Walter Benjamin once suggested that there is no single, absolute, or correct interpretation of a picture, since every viewer brings something unique to the process. At the same time, photojournalistic conventions often constrain how a viewer responds emotionally and intellectually to pictures.
In other words, photojournalism as both an art and a science practices a form of aesthetics that is connected to not only pleasing the eye, but also providing the viewer with a context for understanding the world around us in unique ways.
Many photojournalists learn early on that the pictures they make have to conform to the expectations of their audience — the public. These expectations are linked to aesthetical, ethical, and technical conventions, which are passed along from one generation to the next. For example, photojournalistic conventions developed through professional organizations such as the National Press Photographers Association, the American Society of Media Photographers, and the Society of Professional Journalists may be changing.
In recent years, the introduction of digital technologies has challenged long-standing beliefs and codes of conduct associated with ethical photojournalistic norms. At the same time, the proliferation of digital photography on the Internet as well as the economic pressures placed on news organizations through media consolidation and corporate downsizing is testing not only ethical principles, but aesthetical concerns as well.
Today’s photojournalist, it is argued, is far more visually sophisticated than his or her predecessor lugging around a 4 x 5 Graflex camera and a pocket full of flash bulbs. The tolerance for staged images that lack visual impact is far less acceptable today than it was even 20 years ago. Pictures, therefore, must do more than simply inform, they must also please the eye.
This issue came up recently, when readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution complained about a picture of a veteran whose head was chopped in half by the photographer. The photojournalist, Elissa Eubanks, was obviously trying to turn a run-of-the-mill assignment into something a little different. Unfortunately, some folks didn’t see the “art” in cutting the head of Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the parade’s grand marshal, in half.
Even though Journal-Constitution editors were pleased with the picture, some readers expressed outrage — claiming that the image was demeaning and disrespectful. For me, Eubanks’ picture raises issues about how the public perceives the role of journalists in covering civic events. Today, photographers appear to be taking more aesthetic chances that move them further away from the realm of journalism and more into the realm of art.
Maybe it’s not that big of deal. Photojournalism, as a form of artistic expression, is certainly better than it has ever been and there is some great work being done today.
However, many readers don’t want or even expect their news to be artsy. Readers want and expect their news to be delivered without embellishment or panache — they have been trained to think that’s what journalism is about. Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-media world the pressure is on not only to inform but to also entertain. Therefore, when a news picture is treated as art in order to distinguish it from other media, the public may actually see the effort as a gimmick, or even worse, as a disingenuous attempt to sensationalize the news.
The tools photojournalists use in composing images — selective focus, framing, ethics, use of light, and movement — all conform to a photojournalistic grammar, one that seeks to convey immediacy, intensity and intimacy. This grammar or the system of structural relationships employed in constructing meaning in a picture is one of the things that distinguish photojournalism from other genres.
If we think about grammar as a set of guidelines, then another function assumes that pictures can codify universal social experiences. The stylistic conventions applied to many news pictures today are redefining photojournalism. Today’s photojournalists are more likely to infuse their work with artistic sensibilities that were discouraged just a few decades ago. Today, photojournalism, as an art form, has evolved — even if readers don’t always appreciate the difference.