Photo journalism revisited

Following my post yesterday on photo journalism, Shane Richmond, News Editor of the Telegraph, has responded – and makes a very valid point:

Writing on his own blog, Will from The Corridor wrote: “Words can be mistaken, misinterpreted, altered, subbed and disagreed with – part of its joy and appeal – but photography, especially wartime photo journalism, has no such luxury. A dead kid is a dead kid; an elephant is, well, just that.”

Unfortunately, Will is wrong. Photos can be deceiving in all kinds of ways. They too can be mistaken, misinterpreted and disagreed with. But Will is right about their power, which is why they provoke such passion.

Many people don’t think we should publish photographs showing dead bodies or seriously injured people because they think it is in bad taste. They feel that it’s inappropriate or exploitative to show such images.

That was the case with the ‘falling man’ image taken on September 11th, 2001. It was used in many publications following the attack on New York but, such was the outcry from the public, it is seldom republished.

Of course photos can be mistaken and misinterpreted and, as Scott rightly points out, tweaked in Photoshop too. I hadn’t given any thought to what I wrote (a common problem with blogging in general. Or is that just me?) and, in retrospect, my remarks were rather flippant and ignorant. Perhaps my point is thus: whereas a paragraph, or even an entire story, might helpfully convey the background to a situation, an accompanying photo adds so much more to the story. The two are intrinsically linked and compliment eachother.

Shane has entered into a lively debate with a political blogger who argues, or rather questions, that these photos (and perhaps photo journalism of wartime conflicts “in general”) are contrived or staged. Call me naive but I simply cannot agree with this. Political propaganda is as old as the hills but, as Shane points out, there are simply too many photographers all competing for the same shot. What chance of staging such a shot and getting away with it? Despite the rise in citizen journalism, no Tom Dick or Harry can rock up with their favourite Canon EOS, masquerade as a journalist, avoid being killed by falling bombs, conspire with their chosen favourite warlord, stage a photo and get away with it.

Anyway, rather gone off topic here, but I remain fascinated by the decisions behind what is published in newspapers. Blogs like the Telegraph’s – to a lesser degree the BBC’s, too, although I find their style surprisingly cocksure and sickly – really are demystifying the often shadowy world of newspapers and their editorial decisions. As someone who is now in that industry, albeit dedicated to one sport, I find it all pretty fascinating to say the least.

Choosing a photo

You ought to know by now my fascination of photography is nearly boundless. Working for Cricinfo – and listening and watching the fine folk of The Wisden Cricketer magazine a few desks away – has opened my eyes to the decisions made in the decision of which photo should be published.

Given that we’re running a news site our task is pretty easy: fresh, fresh, fresh. Keep it relevant to (one of) our main headlines and/or relevant to the day’s main stories. Similarly with the magazine, a photo should correspond (and add to – and entice people into reading) a certain story. We are, though, talking about cricket which, despite our best efforts, remains a mere game. Although, approaching the first anniversary of that Test match, I’m reminded of its significance to our lives!

Over in the middle-east, they’re having a crap time of it. So it was fascinating to read the Telegraph’s blogs (which are superb I might add) and the decisions involved in choosing which photos to go to print. While we deal in photos of cricketers, their main headache is death. In the end, they chose these two:

Instead of these:

Apologies for the harrowing imagery but it’s nevertheless fascinating to someone relatively new to the industry; I certainly view newspapers, columns and so forth in a different light these days, and wonder sometimes “who decided that this be published? How many people subbed this article?”. The media get a bad wrap in this country. Often it is deserved. But quite honestly I think they made the right choice here between informing the public of what is going on out there (I still don’t understand it properly) and shielding them from unnecessarily graphic photography. The Telegraph geezer says:

There is no written policy on photo publication at the Telegraph. No two photographs are alike and no two stories are alike so it is almost impossible to write guidance that covers every eventuality.

Where possible we try to avoid explicitly showing dead bodies but the decision lies with the picture editor on the day. The choice of picture depends on the story, what other images are available and – in some cases – consultation with the editor of the paper.

If the story merits it, or if the picture is the best image for the job, then we will sometimes publish a picture which may shock some readers.

The Qana story was particularly powerful because so many of the victims were children. The most striking images of the day showed dead children and it was impossible to tell the story adequately without showing bodies.

The flip side is that arguably they’re wrapping us in cotton wool by not showing us the most violent imagery. As a wordsmith and writer I’ve a greater interest in the pieces produced than the actual photos but, nevertheless, photography continues to aid and influence journalism in every corner of the industry.

Words can be mistaken, misinterpreted, altered, subbed and disagreed with – part of its joy and appeal – but photography, especially wartime photo journalism, has no such luxury. A dead kid is a dead kid; an elephant is, well, just that. It’s quite a restrictive form of reportage in that sense but equally it has a great power and I reckon we’re fucking lucky to live in the digital age, with every man and his dog owning cameras and sharing images all over the place from every nook and cranny.

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