“One is not really a photographer until preoccupation with learning has been outgrown and the camera in his hands is an extension of himself. That is where creativity begins” – Carl Mydans
Most people I know that want to become a photojournalist, don’t understand that the most important part of the equation is to be a journalist. It’s the ability to understand the story so you are able to capture the most meaningful images which tell that story. It’s a combination of the right and left brains. A mix of creativity and knowledge.
Great photojournalists use both sides of their brain. Combining knowledge of subject with creativity produces powerful, storytelling images.
How can you capture the meaning of a story without understanding the story? In explaining her choice of images for her Pulitzer Prize winning photo series on the effects of gang violence, Los Angeles Times photographer Barbara Davidson said during an interview with Poynter Institute for Media Studies visual journalism coordinator Kenny Irby, “Once you understand the issue you want to report on, the images will fall into place.” Read more here
Some photojournalists have extensively researched a project before even shooting the first frame. During a visit to Western Kentucky University’s photojournalism program, John Kaplan, then with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, explained how he spent months interviewing subjects for a project simply titled “21.” It was an essay about the lives of individuals at the age of 21. From a rocks star, to a homeless man, to an illegal alien, Kaplan documented the lives of a dozen individuals that eventually led to a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
My studies in photojournalism, both during and after college, have given me a better understanding of what makes a good journalistic photograph.
You learn in journalism school that a good news story has one or more of five elements:
- Celebrity or prominence
- Proximity or locality
is the relative importance to the time frame we are in. One example is a grass fire that burns 10 acres but damages nothing. It’s good for a day as a curiosity, but it loses it’s news value rather quickly.
How the story impacts the readers. A power outage that only affects one city block may get a brief, but one that affects the entire eastern seaboard (such as in 2002), will make national headlines.
Celebrity or prominence:
Who the person is. For instance, a child tripping down the stairs isn’t going to be page one news. But when a U.S. President (Gerald Ford) trips, It’s front page including a photo.
Proximity or Locality:
Where the incident occured. A house fire in Waukomis, Okla., may make the local news, but that same house fire in Aspen, Colo., will make regional headlines, national depending on who owns the home.
Out of the norm. Something that happens each and every day won’t be covered, unless the story covers a large geographical area such as a drought. But rare events, such as police chief resigning, a visit by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, or extreme weather, require front page coverage.
Begin combining the these various aspects, and the news story gains strength.
A good example: a Sheriff’s race in Podunk between to normal rivals doesn’t get much national attention. However, a sheriff’s race between one longstanding, uncontested sheriff, and an Aspen City Community Safety Officer who is also an artist with a video of him masturbating into a hole on his 40th birthday, gains national coverage in The New York Times.
With this story you have:
- Locality: Aspen, Colo., home of the rich and famous
- Celebrity: an uncontested Sheriff running against an artist
- Timeliness: The first contested Sheriff’s election in over 20 years.
- Oddity: the fact the contender has a video of himself.
- Impact: the race affects all of Aspen and Pitkin County.
But how does knowing the news value affect your decisions a photojournalist must make on the fly? Knowing the news, the angle of the story, helps you direct your eye to the images that tell that story. To those images which have an impact and add to the project.
Also, good journalistic photography has it’s own 3 values:
How the photo affects the viewer. Photos with effective impact draw out our emotions. Some can even result in letters of hate, or letters of thanks, and others change the view of a nation at war. Eddie Adam’s “Execution of a Viet Cong Suspect” is one such photo. High impact photos make people think. But mostly, high impact photos tell the story on their own.
How the photo is relevant to today. And the stronger the immediacy of a photography, the longer it’s impact lasts. Photographs of house fires lose there immediacy reasonably quickly. However, photos of wars or famine remain important for a very long time. For example, Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a child being stalked by a vulture is an icon of the many famines that ravage the African continent.
How the photo draws in the viewer. Is the photo distant and uninteresting, or is the viewer captivated and continues to examine the photo? Does it cause the viewer to continue on to the other photos in the package? Does it create a sense of awe with the observer? Mostly, does it leave the viewer wanting more.
These three ingredients are the recipe for successful journalistic photographs. They draw the viewer in, they tell a story, and they cause reaction.
Coming up in parts 2, 3, and 4: Delving deeper into the 3 Is.
Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated.