What is photojournalism anyway?


General Photography

I thought it would be interesting to pick up a thread from especially my latest post on the visual language of photojournalism and ask “What is photojournalism anyway?” I’m not being facetious here, I’m serious.

(Updated below)

As I wrote earlier, “I often see discussions about why certain photographers are members of Magnum when, in fact, ‘in reality’ they’re fine-art photographers.” Just this morning, I received an email where a friend told me that the work of a certain photographer was in fact not what Magnum was all about. I don’t want to get into the Magnum soul searching that appears to be going on (should you believe the word in the street). What I want to argue, instead, is that if we take Magnum as a place where you can get photojournalism then the presence of people like, for example, Mark Power (great post, if you haven’t seen it!) shows that it’s not a good idea to define photojournalism too narrowly.

Just like print journalism, there’s a large variety of what people can do. There are people who spend an afternoon at the scene of a bank robbery, and there are people who spend a few months undercover, working menial jobs to see if you can get by if your job is with Walmart or Target. Those are two extremes, but what journalism actually is is not defined by the journalist who spends an hour or two on a story that people will forget about the day after, and it’s not defined by the journalist who, after spending months in cheap motels then sits down to write a book - it’s defined by each and every one of these journalistic activities.

And the same is true for photojournalism. When someone like Mark Power creates 2,000 large-format negatives to portray a country like Poland then, of course, that looks vastly different from what someone will shoot who decides to embedd with troops in Iraq. But it’s still a form of photojournalism (or maybe you want to call it documentary). Of course, there is a logical consequence to this, namely that the boundary between what people call “photojournalism” (“documentary”) and what people call “fine-art photography” is not that well defined.

But why should we compartmentalize that much? Why do we have to say that this kind photography is photojournalism whereas that kind is not? OK, sure, if we are this “generous” then, of course, someone like Simon Roberts also does photojournalistic work - because how is portraying Russia any different from portraying Poland? Of course, it isn’t - but what do we gain from sticking a label on it? How does that further our understanding of the work and what it aims to show?

My main point here is not to try to define what photojournalism is, but rather to point out that in order to tell a story there are many different ways. And, as I have argued, some ways to tell a story might not work so well any longer. I’m not the first to say this, of course. Recently, Martin Parr talked about this, and while I disagree with his solution of providing entertainment to make people look I completely agree with his underlying reasoning. Id’ even be happy to argue that part of what Martin Parr says is very close to me arguing that classical b/w photojournalism doesn’t work that well any longer.

There are lots of photographers, many of them considered to be “fine art”, whose work could easily be seen as photojournalistic or documentary. Just because we see some work in galleries or museums doesn’t mean it “only” art.

I’m sure lots of people will find this conclusion too generous, but if we restrict photojournalism to the kind of stuff that’s shot with Leicas, often crooked and blurry, now not grainy any longer because it’s digital, then we almost construct the conditions which allow us to say “Well, you know, photojournalism is in crisis.” I think we need to be more open to all the different ways that can be used to tell a story, and even if you just hate large-format cameras you will still have to admit that, yes, you can take a large-format camera to Iraq - and that’s journalism just like being embedded with the Marines and running around with a digital SLR. It’s a different way of telling a story, but it does tell a story.

Update (30 Oct 08): Alec Soth sent me the following in an email (thank you!): “I think this ‘Magnum soul searching’ regarding art/journalism is mostly gone. I was actually surprised when you originally wrote the ‘in reality they’re fine-art photographers’ line. Most of the photographers I know in the organization don’t really care about these labels. If you look on the front page of the website, this is what it says:

“‘Magnum Photos is a photographic cooperative of great diversity and distinction owned by its photographer members. With powerful individual vision, Magnum photographers chronicle the world and interpret its peoples, events, issues and personalities.’

“That said, the general public does have the perception of Magnum as photojournalists. Over at the Magnum blog I’m trying to highlight Magnum’s diversity. But I wouldn’t describe this as soul searching. I think this is an important distinction and sure wish I could post it as a comment.”