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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 6:00 AM EDT

FR: In recent years the tendency has been to elevate the messenger over the message, a strategy which effectively keeps their more painful imagery at a distance. The courage of the photographer is celebrated while the circumstances of his or her subjects becomes somewhat secondary. As a result the photograph becomes less of a window onto the world and more of a mirror reflecting the distorted priorities of the culture consuming the imagery.

Former Marine infantry Sgt. Jeff Gramlich with his family in Buffalo, New York. From "Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, 2011," by Jennifer Karady.

MJ: Who are some news photographers—or media outlets—that take substantial aesthetic risks?

FR: In the early days of print magazines during the late-1920s and the 1930s, publications like Vu and Regards emerged in which the formal elements were designed to amplify the messages of the photographs, often in idiosyncratic and even astonishing ways. One had to read the visual elements of the two-page spread and not just rely on the captions to establish the meaning of the photographs. Then, more pre-formatted magazines such as Time and Newsweek appeared that emphasized the photograph for its content without significantly playing with the design of the page. Now we're at the mercy of online content management systems that are highly efficient, allowing text and image to be plugged into a pre-existing layout, but lack the possibility of establishing emphatic visual statements that are tailored to a particular point of view—it is largely chaos, more reminiscent of the design of brochures than of sophisticated visual publications. Certainly many photographers push the envelope in terms of form, but one is more likely to see their work in books and galleries than in news publications.

MJ: In Bending the Frame you mention Here is New York, a much-discussed exhibition that bore photographic witness to 9/11. How can we rally people around photos of less momentous or charged events? As far as the general public is concerned, is photojournalism just disaster porn?

"One cannot always summarize massive issues by looking at the life of one person or one family, or even one community."

FR: Shortly before that project began, our own online publication, PixelPress, had invited people from around the world to send in imagery and texts responding to the events of September 11. Since most of our respondents lived far from New York, we had many compelling metaphorical uses of imagery—a series of large-format photographs that showed only dust, an empty bench from a Swedish photographer, a multimedia piece showing an eternal flame with an endless column of posters of the missing, etc. This was far from disaster porn; it was often intense, a form of grieving. Certainly people can rally around all kinds of causes and events from climate change to gun violence, and they do. JR's Inside Out is one newer model.

MJ: Many of the most consequential issues of our time—climate change, genetic modification, economic disparity, global population growth—remain relatively underrepresented in photography. Why? What needs to happen for this to change?

FR: As we deal with issues of this enormity, many of them planetary in scope, we need to work at a different scale, using data visualization, GPS mapping, various kinds of filtering which allow the reader to compare people's lives across local and national boundaries. One cannot always summarize such massive issues by looking at the life of one person or one family, or even one community.

Jonathan Harris’s storytelling platform Cowbird and the website 7 Billion Others are two substantial attempts to interrelate our individual stories with those of others. We also have to be more creative in using digital photography, which is code-based, to explore issues of our own code, DNA, and that of plants and animals, in ways that analog photography, with its concentration on the phenotype, has been unable to do. There are enormous possibilities for mapping data visually, for exploring hypotheticals, for working on solutions rather than just showing the problems.

MJ: How would you describe the differences between recent photojournalism from Afghanistan and Iraq and that from the first Gulf War? Was government involvement or oversight different?

FR: During recent wars, photographers have been embedded with restrictions placed upon the kinds of imagery that they could distribute, while during the first Gulf War they were largely kept away from the conflict. Both systems are highly flawed. It is no accident that so much of the most important work by photographers has been on veterans as they return to the United States—one has more freedom in how one photographs.

Teru Kuwayama, courtesy Teru Kuwayama / Basetrack.org

MJ: One of the most fascinating parts of the book concerns humanitarian and NGO photography. This is an area where a image's credibility and rhetorical power are crucial, yet so much of what's produced is almost propaganda. What do you see as the responsibility of an American photographer working to raise awareness or aid in a foreign country?

FR: The ideal relationship is for the photographer to work on an extensive documentary project (if they can find the financial support), and then for an NGO to find that there is a shared interest in that particular region or issue. Making imagery to conform to an NGO's mandate is a slippery slope which can be effective in publicizing a crisis but can also be inauthentic, a form of advertising. There may be short-term gains but a long-term loss of credibility.

The slideshow "is a very primitive form that quickly becomes predictable and repetitive."

MJ: You bemoan the limited capabilities of online photo presentations. Is the slideshow format dead?

FR: The slideshow is not dead nor about to die, but it should not be the default mode of presenting images. It's a very primitive form that quickly becomes predictable and repetitive. When we worked on PixelPress we never used a content management system; we tried to design each project on its own terms so as to make it the most articulate possible. This is by far the best way to work with imagery although certainly not the cheapest.

MJ: Speaking of cost, given the glut of affordable freelance and agency photography, what is the incentive for publishers to send photographers on assignment?

FR: The incentive is simple: to uncover that which is authentic and important, and to share it with the readers in a compelling manner.

MJ: The photos throughout this interview are examples of projects that you find particularly innovative. What do you like about them?

FR: They make the reader think, rather than recycling the same kinds of images. What does it feel like to be a veteran stateside but still concerned about snipers? What does a prisoner choose to eat just before being put to death—what does it say about the person, the institution, and the larger society? What if soldiers and the battlefront were shown as if in a family album, rather than as distanced and outsized, and discussions were invited from family members, as happened in Basetrack? What if images of a previous conflict, in this case the Sandinista revolution, are shown outdoors in the places where the events occurred so that a younger generation has to confront a history that may have remained somewhat remote—and does that encourage reflection from others around the planet who may be oblivious of their own histories?

MJ: What is the relationship between good citizenship and photography?

FR: Citizen journalism is not only sending in comments and making images with cell phones, but also supporting good journalism, including photography, made by others so as to help all of us better understand what is going on in our world. That support can entail crowd-sourcing images (see the New York Times' section "Watching Syria's War"), responding to coverage made by others with one's own specific knowledge and point of view, and helping to pay for work that only professionals could accomplish. Citizen journalism is not only the right to self-express, but the right to act like a citizen and not a consumer.

For more, check out these photo essays:

Inside Libya With Only an iPhone
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