Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How I Learned Not to be a Photojournalist

I just finished rereading "How I Learned Not to be a Photojournalist" by Dianne Hagaman. The first time through, a couple of years ago, I couldn't figure out why it irritated me so thoroughly. This time through I think I got it.
The author was trained as and was working as a photojournalist. At the time of writing she had just completed an MFA. The book began as her MFA project. In a nutshell, her starting points are these:
- Most newspaper photography is hack work.
- Newspaper photographers get no respect from the "word people"
- Female newspaper photographers struggle to achieve any semblance of equality with their male counterparts.
- All newspapers want from a photograph is to attract readers to the story.
- Newspaper work doesn't allow the photographer to develop a project that requires time and developing personal connections.
She briefly dismisses "concerned photography" in order to set up what seems to me to be a straw horse specifically constructed to be knocked down later.
Her response to these points was to begin a long-term project on her own time. It was initally about alcoholism among urban Indians. It morphed into being about the missions and social agencies that serve that population. From that it morphed into being about the religious organizations that sponsored the missions. From that it morphed into being about religion itself. Somewhere along the line she also began working on an MFA, which effort she credits with helping her change herself from a photojournalist to some other kind of photographer. The basic points of change were:
- Slow down
- Back up to show more context
- Go for photographs that aren't a "quick read"; that depend on careful examination
- Use photographs to express an idea rather than surface appearance.
She illustrates the book with photographs from her project as she progressed from a straight-ahead photojournalist to the something else she wanted to become.
I agree with much of what she says. Having never worked for a newspaper I have no opinion on her statements about the newsroom status of photographers, male or female. Yes, most newspaper photographs are hack work. Most newspaper photographs are of hack situations -- it's hard to make a grip and grin shot anything but a grip and grin shot.
I could argue for leaving the photograph out but that would violate the next issue. Yes, newspapers principally want photographs to attract attention to the accompanying text. The grip and grin shot doesn't tell you much without the text and I defy a photographer to take a photograph of such an occasion of, say, an award presentation that tells the story without text.
But that doesn't account for the exceptional newspaper photographer who produces excellent work (back to the portrait of Bruce Davidson I mentioned in the previous post). I suspect that the percentage of newspaper photographers that are producing excellent work is about the same as the percentage for any other kind of photography.
No, newspapers are seldom interested in long, complex, visually rich projects. That's not the business they are in. Her response -- to start a project on her own time and dime -- in order to give herself the rewarding experience of doing such a project seems perfectly appropriate to me.
As for her key learnings, the first three "slow down", "back up", "go for complex images" seem like good general purpose advice except possibly for sports or wildlife photography. It also seems to me that the best of any type of photograph (back to the portrait of Bruce Davidson) shows them.
Here are my big itches.
"Photojournalism" is not exclusively newspaper photography. The French term "photoreportage", the documentary essays in the lamented Life and other picture magazines, the concerned photography of Salgado that hangs in art galleries -- I consider all photojournalism: telling a story with photographs, often with photographs and text.
Photographs by themselves are really good at showing what something looks like. She uses a straight-ahead, three-quarter portrait of a man standing on the sidewalk as an example of the newspaper style work from which she started -- a rather rugged, good-looking fellow in work attire and a big silver belt buckle. She's right. It's an excellent portrait and a good newspaper portrait because it would draw your attention to the story. Without the story you wouldn't know whether he was a fisherman, a tribal elder, or one of the street Indian alcoholics with whom she was working.
On the other hand, photographs by themselves are really bad at expressing ideas. One of Hagaman's photographs is of a shelter resident napping on a bench in a hallway. Above him is a bulletin board with, among other items, a picture of Jesus. She claims that the photograph shows that the mission in which it was taken is putting religion (represented by the picture of Jesus) above the subservient residents. Well, ok, I can claim that the photograph shows that religion (represented by the picture of Jesus) is standing guard over the sleeping man and protecting him. I could also claim that it shows a tired man catching a catnap. The idea she wished to express is only clear to her.
That's the point at which my "aha" light came on. The ability of visual art to express ideas is completely dependent on the artist and the viewer sharing symbols. To her (a former Catholic) the picture of Jesus carried the connotation of heirarchy and even repression. To me (a flaming religious liberal) it did not. I believe that a lot of conceptual art fails for just this reason.

No comments:

Post a Comment