As “masters”, we shared our creative insights, knowledge, and recent experiences with eleven students from across the globe who came seeking a critique of their work and a chance to focus their own career paths in the near term.
United in our passion for visual journalism and a desire to continue to develop our own talents, we also reflected an interesting mix of skills, cultural perspectives, and differences in the way we approached the creative process.
From the outset, it was clear we each had a keen awareness of the uniqueness of this moment in time for photojournalism and documentary photography. Much of the conversation focused on fears and concerns created by the ongoing implosion of mainstream media companies and the accompanying shifts in photo imaging technology being created by the technology revolution of the early 21st century.
My own views about the power and benefits of multimedia fusions of still photography with audio and video were challenged by others who claimed that film, print media, and gallery walls still afforded more creative control over content messages and superior aesthetics to that offered by digital media. While I see multimedia fusions as opening the possibilities for deeper, more complex story narratives, some of my fellow masters saw the fusions as degradations of the intentionality of still photography when practiced by highly skilled professionals.
In part, their displeasure with the aesthetics of digital photography represented a concern over the fact that digital cameras “make decisions” about the shape of an image’s color palette and lighting that may be removed from the direct instant control of the photographer. Additionally, some of the photographers expressed dismay about the highly-templated approach of image presentation in digital formats like websites, pointing to the “click and move” sequencing of images that characterize so many slideshows and image groupings. They saw the groupings offered in print and on gallery walls as affording more opportunity to shape eye flow and place emphasis on specific images within a sequence, thereby perhaps deepening and clarifying the content message of the photography in a more profound way.
In addition to a premise that most mainstream media websites favor continuous expression of unfolding “latest news” over content that supplies context to world events, I also think the photographers were expressing fear of a loss of control due to the fact that presentations in the digital world require the support of a collaboration team in much the same way that films are made. It is essential in the digital world that strong photography be supported by designers and programmers who can translate the aesthetic vision into a language of code that actually makes the design presentation work in the digital space. That kind of collaboration requirement places the still photographer in a role much like the director in filmmaking. He or she may have a coherent vision for presentation, but they will need to depend on the skills of others to help translate the vision so it works in the digital environment. That places new demands on the photographer and ends the idea of “going it alone” as the best way to ensure absolute fidelity in the execution of creative vision.
While I think print too has placed such demands for collaboration on the individual photographer when he or she works inside a mainstream media organization, it was clear to me that some of my fellow masters had found ways to often work successfully outside such parameters. They had developed significant photographic projects without being subjected to the pressures within a media company that force inevitable compromising of creative vision as a natural occurrence.
Another set of pitfalls they see is the torrent of visual images produced by amateurs or professionals of limited talent in the current environment. As Giorgia said, the glut of bad images flowing across the world daily, “threatens to cancel our history.” Her concerns were echoed by others who expressed concern about the intentionality of the photographers and whether or not they had any kind of social awareness of how their work was actually shaping the audience’s view of the world.
Implicit in this view is the idea that quality storytelling offering a fuller view of our contemporary history can only be provided by professionals. Such photographers have made it their life’s work to master the craft of photography and bear witness effectively to the key moments in life’s unceasing flow so that the audience can learn fundamental truths about the human condition from their images. Anything less from a content or aesthetic perspective contributes to visual pollution that threatens to obscure a clear view of our current reality as a species profoundly shaping this planet’s future possibilities.
While this view may seem elitist to some, I think it does reflect the reality that photographers want their work to have meaning to an audience. Also, they want to present stories in forms that help the audience connect more readily with the subjects being presented in the photography. I do think clarity of vision, aesthetic sensibility, and ability to control the forms of presentation do matter for such aspirations to be realized, but ultimately it is the audience that determines the value of the communication.
Nonetheless, I did not share some of the pessimism and angst I heard being expressed as underlying tones in our conversations. Digital photography doesn’t have to mean surrendering fundamental principles of craft practice and carefully-honed visions. I remain convinced that “subject-driven” narrative stories can enable the voices of the previously unheard to be considered much more powerfully as a part of daily global journalism. Multimedia storytelling seems to offer prospects for fusing media elements together in powerful new combinations that do justice to the complexities and mysteries of the human experience. I don’t think it is inevitable that digital photography has to be inferior to what existed previously in film. Nor does creative control have to be lost simply because one may need to act collaboratively rather than as a solo practitioner to achieve strong results. Finally, I think professionals do have a duty not just to advocate for their own work, but also to establish standards and methods that can improve image-making for anyone interested in creating or using visual communication.
I think my colleagues in Amsterdam are right to demand that we in media do better in creating richer, more compelling digital presentation to house the fruits of powerful photography they are producing to tell stories. And they are right to demand that we build the subject-driven narrative with their photography as the primary building block.
The fascinating conversations we had in the course of the week have helped me to see more clearly the gap between artistic ambitions and expectations and the actual practices that have been defining the earliest days of multimedia journalism on websites. I came away re-energized and with a fresh perspective on the state of contemporary photojournalism and documentary photography, thanks to the critiques and frankness of our conversations.
I will do some additional posts shortly about other topics we discussed during the week.