Some thoughts on Google Street View and World Press Photo

“I think a large part of our future will be the curating of all these images. Can you imagine the number of images stored in our world today? It’s unlimited. In 100 years, there will be jobs such as ‘hard-drive manager’, which will be in charge of finding a hard-drive from 2010 and 2011 and will have to develop software to sort these images. And then there will be art projects and sociological projects done out of these images. The whole idea of curating this limitless mine of images that’ve created has a huge potential, and I’ve just scratch the surface with Google Street View.” – Michael Wolf in an interview with the British Journal of Photography

A new day, a new controversy in photojournalism awards. Photographer Michael Wolf was just awarded an honorable mention in Contemporary Issues in this years World Press Photo awards for a series titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. This is his third award from WPP, having won first prize in Contemporary Issues stories in 2004 and first prize in Daily Life in 2009. He’s also a diverse photographer that both Scott and I have been interested in for a long while (maybe you’ve seen his pictures of Hong Kong?) The vitriole is rising during this year’s annual kibitzing about award winners, with the group A Photo A Day writing on twitter: “Oh Mr. Wolf, yeah, about those google images you’ve appropriated and call your own. Fuck You“. While a nice twist back at the photographer, I think its also totally off-base, in similar ways to the arguments we’re discussing in the POYi/iPhone debate earlier this week.

The arguments against the work, or at least against awarding them in the World Press contest, are familiar to anyone who’s followed 20th century art (Duchamp’s Readymades, Warhol’s Brillo Box, Richard Prince, et al) but now it’s photojournalism on the block. The thrust of these arguments can be boiled down to these: He didn’t take the pictures, Google did. He didn’t use a camera (or, even if he did technically use a camera, what we see in the pictures didn’t happen in front of his camera). The project is not photojournalism (perhaps due to the previous two points, but perhaps for other reasons).

M Scott and I have gone back and forth on a number of reasons why we think it’s great this series was awarded, ranging all the way to Plato’s mirror metaphor in the Republic. And it should be mentioned at the very start that this method of culling the massive Google Street View archive for photographs is not new: M Scott wrote about some of these fantastic projects here on dvafoto in August 2009. But in my simple reasoning, to answer BJP’s question “Is Google Street View Photojournalism?”, is that Wolf has made a photo-reportage of events that he thought worthy of our gaze. In the same way any other photojournalist records a moment, this photographer found a scene, interpreted it, photographed it and is sharing it for us to think about.

So far I have left out an important part of this discussion, the distinction between the “real” world and the “virtual” world that Wolf photographed. Wolf photographed inside the semi-automated and semi-curated Google Street View universe. This was the limitation Michael Wolf placed on himself, and I think it works in beautiful and interesting ways: to find pictures and moments in an already photographed space*. It touches much more directly than many other photo series on the omnipresence of cameras and the constant surveillance we are essentially under, knowingly or unwillingly. That is without a doubt a “Contemporary Issue” and Wolf used a very innovative method of teasing out that story.

*Since everything is photographed in Google Street View, nothing is. It’s a mirror with no intention, art, journalism, or perspective. The photographer, by choosing what he makes a screenshot of (and we’d be fine with this winning if he only made screenshots, by the way) is making the photographs, framing them, choosing what to show. Google did none of those things. Even a screen-grab, if you are composing and choosing a moment, is a photograph.

These are real events and the photographer is reporting on them: showing us events that happened and he thinks are worth looking at. You could argue that the scenes he is showing are not real (people have hoaxed Google before), but if we accept these scenes as reality (and I haven’t heard anyone argue otherwise, I guess we could cross that bridge when we get there), this is an artist/journalist reporting those events. And he’s probably the only one who did report on any of these moments. How is that not journalism, in one of its important senses?

Is publishing a screen-shot of a surveillance video of a murder suspect in your newspaper an act of journalism? I think so. Even more if you chose to look at all of the possible surveillance videos and pull out all of the important details from across a city, for a report on crime city-wide or a broader report on what these cameras unintentionally capture (say, the incidence of people accidentally tripping and falling on a curb outside a Serbian hospital). The journalism is in the curation and interpretation of information, the photography is the medium in which you convey that report to the world.

It is street photography by any means necessary. What is the difference in curating hours of your own wandering for those odd moments that make comedic or epic sense and curating hours of someone else’s “wanderings” to find your own moments in their material? Some people say these images should be credited to Google.. but Google simply ran a camera through the street for automated documentation for one purpose only (its Google Maps site). The artist re-appropriated it for an entirely fair and novel use, one for which we can presume they were never intended. Brilliant. And it can be photo reportage and journalism at the same time: He is reporting on the world as it happened, and doing so in ways that no one else has done.

It seems that every year we look at World Press Photo and have a collective “WTF?” moment. I, for one, am quite happy that this year it is such an interesting project to discuss. We could keep going on with a list of the other points to argued about: Duchamp, Warhol, the ideas behind the film Synecdoche NY, journalistic tourism, the nature of a photograph (do you need a shutter?), etc. Where do you take it?

10 Responses to “Some thoughts on Google Street View and World Press Photo”

  1. Tweets that mention Some thoughts on Google Street View and World Press Photo | dvafoto --

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  2. Harrison Lansing

    Matt, while I think you raise some interesting points in defense of Wolf’s award (I disagree and think it’s not photography at all and at best it’s a series of artistic screen grabs, but I can see the other side) you may want to reconsider using the POYi/iPhone debate earlier this week as a supporting argument.

    At least, in the POYi situation, the photographer actually witnessed and captured the event.

    That, to me, is a defining point; that the photographer actually witnessed and captured the event. Combing through someone else’s images (whether it’s Google’s, yours, or mine does not really matter) and then recording them and presenting them as your own simply does not, in my opinion, warrant the results being classified as photojournalism.

  3. Robert Gumpert

    Well here’s my two cents

    1) Too much of “photojournalism today is more about the “I” and not about the eye, mind, heart interface. Perhaps it is the demise of pay for work and the attempts to win contests in order to pay some bills. Surely it can’t be the demise of platforms for the work to be seen? But photojournalism has been hurt by the drive to be first art instead of journalism first and art if possible.

    2) The photojournalist’s overriding strength has been, bottom line, he or she has to have been there, seen the scene, smelled the smells, felt the emotion. We who were or are photojournalists have always had that over the scribblers who could watch it on tv, make a phone call or interview people after the fact. We have been true witnesses to events and circumstances. What was Michael Wolf witness to? A computer screen of Google. You might make a case for him getting an award for editing but as photography it is at best an art concept. It is not journalism and therefore not photojournalism. Keep in mind, and I can hear the screams now, editors are editors not journalists. Good editors are aware of events and their “meanings” because it helps them edit. So when an editor makes a cctv screen shot of a robber, he or she is not committing journalism, they’re editing to provide an illustration for a story that someone went out and got. Or wrote from a police report and some phone calls.

    3) However the award is a sign of what is to come: As the world becomes more and more subject to cctv, editors and “photojournalist” will sit in their cubicles virtually reporting on a world and people they never see, talk to, smell, fear, love or interact with in any other way. They will become more and more like the “pilots” of military drones killing people for an 8 hour shift and going home to help the kids with their homework.

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  6. Davin Ellicson

    Yes, I, too, could not understand so many people’s harsh reaction to the Google Street View images. It is 2011, not 1950, and reportage can encompass more than straightforward classic photojournalism. Indeed it must.

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