“Picture Head”, a response from Donald Weber


Picture Head

(a guest post by Donald Weber, writing in response to the discussion of recent contest images)

The title is a quotation from Walter Lippman, who argued that the herd of people saw things and made decisions through stereotypes fixed in their minds, and that the job of elites was to circumvent this “democratic defect” by operating their own channels of fact-based and critically-informed insider information.

It may be that people recently believed things; certainly McLuhan et al. avowedly all believed in the truth – but is the truth/falsity just part of the fading artifacts of a dethroned logical system?

In essence, it’s time we recognize our solipsistic viewpoint of only one way to record and document what we deem “photojournalism.” For far too long we have been held hostage by our own stringent rules, guidelines, methodologies and processes of making and distributing what was supposedly photojournalism. To discount Wolf’s work as anything less then what we all do is a rather fearful and, as quoting Lippman, a “democratic defect” in the pursuit of what really should be an egalitarian form of documentation. We cannot thrust upon the public or ourselves an outline of a “proper way.”

Walter Lippman on cover of TIME Magazine (September 27, 1937)

Frankly, I am very much surprised by the vitriolic reaction to this work, if anything this only heightens the exclusive worldview we have been maintaining for far too long as photojournalists. I see this as a freedom to begin looking at photography and journalism not as a source collected by the very few for the very large, but a release to finally allow ourselves to break free from a Victorian-era/Early 20th Century construct and create photojournalism that is reflective of the times it is created in.

Digging around I found this very prescient paragraph: “Lippmann saw the purpose of journalism as ‘intelligence work’. Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. This theory was spawned by the industrial era and some critics argue the model needs rethinking in post-industrial societies.”

What I also find fascinating about this work, is that Wolf has exposed our roles as photojournalists as essentially creating work based on Pure Chance, a secret we like to keep to ourselves. Again, this plays into the myth of the Photojournalist and the role he plays (yes, He, as what we do is still very dominated from a White, privileged, middle class background; it really is only Us who can afford to roam the world and report other people’s miseries). Are we so upset at the fact it was a series of appropriated images? That these were not images made in a “classical” HCB kind of way? That we now realize that perhaps our role really isn’t that functional anymore? What I see is a lot of panic, when in reality this is a very valid form of journalism. In the end, what is Journalism? To me it’s about looking and seeing, a very pure form of expression, filtered through an analytical mindset, in the end, it’s about “Bearing Witness” (as has been stated time and time again). Why are these photographs by Wolf anything different? Are we truly worried about the way technology plays a role in photo-gathering? Why? What I perceive is Wolf has found a series of events, edited them into a cohesive whole, and presented the results. Not much different from what the rest of us do. If anything, we are now in the early stages of great dissemination of our work, we need to embrace these changes lest we get shunted aside even further. It should never be about the photography, but what that photography says about our contemporary condition – this idea of “Bearing Witness.”

I think of course what else Wolf has managed to do is approach the thorny issues of appropriation, authorship, collaboration, and multiple perspectives in the making of a contemporary story. I believe there should be a deeper concern: what is enough, to generate a meaningful datum in this solipsistic era? What are the limits of self-knowledge and objective description? How far can we go before coherence fragments and fades under the weight of mass observation? Does subjectivity have a future in an accelerated culture? Or are we secretly collaborating in a jittery facsimile of an invented order?

Most importantly, what is the relationship of photography to the unsettling phenomenon of a society veering into this icy state of flux? I sensed from all these responses to the Google Streetview work is our lack of control over our destinies. It reminds me cheesily enough from a line spoken by the narcissistic heroine in the film Beaches played by Bette Midler: “Now what do you think of me?” The photographer has become so entrenched in their own invincibility that we neglect to actually be journalists and photographers and just get on with seeing – and disseminating – what’s out there.

Lastly, I enjoyed this statement from VII’s Stephen Mayes writing on photojournalism in Dispatches Magazine, and feel that his argument is very valid:

“There’s a joke: how many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Four: one to change the bulb and three to sing about how good the old one was. Wherever three or more photojournalists gathered together I find this song is sung, but it’s not funny. The “crisis” in photojournalism is not an absence of newsworthy events, nor even the absence of an eager audience, it is the absence of imagination in bridging the two, and we are limited by the constant backward hankering for the way things used to be. People ask who is the new Robert Capa or Eugene Smith? But the question is misguided, and just as so many innovations have been misunderstood because they were defined in terms of what went before, so we are missing the opportunity to make a meaningful step forward in photojournalism because we are hanging onto the old references. How long did it take for people to realize that the automobile could be so much more than a horseless carriage?…”


  1. Before a defense of Wolf i need someone to explain me what means Wolf’s work and why this is photojournalism. Is a critic to what, tell what? Yes, there are new technology, so? Yes, playing the editor we can change the meaning of the things, this is not new, we see this all the time working at a newspaper. The only innovative thing is that he made photos of images taken by another camera. But what are telling this essay apart of the meta communication?

    [Reply]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Click and Lesley Sparks, dvafoto. dvafoto said: “Picture Head”, a response from Donald Weber http://bit.ly/fRZD6T | new on dvafoto [...]

  3. Thomas Boyd says:

    You have not convinced me his work should be considered photojournalism.

    You have certainly convinced me that I was correct in thinking that he should have won an award for something other than photojournalism.

    I think the idea is sound. The work is surprising and innovative. I saw it before it won and was completely mesmerized. I even blogged about it.

    I think he should win an award for editing and there should be a gallery show (although who would buy a print when they could just go shoot a photo of their computer display themselves?).

    To call Wolf’s work photojournalism is a stretch regardless of how many fancy words you use.

    Perhaps you’ll see an entry from me next year of screenshots of all this year’s winners. What’s difference? I found interesting images on the internet and shot a photo of them with my own camera. I’ll even recompose them and focus on interesting parts of the image. It’s a sure winner.

    [Reply]

  4. I think you’re right on Mr. Weber.

    Aren’t photographers appropriators by nature? Don’t we just interpret select scenes in front of us? We can’t make a picture without the help of whatever is in front of the lens. We choose what to showcase, and then we subjectively appropriate and make derivative works of portions of our lives, the lives of others, the land in front of us etc, whatever the subject is. Wolf isn’t doing anything revolutionary, but rather he’s strongly building on works like this that have been previously done through various methods.

    Whether or not the work is good, I think it is valid in the World Press context. It’s a documentary statement on contemporary issues. It was appropriately awarded. Thankfully the judges don’t seem to exhibit the same sense of tunnel vision that so many others do (at least in this instance).

    [Reply]

  5. [...] app on the iPhone. The other was a series of photos collected from Google Street View. A post on dvafoto had this quote… In essence, it’s time we recognize our solipsistic viewpoint of [...]

  6. Page Level says:

    I find Mr. Wolf’s work interesting and don’t really care what labels are used to describe it (people should stop worrying about that), but isn’t part of “bearing witness” physically being there and recording what you see? Who can vouch for the content of Mr. Wolf’s images? Just some questions to consider.

    [Reply]

  7. [...] app on the iPhone. The other was a series of photos collected from Google Street View. A post on dvafoto had this quote… In essence, it’s time we recognize our solipsistic viewpoint of [...]

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