a comprehensive, contextualised body of work. So the singular photograph could possibly still act as this entry point however as addressed in my paper it needs to be followed by the larger, more informed body of work. The next question addressed my comparison of analogue and digital photographer and asked whether I had a preference for either one in relation to photojournalism. I responded by discussing that is was actually a case of ability and capacity. I referred to further research by explaining analogue was always criticised for being too slow to keep up with the war and it is digital technology that will keep up with the demands of the continuous 24 hour news cycle. However I went on to discuss that it digital photography appears to be trapped in the form of analogue so to be able to progress in digital photojournalism, the practitioner needs to break the existing boundaries. The thought of answering questions prior to the presentation as very nerve-wracking as it isn’t possible to prepare completely, there is still an element of unknown. However the experience was actually quite enjoyable, because I had the research I was able to talk openly and easily about the subject.

In terms of my professional practice I think that this module and the experience of the symposium has made me aware of my aptitude and preference for writing over the actual process of taking the image. I had previously considered completing a Masters course but I wouldn’t know what photographic work I would want to produce, however with this experience I could now go on to do a theoretical MA which requires the completion of a thesis instead. In addition to this it is made me want to investigate the digital age further with the ideas I explored in Phonar about constructed identity. I will also continue the research methods established in the module and apply it specifically to my Final Major Project but also for any photographic project in the future as I believe this will help me produce conceptually informed pieces of work.

The experience of this symposium module has been extremely beneficial in terms of strengthening my research methods, informing my upcoming photographic practice and deciding where I might want to go in the future after university. Overall I have immensely enjoyed the experience as it has been stimulating and challenging but incredibly rewarding.

 

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