by Tom Kennedy
The Internet offers
us the chance to reinvent photojournalism by enabling us to blend the
best practices from still photojournalism, broadcasting, and independent
films. Now unfortunately, most print products use still photography
primarily as iconography intended to hook readers into reading text.
Still photography is not enabled to be the powerful story-telling device
I know it to be from my time as director of photography at National
Geographic. Ironically, most broadcasting also relegates video images
to the realm of "wallpaper" existing primarily as background
eye candy to the underlying audio or narrative supplied by on-air talent.
Happily though, the Internet permits us to blend still photographs with
audio, text, video, and databases to make compelling content that is
far richer than print or broadcasting typically deliver. This new world
of visual story telling gives us a chance to reinvent the form and to
adapt integration of various media types to tell the most compelling
Visual journalism on the web offers the chance to tell narrative stories
that speak powerfully to underlying truths of the human condition. Independent
films and lessons I learned earlier in my career have influenced our
feature videos most profoundly. We work to present a subject directly
to the viewer without the complicating and often distracting intermediation
of on-air talent. Rather than "telling" a story, we are always
trying to "show" the story, directly encountering the subject's
life. Often the audio narration is a mixture of natural sound and on-going
commentary by the main subject. The photojournalist engages a subject
and starts to observe and then document the subject, using a "fly-on-the
wall" approach enabled by small, highly portable video cameras,
microphones etc. The photographer often works alone, assuming full responsibility
for the journalistic reporting, the story's narrative arc, and the aesthetic
choices on both imagery and sound. In our world, the photojournalist
observes, understands, and documents with empathy, trying to create
an accurate portrayal of the story's main themes. Story development
requires time as a crucial ingredient. The photojournalist needs time
to understand the subject and establish rapport that facilitates honest,
intimate documentation. As the photojournalist comes to understand the
subject more fully, he or she is more able to identify the meaningful
moments that must be recorded to express the crucial themes.
I expect photojournalists to do their own pre-story research to establish
the basic parameters for a story. This research usually yields a rough
storyboard and basic agreement between me and the photojournalist about
the editorial intentions as well as our likely aesthetic approach. In-field
flexibility is essential, and the photojournalist is free to modify
original premises if some more compelling developments lead the story
arc down a different path. Ultimately, the photojournalist is responsible
for moving with changing circumstances. I expect the personal stamp
of authorship and a specific point of view to continue the final editing
process. While the editing may be a collaborative enterprise, particularly
on tight deadline pieces, I want the photojournalist fully engaged until
the story is ready for publication to insure the script, video, and
editing mesh to fully express the photojournalist's point of view.
I believe we're just beginning to scratch the surface of the web's potential
as a story-telling device. We're in our infancy, not unlike Hollywood
in the 1920's, radio in the 1930's, or television in the 1950's. It
is a time for experimentation and creative ferment as we seek new ways
to provide information and stories that enrich the lives of our audience.
It is exciting to consider new ways of blending still photos, text,
video and audio to tell stories. The availability of databases as a
source of information enables interesting choices for alternative interactive
paths through stories. In the same way, new software offers interesting
ways to edit and "animate" still photo galleries.
However, we also face tremendous challenges right now. For starters,
we have to serve content simultaneously across a wide range of delivery
platforms. Each delivery device differs in its ability to deliver a
"rich media" story experience. Further, the lack of "absolute"
technical standards, even within a specific delivery platform, makes
it difficult to standardize the story presentation.
In addition, our content must serve at least two distinctly different
journalistic aims simultaneously. On the one hand, we seek to be competitive
with other news web sites and other forms of media in reporting incremental
developments of breaking news stories. On the other hand, we also need
to provide strong, contextual background pieces that help facilitate
fuller understanding of complex issues in the day's headlines.
Our content generally is developed by professional journalists, either
working within the Post Company or as freelance contributors. However,
the web also enables contributions to be made more readily by amateurs
who possess the equipment and interest to document certain kinds of
experiences and stories. We need to develop the facility to integrate
that kind of contribution as a part of our range of story telling.
Content challenges are matched by the technical challenges of creating
a flexible, supple content management and publishing system capable
of integrating various media types and then publishing and distributing
them in any form necessary to satisfy consumer demand. Often the "middleware"
required to join content creation and distribution streams may involve
many component pieces of software which were not originally designed
to work together smoothly.
Finally, content creation may turn on the development of story planning
and execution processes involving two different mediums with completely
different rhythms and responses to the news. Newsroom culture used to
the rhythms of print with limited specific deadlines has shown great
trouble in adapting to the "deadline every minute" world of
the web, much more akin to 24-hour all news radio or 24 hour cable news
television shows. It is hard sometimes to convince newspaper editors
used to tinkering with copy and layouts until the last possible minute
to appreciate the technically more difficult processes of the web that
may require a week's lead time to arrive at the same place.
Ultimately, all these challenges remind me of complex algebraic equations
that must be resolved to arrive at a specific correct answer. The algebra
contains the seeds of paradox always. We are just beginning to understand
the elements of the equation while also glimpsing the inherent creative
potential of the medium.
Our work today is a deliberate attempt to circumvent the limitations
of previous forms of media with respect to visual storytelling. The
responses to our work, post-September 11, have been overwhelming, both
in terms of traffic and emotions expressed by viewers in anecdotal e-mails.
Clearly, there is a tremendous appetite for well crafted, honest, direct,
empathetic story telling. Eschewing marketing glitz and celebrity news
presenters, we are focusing instead on a refinement of distinctive technical
and aesthetic approaches that were recently recognized so strongly in
the White House News Photographers Association 2002 competition in the
here to view the award winning videos.
It is our belief
that we must transport our users beyond their own personal boundaries
with our story telling. We need to put them in direct contact with the
large social, economic, cultural, political and environmental forces
reshaping our world on a daily basis. We also need to bring them stories
of ordinary people living lives of dignity and courage as a means of
encouraging appreciation of each other's gifts and diversity.
If we do our jobs well, people are enriched and enabled to lead lives
with a greater understanding of the world around them. In doing so,
we can help produce life-changing experiences for all our audience and
forums for personal growth.
Tom Kennedy is
the Managing Editor of Multimedia for Washingtonpost.com.