Commentary: The Potter's Wheel

February 2003

by Tom Hubbard

Here's a challenge if you want to think differently. How can photojournalists spend their days looking for something new... and defending their old way of doing it? They jump into the mold and hope something new will come out.

PHOTOJOURNALISM IS THE MOLD. If asked, you might compare yourself to a potter at the wheel. Potters get the raw material and work it on their potter's wheel. The potter's mentality is a good model for you. Oh, the potter must consider the market, but the nature of the potter's wheel is it creates unique products. If you want all the cups alike, you put the clay in a mold.

I hope you feel a little uncomfortable as you realize, photography started as an art similar to the potter's wheel, but is being forced into a mold industry. How much in photojournalism, newsrooms, assignments, subject matter, requires uniformity? Where's the dynamic to unique output? The camera's strength is the strength of the potter's wheel, not a mold. What is the potter thinking while fingers and thumbs form the clay? What are you thinking while forming a digital card? Language tends to homogenize photojournalism. Assignments are riddled with mold words. You know better. You must translate this mold into a wheel idea.

There are great and creative editors and photographers. I'm talking about the process of news production, not the people. Editors deal with molds. A page or the newscast is a mold. Creative editors want good content, but their job is to fill a mold. It takes a wise editor to realize photographers shouldn't start with a mold, and a brave editor to rearrange the mold, if the photo or video doesn't fit.

Photojournalists love molds because they provide direction. They flock to the same concerts and sporting events ... and hope to get something different. There are thousands of people living quiet but dramatic lives outside the sports or concert event. Why ignore these thousands or millions of people to communally concentrate on half dozen people on a stage or a couple dozen in a game? It's a disturbing thought, celebrities know how to conform themselves to the mold journalists are looking for. Who's running this show called photojournalism, the mold makers or the potters?

I'm not suggesting planned public events should be ignored. You can cover these and hope for a meaningful and different image. Just don't gravitate to these events looking for something different. If you want something different, pick a direction right now and walk a half mile and look for something different.* News is not a solid, like a brick. News is invented every day. Certain events are selected. Safe bets are selected over and over because they fit the mold. The public is bombarded with images of celebrities walking in or out of places because these celebrities have figured out the mold, not because they are really important. This news selection process has a tendency to chase its own tail (or tale).

If you are irritated by this so far, and are still reading, there's hope. Photojournalism isn't the only human endeavor comfortable with repeating.

Looking through my local paper on a certain day in 2002, I find photo lessons in the stories. These stories I see are not about photojournalism. (If you only read about photojournalism, you are a mold maker.)

How do you tell what is important in this changing world? It's not easy. Did you see the lovely movie, "Chocolat"? The author of the book had trouble getting it published. The problem was publishers could not decide whether it was about food or was fiction. The book broke the existing mold.

I wonder about book publishers? Most best sellers break the mold, and had difficulty getting published. As an author of photographs, how much trouble do you have getting the trend-setting photo published? Have you ever tried to sell an idea that straddled news and feature, or feature and sports? Why do creators have so much trouble in all publishing?

There's another story today. It's about hair styles, and how styles of a few years back look so funny. The article asked about 1960s hair styles, "What were they thinking?" Hair styles are driven to change more than photojournalism. Or, are they? Try to look at photojournalism for every previous decade through the last 50 years. Remember the "hand of god," severely darkened edges? As you notice some trends, you may ask, "What were they thinking?" Make a list. What is basic to photojournalism, what is trend?

There's another story (this day) about the Lustron Home. You may have done a feature story on the Lustron Home. There is one or two in many cities. They are all porcelain enamel steel. In the late 1940s, Carl Stranlund designed and built his Lustron assembly line home. The Lustron home promised affordable housing for the generation bulge. It was a great idea, but it failed because of entrenched opposition of the building industry. Stranlund's house didn't fit the mold of his industry.

Photojournalism can't turn to "The Lustron homes solution" immediately. The trick is to discuss any novel idea, while holding onto the essential mission of photojournalism, visual communication of the human scene. We spend more time advocating, "this is how it is," than looking at possibilities. Why is an industry that covers change so against change?

Another news story is about "Singing in the Rain," a movie about sound coming to movies. Sound movies were a bigger innovation to Hollywood than digital photojournalism. Sound changed the subject of movies. The subject was no longer just "acting," because sound made dialogue important. Hollywood adjusted to sound. Actually over-adjusted. If you ever see one of the early sound movies on cable, you will notice, they never stop talking.

What did digital do to photojournalism subject matter? Did digital open up anything? Did it eliminate any subject matter? What are the benefits and drawbacks to the photographer seeing a photo instantly? I've asked a lot of photojournalists and editors, "Aside from economic and speed benefits, what innovation has digital photography brought about?" No one can think of anything.

Here's what other industries have discovered- Digital information handling changes where the work can be done. Office workers are given the choice of working in the office or at home. What are the pros and cons of working at home? In all of human history, almost everyone worked at home before the industrial revolution. Working in an office or factory is an unnatural arrangement. (It splits up the family, rob individuals of creative accomplishment.) Well, the digital revolution may send journalists back home.

I recently spent a day with a daily newspaper photographer. He picked up his assignments by phone or radio, and edited and transmitted his pictures from his living room. He dropped by the paper office to eat lunch in their excellent cafeteria. Wow!

Working from home can mean a lot more than the economic squeeze of recent freelance contracts that make photojournalism an “amateur only” profession. Suspend your self-interest for a moment and consider this. "Amateur" has come to mean free or cheap. What happens if we consider "amateur" in its original meaning, which is "lover?" Suppose the current economic and technical crisis in photojournalism weeds out everyone but the amateurs, those who love photography.

Turn on your self-interest again. How can you turn your love for photography into making a living?
*(I mean right now. Get going!)

© Tom Hubbard

Tom Hubbard began his career as a television director in Norfolk, Virginia and worked as a director and tv news cameraman in Atlanta, Georgia before switching to newspaper photography in Atlanta. He moved to the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1966. At the Enquirer, he won 22 Ohio News Photographers Assoc. awards and two NPPA awards including one for best photo coverage of the Watergate Hearing (3rd in photo story.) In 1978, he left the Enquirer and returned to college for a master's degree. He taught photojournalism at the Ohio State University from 1983 to 1998. Hubbard began writing on photojournalism while an Enquirer staff photographer. He has continued since, introducing new perspectives over the years.

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