by Tom Hubbard
What are the essential elements of photojournalism? Take the question anyway you wish; as an individual practices it, photojournalism's overall output, or photojournalism as an editorial process, from clickers to pickers to lookers (photographers, editors, audience.)

Take a fresh look at photojournalism; draw an empty circle.  Put everything essential to photojournalism inside the circle. Write in the circle, the more important it is, the closer to the center you write it. Anything outside is not essential. Is a car essential? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Put the car on the border of your circle. Make that border a Photoshop feathered edge. You will find lots of items on that border, but try to have confidence to declare something essential or not.

Consider this circle an exercise, a game, or a draft, Cut and paste as you go. Thinking of these things in a conscious way helps remind  you what is really essential in your rush to photojournalism. This exercise is more flexible than thinking in or out of the box because you start with nothing in the circle, no pre-conceptions.

Let's practice first with something simpler than photojournalism. What is essential to a shovel? The first answer seems simple, a cutting blade/pan and a handle. If you were desperate to dig and found a shovel with just a handle, would you feel you were in the shoveling business?  Actually, anthropologists tell us the shovel was a handle first, just a stick, for centuries, before the blade was added.

Let's get back to photojournalism. A car is essential to some working scenarios but not all. A car may be a burden in Manhattan, or a hindrance in any community if you stay in it, looking for delicate, intimate, fleeting human moments at 65 mph.

There is a trick to this circle analysis. Items in dead center of your circle are critical because they are seldom examined thoroughly. The camera is considered, but only as technology, not as a communication tool. The 35mm camera introduction in American photojournalism in the 1960s was different from the digital camera introduction. The 35mm camera was sold as a technological innovation but photojournalists ignored the hype and went directly to it as a communication device. Today, ask anyone, how does the digital camera enhance photo communication? You will get lots of answers about speed and deadline but photojournalism is not a race, it's supposed to be communication.

You are not restricted to physical things in your circle. How about essential goal? Is it communication, passing on visual gatherings?  Is an entertaining picture pure photojournalism?   What are you communicating? Is it facts and figures? Writers do facts and figures better. Do you try to eliminate the photographers psyche while gathering images? If you try to capture the emotions of a situation, do you use your emotions in the quest? This gets tricky. You work in a world of journalism that persists in the error that humans can be trained to be objective. 

It's ironic that journalistic objectivity is financed by advertising, millions spent on the premise that humans are not objective. Oh, the arrogance of journalists, of all humans, they have mastered objectivity. 

Let's look at equipment. Place all the equipment you use where it belongs in the circle. There's cameras, computers, software, cars, shoes, winter clothing layering. The secrets of layering of winter clothing is central to some photojournalism. The photographer might not hang around if not dressed properly. 

Let's get abstract. "Growth" is a strong contender for the essentials. Actors have to fight for it, but they grow into more mature roles. If photojournalists want to grow into "more mature roles," they gotta change job descriptions. One managing editor summed it up upon receiving a creative photo, "I wanted something different but not this different."

Photojournalism history and general history is essential. Without history, you work the same old territory without adding new understanding.  Photojournalists are spotty on history, their history and general history. We know W. Eugene Smith created some great photojournalism. Did you know of the original Eugene Smith, who chronicled Cincinnati for AP for decades? (W. Eugene Smith had to add the "W" to distinguish himself from the already established Cincinnati Smith.)

Essential is a funny concept. You get along without something, but it soon becomes essential with use. A lot of great football action shots were made with 50mm f/3.5 lenses. Now, a 600mm, f/2.8 is essential. The same thing applies to history. 

History is shown as a horizontal line, leading up to now. Let's be realistic, put "now" in the middle. Turn the line to vertical so we can go, up the line to the future, and down to the past. Other histories run parallel.  Let's move horizontally - to painting history. Imagine a capital "H," photojournalism and painting histories are the vertical strokes, joined by our horizontal line of inquiry.

For about five hundred years, perspective and chiaroscuro (use of light and dark to create depth) were essential to painting, as were communication and realism. The ideal was to make the surface invisible.  A painting was a window or a mirror.  (Photographers argued surface when they argue glossy vs. matte prints.)

Today, paintings proclaim their surface and depict that surface, not a scene. Why did painters abandon depiction, communication and invisible surface? You guessed it, photography. Photography took over the tasks of painting. In the turmoil, paintings found a new home in museums. 

Do you see a parallel? How will still photography on the printed page react to video on cable or the Internet? No one knows, but the Platypus is bringing this to the table as an essential consideration.

Most predictions of the future are really a display of aspirations and fears. We aspire to a future of better photojournalism. Our fear is that our little niche will suffer.

We now have clickers, pickers and lookers. That's the photojournalist, editors and audience. If the picker can see every frame beamed back to a newsroom, what does that do the clickers status?

