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Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram Era?

Renowned photography theorist Fred Ritchin has a simple message for those behind the camera: Innovate or die.

| Thu Jul. 18, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
An Afghan soldier protects his face from a dust storm.

In late May, the Chicago Sun-Times took the unprecedented move of gutting its photography department by laying off 28 full-time employees, including John H. White, a 35-year veteran who had won the paper a Pulitzer. The nation's 8th largest newspaper figured it could cut costs by hiring freelancers and training reporters to shoot iPhone photos, to which Chicago Tribune photographer Alex Garcia responded: "I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else's job and also do yours well. Even when I shoot video and stills on an assignment, with the same camera, both tend to suffer. They require different ways of thinking."

Experimenting with iPhone photography is nothing new for journalism outlets. During Hurricane Sandy, Time turned over its Instagram feed to five photographers who delivered an eerie, often radiant record of the storm and its aftermath. (One of Benjamin Lowy's iPhone images graced the print magazine's cover on November 12, 2012.) Time deemed the experiment a success: Its Lightbox photo blog garnered 13 percent of its overall web traffic during the week of Sandy, and its Instagram racked up 12,000 new followers in 48 hours.

In his new book Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, photographer Fred Ritchin tackles these developments and more as he explores what the digital revolution means for his trade.

His own résumé includes stints as a photo editor for the New York Times magazine and the executive editor of Camera Arts, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his work on the 1996 website Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace. Ritchin also cofounded PixelPress, a website devoted to helping humanitarian groups develop innovative media projects. He now codirects the Photography and Human Rights program at New York University.

Bending the Frame is a vigorous wake-up call to photojournalists to innovate or die. Photographers, Ritchen writes, should continually be asking how they can create more meaningful imagery rather than just chase the "trail of the incendiary." I asked Ritchin to fill me in on the details. Interspersed throughout the interview are examples of photographic projects that he considers particularly innovative or audacious.

Mother Jones: What do the Chicago Sun-Times’ recent layoffs mean for photojournalists?

Fred Ritchin: The layoffs ask: What does a professional photojournalist do that others cannot? Depicting photo opportunities as if they are authentic, covering press conferences, or making subjects play their assigned roles (the poor as passive victims, celebrities as glamorous) are hardly adequate responses. In fact, these might be reasons to ask for the help of amateurs who do not know how to stylize their imagery and are not interested in making a publication seem more palatable to its potential consumers.

There is enormous need for professionals who know how to tell stories with narrative punch and nuance, who can work proactively and not just reactively, and whose approach is multi-faceted. We need more "useful photographers." Given today's budgets for journalism, my guess is that quite a few photographers will be fired in the near future. But I certainly hope that many visual journalists will be hired or funded along the way as well—we urgently need their perspectives.

Timothy McVeigh, 06/11/2001
From the 2001 series "Last Supper,"
by Celia Shapiro.

MJ: The Chicago Sun-Times plans to train reporters in iPhone photojournalism. Will that change how reporters approach stories?

FR: There are very few instances where writers have also been effective image makers—different skill sets are required. I do not expect this experiment to be very successful unless these reporters can be trained to evolve into multimedia journalists; word, image, and sound all must have primacy in the development of the narrative.

MJ: Have the ethics of photojournalism changed in the age of the smartphone?

FR: Photojournalism has become a hybrid enterprise of amateurs and professionals, along with surveillance cameras, Google Street Views, and other sources. What is underrepresented are those "metaphotographers" who can make sense of the billions of images being made and can provide context and authenticate them. We need curators to filter this overabundance more than we need new legions of photographers.

The ethics, to answer your question, have certainly changed: Many who are making cellphone images are advocates with a stake in the outcome of what they are depicting. In some ways this makes their work more honest and easier to read—they can also manipulate, although the work of professionals can be quite manipulative as well.

MJ: Last year, Time got a lot of praise for its Instagram coverage of Sandy. Does this hunger for real-time documentation and sharing affect the quality of photojournalism?

FR: There is room for all kinds of points of view. Certainly everyone should be encouraged to weigh in on their own experiences of a massive storm or other such disruptions, but not everyone is qualified to explain how such storms fit into climate change, or what needs to be done to try and prevent or minimize future disasters on this scale.

Nicaragua, 2004. A mural installation based on original photographs taken in 1978, by Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos.

MJ: You argue that we can appreciate the democratization of social media without having to consider every image successful. What defines a successful image on, say, Instagram?

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FR: We have a long history of snapshot photography that appeared to many to be more arbitrary and idiosyncratic than much of the work of professionals. We valued it for what it could tell us about the details of people's daily lives. The same happens with social media when the person making the imagery is engaged with what is happening around him or her, rather than simply trying to stylize the image for effect or compete with others to show how their life is, or appears to be, more exciting.

MJ: Google Glass promises real-time video sharing, and Instagram recently introduced video capabilities. Do you see video supplanting photography as the visual medium of choice for journalists?

"Photographs are not there to show us the world, but to show us a version of what may be happening."

FR: It’s not a competition, but a question of synergies among all media, particularly on a digital platform. Multimedia is not more media, but the employment of various kinds of media (and hybrid media) for what they each offer to advance the narrative. The inherent non-linearity of the digital also allows for more input from others, including the subject and reader as collaborators. The top-down, bedtime-style story is of limited use. A non-linear narrative that allows for increased complexity and depth, and encourages both subject and reader to have greater involvement, will eventually emerge more fully from the digital environment. This, in a sense, is the more profound democratization of media.

MJ: As a magazine photo editor, what did you value in a shot? How did you balance the aesthetic with the need to illustrate or inform?

FR: Photographs need to demand the viewer's attention, often implicitly, posing questions as to the nature of what is being depicted. Photographs are not there to show us the world, but to show us a version of what may be happening. The ideal scenario is one in which the reader is motivated enough to become actively engaged in establishing the meaning of the imagery.

MJ: Is contemporary photojournalism more about daredevilry and showmanship than nuanced storytelling?

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