Sunday, January 22, 2006

Understanding different types of photographers

Photography is a medium. So are pen and paper. The same pen and the same piece of paper can be used to create a shopping list, write a novel or draw a masterpiece. You have to look at the intention of creator to understand what a photographer’s work is all about. Let’s examine some of the ways in which the medium of photography is used.

There are plenty of definitions of photojournalism in textbooks and on the web. In my view, a photojournalist, someone that does photojournalism, is essentially a story teller. Images and captions are combined to achieve the highest goal of any photojournalist – that is to reveal the truth to their audience – the people that read the newspapers, magazines and visit the websites where their work is published.

It is the photojournalist’s goal to show reality and to tell true stories that fundamentally separates this type of photographer from other photographers except the documentary photographer. The difference with the documentary photographer is that she is concerned with just one story over an extended period of time while the photojournalist concentrates on newsworthy events and has a far more diverse focus. Cynics may say the photojournalist’s job is to make images that help sell newspapers. I suppose so. But really the authentic spirit of the photojournalist is to show the truth and capture a narrative in the form of an image and caption. Unlike other photographers the photojournalist uses words as well as images. Most photojournalist’s I’ve known really are driven to reveal the truth and have tremendous integrity and independence.

Paparazzi confuse the issue. They look like photojounalists but all they want to do is capture something sensational which papers and magazines will pay a fortune for. Their drive to take pictures is money. The truth comes a little lower down in their priority list.

The advertising photographer’s job is to show their client’s product in the best light possible. The driving force behind their photography is to visually sell the subjects of their photography. I class fashion photography in this category too. Commercial photography is all about persuading the audience to buy.

The social photographer, who does weddings and portraits, is driven to by the need to earn money by taking the most pleasing images that they can create for their client. They seek to flatter and enhance reality.

The art photographer is concerned with expressing an inner truth. They want to expose their personal vision and seek to reveal it through their images. Their work is essentially a projection of themselves onto reality. The art photographer reveals themselves gradually to their audience through a body of work.

What about the amateur photographer? I think the amateur is driven by several different factors. The serious amateur photographer wants to ultimately win recognition for accomplishment in the technical aspects of photography, such as the ability to capture an interesting image, with a good composition and exposure. They seek to create the perfect textbook image that ticks all the boxes and they are often obsessed with equipment rather than vision. Many amateurs submit work to stock libraries and magazines and they are absolutely thrilled when it gets published. A goal has been accomplished. A professional editor has rewarded their efforts and they have achieved recognition for their technical proficiency. The money is pretty handy for an extra piece of kit too.

Many amateurs have extended their drive to achieve technical proficiency to other areas surrounding photography such as digital processing and manipulation.

The difference between amateur photographers and professionals such photojournalists, is their point of departure, their ultimate goal. For most professional photographers a great image is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Their work gets published everyday. That’s what is expected and it’s nothing special, although I will say it is nice to see your image getting used on the front page of the newspaper or the cover of a magazine.

The above breakdown is rather simple. You could write several books on the subject but in a blog it is not practical to go into too much depth. All I would really like to do is to get you to ask yourself the following: “What is the drive behind my photography and what is my point of departure.” The answers will help you focus your work on what is important, saving you time and wasted effort, not to mention frustration. How can you ever be satisfied with what you achieve if you can’t measure it against an objective goal?

One more thing: photojournalism really is the odd one out of the list above for three fundamental reasons:

All the other forms of photography are about taking images of subjects while photojournalism is about telling a story about the subject. Action, interaction, reaction and context are essential to the narrative, which is always about people.

The second fundamental difference is that photojournalism is about exposing the truth. There are always three elements involved: who the story is about, the photojournalist (story teller) and the audience (the readers). The photojournalist works for the readers, to show them the truth, not for anyone else. The best photojournalists have tremendous integrity and if they are ever exposed cheating results or lying through their images the consequences are dire.

The third and final difference is that photojournalism is inseparable from the written word. Every image needs a description. It is incomplete without its caption.

As always your feedback is tremendously welcome.
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