What Ails Us

Let’s have a look at an interesting monologue, in the form of a letter to a friend of his, from the always engaging Asim Rafiqui on his wonderful young blog The Spinning Head about What Ails Photojournalism.

Photos are not journalism. Journalism is an endeavor with a commitment to communal and social responsibility. It is a public service with the objective of keeping check on abuses of power, the rights of the individual, the protection of the well fare of the community, the exposure of the illegal, the tracking down of the downright unjust. I said this before in a lightstalker post, journalism will rely on amateurs the day it itself become amateurish. It is not multimedia that will save journalism or photojournalism, but a commitment to quality and a commitment back to the public service. We are far from this realization.

There is a lot in here, and while he admits that it “was written in a single breath and hence carries within it errors of insight and judgment” I definitely agree that it “remains interesting enough”. He calls to task the whole culture and ‘machine’ of publishing and photojournalism. “There is another underlying reason why photojournalism is dying, and that we are still not prepared to confront. The reason is that most photographers and photojournalists are purveyors of cliches and repetitive, predictable stories.”; he calls for innovation in both our stories and our way of storytelling. Culture all around us is moving forward and evolving through new media and at new speed. What has been good (W Eugene Smith-type) remains so, but it is not enough … innovation must take place, the same in any field.

Not to quote too much (just go read the whole thing, it is worth your time and I’d love to hear the different reactions it is sure to bring up in our diverse readership), but this seems to me to hit directly on the point. As a photographer banging his head against walls trying to get stories produced I’ve gotten to the point where I really am taking into consideration what kind of story each publication would want to see by looking at what they’ve done before and exporting it. In some sense I’m honestly trying to find the cliche that will mesh with an editor’s preconceived notions of what is happening here, just to sell a picture. Its not what I want or why I became a photographer, but somehow it is becoming ingrained as ‘how its done’:

We have lost our love of the story. We are no longer telling interesting stories. In fact it could be argued that photojournalism today is basically middle class voyuerism. It carries with it the stifling and infantile morality of a middle brow suburban family and attempts to deliver ’shock’ stories to titilate them into watching. Or it just reduces to historical and charter-tour cliches stories that could be rich, complex and eye-opening.

Just look at National Geographic – if its Iran, its Persipolis. if its Bolivia, its the Antiplano. if its Pakistan, its the Taliban. Tiresome, boring, repetitive, predictable, uncreative, uninteresting stories about some of the most interesting and evolving countries in the world! Even the formulas and mechanics of photojournalism are boring and predictable. This magazine refuses to go and explore places in new ways, to produce angles that are creative and interesting, and that challenge our thinking and ideas about a place. Is Persipolis really all that one has to stay about Iran today? This incredibly complex and incredibly interesting country is left silenced! (sic)

As someone who just recently moved to Belgrade in part to put a lot of my time and focus on the Balkans it kills be to be told again and again, by editors and photographers alike, that this “story is over”, that I missed my chance to photograph here now that the wars are over. Are you kidding me? There is so much happening here, worthwhile stories around almost every single corner that I’m convinced would be engaging and interesting for audiences if there were presented to them. But I’m told that people aren’t interested, that they’ve moved on. Or is that the editor’s inference? I honestly think that if you make an interesting story with interesting photographs, the readers and viewers will come. The disconnect is that access to viewers, and while plenty of us are trying to publish our work ourselves (see below) there is a realistic gap in time and technology to gaining a critical mass of viewers. It will take time, yes, but we’re not being helped very much. I think Rafiqui would agree that our community itself is stifling these possible stories, forcing us to look for the exotic or sensational (or worse, “newsworthy”), in other words, the cliche. Yes there is news, and sensational exotic moments and places in our world. But that is so very far removed from most anyone’s daily life and I really don’t think our interest is limited to this. A ‘day in the life’, no, but a creative look at something we’ve never seen before is worth much more of our time, and I think our audience would agree with their own attention span, than another look at something we’ve seen time and again. I’d ask what came first, the audience for celebrity-based, false-exotic ‘journalism’ or the publications that provided it? I think there must be some element of the top-down here, something must have started with the publications and their editorial decisions.

Not all of Rafiqui’s arguments are new, but I give him credit for putting this all together into an essay and not being afraid to really call out the mainstream institutions (publishers, festivals, editors and photographers) for their assumed wisdom and conservatism toward moving beyond antiquated traditions and conventions of storytelling and of what is an ‘acceptable’ story in the first place (see Part II/III especially). They and our peers don’t understand what is happening (not that I, Scott or Asim necessarily do either, as Rafiqui rightly admits at the end of his piece: no one knows the future. But I think we can agree with some thought that there are wrong paths and bad ideas to be following right now). Conventional wisdom and the most popular outlets and photographers are doing us wrong; that is the problem. It is up to individuals and small teams to push new models forward, and we’re all on our own for now.