The major loss may be photojournalism's daily revealing of ordinary truths that a clicker can communicate. As the process gets bigger, in movies, tv, or photojournalism, the subject tends to become crisis. It takes crisis to generate hyper-mass audiences. Who's dumb enough to make a blockbuster movie about a ship that didn't sink? 

The journalistic and movie truth that all airplanes crash, all buildings burn, all banks are robbed, everything explodes on impact, is a lie. Who will be left to help us with those little truths we need to live by? When it matures, Platypus might be the means to report ordinary, simple truths, because one person with a still/motion camera may be the only economic unit that doesn't have to come back with a blockbuster story every hour. 

We can keep this technology vs. content in perspective by remembering the cowboys in all those western movies. A cowboy NEEDS a horse but a cowboy is DELIVERING cattle. It's similar in photojournalism. Content (cattle) is essential but delivery is impossible without technology (the horse).

Let's draw two more circles to concentrate on two essentials, content and delivery. Try to consider them separately. What contributes to content? The photographer does, as well as the idea or story, people photographed, interaction of photographer and subjects, and of photographer and editors. The editorial process straddles content and delivery. What part of the editorial process enhances the original content and what part damages it? If the photographer is quickly cut from the decision herd, does the original click moment suffer? 

Is the entire editorial process no more than a find-and-react process? We've added design and graphic display to the END of the editorial process in recent decades but the initial step is still dependent on chance. Firefighters can be excused for ignoring all the houses that are not burning. Journalists shouldn't.

"Designing" the news isn't an evil concept. In its best sense, designing goes beyond "planning." Planning is for tomorrow, designing news is for the decade.

Designing could be a simple question, "What is important?" News should be what we in the newsroom believe is important, not  what police, politicians, demonstrators, or public relations people or spin doctors think is important.

We could learn from sociologists, archeologist, anthropologists and even physicists. They are all in the find-and-react business but they are just more thoughtful. Ask them what they consider important? Journalists look for exceptions. Exceptions are a false criteria if you are trying to explain the span of the human condition.

Remember the "H" above? We moved over to the history of painters. Now we are considering scientists. Go as far away from photojournalism as possible to get new insights. Convert what you hear into journalism principles. 

I once sat next to two Pepsi delivery truck drivers in a waiting room. These drivers are entrepreneurs, responsible for maintaining and expanding their customer base. They exchanged tips on "cultivating their beats." They told "war stories" about getting into new "sources." They discussed how it was sometimes hard to get to the right person. Find and react is not enough in their business, they constantly explore new possibilities.

If you look only to photojournalism for technique and inspiration, you will find the same things over and over. I know a used car salesman. Journalists could learn a lot from him on sizing up a prospect (subjects, news source.) He sees details, human strengths, foibles etc. that are part of the human drama that journalists miss while chasing the exceptions.

All of journalism is in flux but the biggest changes are in delivery. Essentials of new delivery systems will back up into the process, all the way to the beginning. Delivery is wagging the dogs. Think big, think cosmic, think giga, think tera.  Stop being locked to today. Look at the ultimate dynamic of good journalists and the ultimate system. 

Giant changes will happen in the editorial process. Consider a media world with no process between the clicker and the looker. A new camera  will have two buttons, on/off and "bookmark." The photographer turns the camera on and points it. When he/she sees a good moment, a bookmark locked. The entire output is streamed to cable or Internet delivery. Each bookmark image is a thumbnail, when clicked by the viewer, video flows from that instant. 

Let's make one more conceptual leap. The photographer clicks and it becomes a bookmark. No editor involved.  Is this dangerous? Could be. But, this is how the visual report of the human scene was always done until about a hundred years ago. Michelangelo and Rembrandt and the Impressionists did not have editors (or ignored them.) This was the model of early publishers. They wrote, published and distributed their newspapers. This option is available to documentary photographers today and may be available to photojournalists in the future. It's already available to anyone with an In   Internet account. This is not a slam at editors. It's just to point out what we think is absolutely necessary is a recent invention.

I know what you are thinking right now. Well, get beyond the details. Unedited artists  contributed to understanding in the past because of individual responsibility of the creative artist, the sender. All Internet senders are not responsible but the Internet accomplishes a great deal through responsible RECEIVERS. It's a poetic thought, responsibility has migrated from the sender to the receiver.

It's called "citizenship." Thomas Jefferson anticipated the need, and journalism should serve that need.

Photojournalists do poetry, they just don't talk about it. The dictionary speaks of poetry as having passion, imagination and imagery. Without poetry, photography is copy work. It's interesting that reporters read and discuss written poetry, but photographers don't.  It's easy to explain, reporters and poets both use words. A deeper explanation is that photographers are so engrossed with their own visual poetry they can't consider poetry in another language, words. Visual poetry is the answer. It's our franchise. Concentrate on this franchise and you will walk though the storm of journalism's  technological and economic turmoil.

Tom Hubbard 

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