Project 2: Photojournalism.

When I think of photojournalism I immediately think of photographs of real events used alongside text to tell a story in a newspaper. I think it would be fair to say that this is how many people might describe it. It doesn't need to be a newspaper of course; it could be a report on television, or a story on a blog or news website, but regardless of the medium, I think it would also be fair to say that we would all like to believe that the story is accurate and that the photographs assist in revealing, or proving the truth as told in the text. Photojournalism is also normally considered to be investigative in some way, where information is revealed to the viewer which they might not already know and is of course deemed to be of some interest to them. It might also be assumed that the photographer and the journalist agree on the story they are telling although this may not be the case. The photographer and the journalist may of course be the same person so of course the photograph and the written story could easily reinforce each other. However, it may be the case that the photographer hadn't planned the photograph to be part of a news story and that the journalist simply uses it to help explain, elaborate on or confirm the story in the written account. It may also be that the photograph doesn't show anything directly related to the events in the story, for example, a photograph of a Concorde used to tell the story of the actual Concorde which crashed in France in 2000 may have been shot a long time before or after the event. If shot before the crash, it may not be the actual aircraft which crashed but that wouldn't detract from the story. However, much more interesting would be an image of the actual aircraft, perhaps the day before the crash or maybe a photograph of the real aircraft on fire (which we did indeed see). The images were stills from a video and were poor quality, but were nevertheless excellent for the newspapers which reported the story. In this case we can see that the photographs back up the story. Although there is no doubt that the aircraft shown in the pictures was the Concorde and it crashed in France and many people died, without the photograph we would still believe the story; the picture doesn't 'prove' it happened. Sometimes photographs 'prove' something happened, or perhaps more accurately they make a story more believable. However, let's take for example a paparazzi photograph of a famous footballer, perhaps a little worse for wear after a night out. If that footballer had a history of aggressive behaviour and an image showed the player perhaps looking a little angry, then many people would believe that the player was involved in a punch-up that night (should someone choose to write a story suggesting he was) simply because there was a photograph showing him out at night looking a little angry. Without the photograph the story would still be interesting but pretty feeble and although it might still believed by many, it is much less likely to be reported. Photographs can help 'make' the news by making stories more interesting if not more believable. This short essay wasn't planned but it clearly shows how many facets there are to photojournalism. Who took the photograph and why? Was the photograph planned? Was it staged? Was it at the time of the event? Who wrote the story and why did they choose the photographs they did to go with it. Did the photographer have a say in their image being used with the story? Who oversaw the outcome? Was it the editor; the proprietor?  Clearly the stories we read in the press and the photographs we see posted alongside these stories cannot always be taken at face value.

One critical viewpoint of documentary/photojournalism is that taken by Martha Rosler's in her essay 'In, Around and Afterthoughts.' (Wells, 2003). In this essay, which discusses documentary photography from the late 19th century to the latter part of the 20th century, Rosler takes a stance which initially I felt was harsh on those practitioners who believed they were doing good; but which I now feel is justified (although her criticism was broadly spread and I don't feel was applicable in all cases). Rosler was critical of photographers who used their images to highlight the problems facing the poor. She felt that the problem with this approach was that rather than bringing a divided society together by means of showing the better-off part of society as a whole the problems that were occurring, it was more likely to simply highlight how separated society was, and perhaps only succeed in helping these people by scaring the better-off into assisting the poor by charity before things turned nasty. This might lead to a hand out rather than a hand up, to use a slightly cliched, but nevertheless appropriate expression, and things would simply return to the way they were. Rosler believed that photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis - well-meaning as they may be - were simply helping to maintain the status quo. I do feel that, certainly in the case of Hine, this stance is unfair. Hine highlighted, through his photography, the plight of child workers throughout the US. I think for Rosler to criticise this work as simply helping to maintain the status quo fails then to take into account what might have happened to the child workforce in the US had Hine NOT highlighted the issues through his photography. Jacob Riis himself said that he had tried writing about the plight of the poor to no avail. (Wells, 2003). I do understand the point that Rosler is making but there has to be a point where intervention by photojournalists helps to change things for the better; a step in the right direction at least. Rosler herself states that there is a 'financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses' (Wells, 2003) so I do find it slightly odd that she sees Hine's work as not being part of this body. Rosler's essay certainly raised some interesting points although it is of course easier to see the potential problems she raises, with the benefit of hindsight. I doubt very much that Lewis Hine considered that by doing as he did, he would simply be maintaining the status quo for these children. It is certainly true that there have been many photographers who have photographed the poor for voyeuristic and aesthetic reasons and although it would be fair to say that there is inherent interest in these images - they show people and places which many would never ordinarily see - the photographer would often not have the interests of the subjects at heart, in the same way that Lewis Hine apparently did. This type of voyeuristic photographic practice continues to this day, it is quite common and I personally have fallen foul of it too. I feel a certain sense of guilt now, pitying the subject whilst at the same time thinking about how great the photograph might be.

There's no doubt that photojournalism and documentary photography don't necessarily show the 'truth'; that the view of those taking the photographs, showing it via their particular medium or writing about it, may be choosing to represent the 'truth' in their own particular way - ways which do not tell the whole story.

Bibliography

Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.