And people are doing it. I’ll start from this old post of mine titled Doing It Yourself where I look at Alec Soth’s observation about Magnum needing to become its own producer to survive. A precursor to this discussion and Rafiqui’s piece I think. Along these lines look at the Luceo Images crew who are pulling things in tight and developing their own systems for distribution, promotion and funding. Of course Magnum Photos is actually the best example in my mind of attacking these issues head-on with their growing social networking (Facebook, Twitter, blogging) and the development of their Educational arm alongside their existing Cultural wing to expand their brand and marketing opportunities with partnerships with media-related companies like HP, Photoshelter and Blurb to create a series of Grants (Burn) and Awards (Expression Award) for photographers outside of Magnum while retaining some funding for parallel opportunities with their own photographers. Old school business tactics I’m sure (I’d have to ask my brother the business major…) but innovative all the same in this market.

Good pictures are not enough. We all need to be smarter and more creative in how we do stories. From the very idea to the approach to funding, distributing and publishing the pictures. If we want to keep doing work that matters to us we are being forced to find a way around the current logjam. Left out on our own (M Scott and I are perfect living examples of this) we must adapt and survive somehow. There aren’t many scraps to be had from the MSM at the moment so we look elsewhere. Where to is the question, and I think Rafiqui’s astute pressure for elevated and evolved stories and storytelling is part of the answer.

And so he ends with a positive look at the coming opportunities, which is somewhat similar to Vincent LaForet’s much ballyhooed essay on Sportsshooter titled The Cloud is Falling (which I think Rafiqui calls out earlier in his piece). This is not a contradiction though: we agree that in this time of shrinking budgets we must see that there are other markets and outlets beyond the ‘old guard’ of magazines that will have potential for growth, profit and excellent work that are just now developing or are yet to. We’re thinking too narrowly. A lot of people are talking about this point right now (and Colberg follows up with another interesting post citing examples), and no one either knows or is willing to share exactly how to exploit it (with the exception of LaForet who is essentially flaunting his recent successes on his blog, especially around the ridiculously fawned over film “Reverie” that debuted last year as an example of the ‘next big thing’.. DLSRs with HD Video capability. Personally, this falls right into the sights of Rafiqui’s quote about multimedia). Scott is quite correct in pointing out that LaForet’s latest successes are not in photojournalism. There’s nothing wrong with this work, but there’s little use advocating it as a savior model for real photography. $10,000 budgets for a 5 minute video don’t come from nowhere, no matter what ridiculous music you put in it. They’re based on advertising calculations and in LaForet’s case they’re directed toward photographers themselves (is that sustainable?). These budgets don’t, and probably won’t, materialize for the stories we need to see; It is great for LaForet to be able to pursue his interests with these sponsored videos but I dare say they’re not “a public service” nor apropos to our society’s needs of finding a sustainable source of photojournalism in the future. We need to produce work that engages on its own merit.

And on multimedia not being a savior (a cry both M. Scott and I have been shouting for ages): “multimedia is merely a mechanism that can never hide the banality or predictability of a subject. It is a means to an end, but if the end if poor, no amount of flash and dash will save anything.” Scott has always said something to the effect of, ‘unless a multimedia piece has a perfect photo story coupled with perfect audio (think This American Life) the sum will be less than its parts’ and thus the multimedia would be less important, useful and worthwhile than doing just pictures or just audio.

I say this as I sit here and stare into the void – confident that I have strong new ideas, scared that no one will value them, determined that i have no choice but to step into the void itself. Your second reference about ‘tenacity’ was right on the mark. Like any field where you pursue a passion a love and a need to be free of the machinery of the capitalist, you must be prepared to pay a heavy price. Our societies do not value those who do not serve the interests of others, but merely their own whims, curiousities, loves and fears.

Amen. And good luck to us all. I know we will succeed but it will be a rough road. I am scared too that no one will value the pictures, ideas and vision I have and that I know seriously talented friends and colleagues, all of us underemployed and struggling, possess. Rough going now and for some future, but the good ideas and great stories and images will rise. I hope this is just the start of a dialogue, I know my thoughts are not fully reasoned out, and that we need to keep thinking and talking about this. Let it rip in the comments please!

Be sure to follow up with some of Asim Rafiqui‘s own work. He is the 2009 winner of the Aftermath Project grant for his innovative project The Idea of India that I think is a great example of this new storytelling and distribution that he is preaching in this essay. Have a look, tell us what you think.

(And lastly, sorry if there was any funny business with double-postings or with the RSS as this went up, I was having some backside publishing problems)

5 Responses to “What Ails Us”

  1. One in 8 Million « A Weed is Just a Flower Out of Place

    […] Read a little more on this topic,  and the one that is concerning most of us freelancers, here. […]

  2. Patrick

    Good post Matt, this article comes at a really opportune time when I myself am preparing a few projects and trying to work out the angles.

  3. dvafoto - M. Scott Brauer and Matt Lutton › Many things I’ve been looking at (Pt. 2)

    […] they do. So I’ll reserve those judgments for each individual photographer and their work. Or maybe blame the editors. (c) Stephen Voss Stephen Voss just posted some insane and striking images from abandoned schools […]

  4. Magnum / Georgia | dvafoto

    […] Georgian Spring as the latest in a series of interesting photographer and agency-driven productions where people are “doing it themselves” with alternative funding methods. I think of two other Magnum projects directly that I’ve […]

  5. Asim Rafiqui’s Idea of India | dvafoto

    […] “What Ails Photojournalism”, which I wrote about here on Dva in March 2009 in the post What Ails Us. Rafiqui is putting his time and energy where his mouth is, and is proving that there are some […]

Comments are closed.