12 januar 2014

The rise and fall of press photography

NO, THIS IS NOT a blogpost moaning the fact that a growing number of newspapers around the world are sacking their photographers. I feel very sorry for all these colleagues who lose their jobs, and for the readers of all these publications that are bound to decline in quality because their scope, concerning visual communication, will be reduced. But my aim right now is a different one. What the title refers to is a degeneration which I think is taking place within the field of press photography.

This degeneration can be seen as an inadvertent, and paradoxical, side effect of the press photographer’s well-deserved rise in status which started when newspapers began telling stories with a more consistent use of visual tools. The increased focus on visual journalism, and on international photo contests, appear to have led some press photographers into the misapprehension that they are artists, rather than communicators.
Whether this degeneration might be one of the reasons why some newspaper editors now seem to reckon they can get along without a regular staff of press photographers is not for me to judge. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

AS OFTEN BEFORE, I was inspired (and provoked) by a page in a paper with which I have a love-hate relationship: Politiken, three times SND World’s Best-Designed Newspaper within the last seven years. Not least because of its extremely skilled staff of photographers who, in turn, are receiving more than their share of national and international photo awards.

This page contains a wonderful interview with a female doctor living in a rough neighbourhood who acted against the current and chose to put her kids in a public school instead of a private one. A great read about a topic that is right up the alley of Politiken’s well-off, well-educated core reader. So why did the editor devote half the page to an artsy-fartsy photograph that adds absolutely nothing to the story?

ON THE CONTRARY, this photo almost made me skip the page as I, by intuition, interpreted it as signaling more of the highbrow avant-garde artistic stuff that regularly contributes to the ”hate” part of our love-hate relationship. Had it not been for the headline – ”Those who do not choose a private school are almost considered bad parents” – I might have missed this great interview.

I LOVE THE WAY FACEBOOK has turned into a global forum for exchanging opinions on subjects that engage you. When I posted this photo, with remarks similar to what I just wrote, it prompted an old colleague of mine to comment: ”Politiken has got an incredible number of outstanding photographers. But quite often it looks as though their editors cannot tell a fine photo from a fabulous one. Everything gets blown up and the risk is everything will end up looking the same. Such a shame”.

Per Vadmand, who wrote the manuscripts for the Felix comic strip which I used to draw in my younger days, wondered: ”Could this be a way to save money? It’s much easier to fill the pages that way”. He’s certainly got a point there.

And Carsten Gregersen, a good friend from my time in the SNDS board, joined in: ”The choice of motif is the biggest problem, rather than the size of the photos. Many times you cannot see the objects clearly. Shaky on purpose, seen from behind, strangely cropped … please continue yourself. This is when press photography is forced into becoming art”.

When René Lynge – another old colleague – asked ”But who should make the decisions? The photographer, the reporter, the editor, the page designer … or all of them?”, Carsten responded: ”Common sense and professional skill. That’s what should steer the decision”.
Another way to put this could be: ”The story should decide. Every element of the page should contribute to telling the story. And everyone involved, with all their different professional skills, ought to cooperate on this mission”.

I ALSO POSTED THE EXAMPLE on the FB page of Pressefotografforbundet because I really think this is an important discussion and I refuse to believe that all press photographers would prefer to just be allowed to fill the pages of Danish newspapers with free-form art. Hope somebody will respond.

IN THE MEANTIME, let me close this post with another example from Politiken which demonstrates the flair for visual communication which earned this paper its world-class status. The opening page of an absolutely heartbreaking story about a girl who was abused by her father since the age of two, and whose nightmare did not end when the police put him to prison and she, by then an eleven-year old prostitute, was supposed to be taken care of by local authorities. The girl is now nineteen and has contacted the paper in an attempt to ease her heart and hopefully save other children from a similar fate.

This is a snapshot by a member of her family, but the fact that it was not taken by a professional photographer has got nothing to do with the point I wish to make. The secret lies in the words/visuals combination – and in this case, the sheer size of the photograph enhances its communicative effect. This is what a broadsheet newspaper can do better and stronger than any other media.

The headline says: ”I have never been to kindergarten. I just stayed at home. And when I was not alone in my room, I was my father’s slave”.

Ingen kommentarer: