Saturday, May 10, 2008

Photojournalism today and the World Press Photo competition

A man lies collapsed in the street, attended by a policeman who put him in the recovery position and stood by him waiting for the paramedics. Click on the images to see a larger version.

This week I came across the event above and took two different images. The first is a clear no frills photo journalistic image. The second image uses photographic language and aesthetics to create an emotion. A friend said of the second image, "I would not qualify it as photo-journalistic as it is too artsy (in the right way) to be published in a newspaper. But man, it does have a strong impact!"

I found that interesting. Thinking of the beautifully lit images that W. Eugene Smith made. Would they be considered too artsy for a newspaper these days. Which brings me to the recent debate about the beautifully lit image of the Thai prostitute discussed in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's hotly debated article "Unconcerned but not indifferent", which goes behind the scenes at the World Press Photo Awards.

ere is a a tension between aesthetics and content. The judges differ as to where the emphasis should lie in deciding which pictures are in and which are out, and no doubt the debate will continue for as long as photojournalism exists.

The arguments are complex and well worth delving into if you have any interest in the current state of photojournalism.

I highly recommend you read the following excellent articles published on Foto8

Also take a look at Reuters, Bearing Witness: Five Years of the Iraq War

So what's my take on things. Well I like to keep it simple. To me photojournalism is about communicating information as effectively as possible. The way the communication is received depends on the context of the viewer, their social awareness, beliefs, morals, knowledge and intellect.

Just an image is never enough. Photojournalists rely on words to support the communication brought by their image. Viewing and judging images purely on aesthetics divorced from context renders the value of a photo journalistic image purely in terms of artistic merit. I would argue this is a rather pointless exercise given that the photojournalist is out there risking life and limb to bring us the "story". Anyway, I've never come across a magazine, newspaper or news broadcast that doesn't use any form of caption to explain photo journalistic images.

Having said this it is clear that in recent years the World Press Photo competition has evolved into a soapbox to highlight important issues and there is of course no harm in doing so. The more ways we can make people aware of issues the better.

Fundamentally though the aim of the photojournalist is to bring the story to a wider audience and all methods are valid and necessary, whether it be the more abstract post event approach or the hardcore eyewitness. Whatever approach we use, ultimately the effectiveness will depend on how receptive the audience is and their context.

I hope this provides food for thought and look forward to reading your comments.

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