New Ideas for Photojournalism Today, Part I

 by Tom Hubbard

The Innovation Curve
"We can only do it the A way.
We can't do it the B way.
We can only do it the B way.
We can't do it the C way......"

A small incident a long time ago had a profound effect on me. I was working as a local television director. I came upon the weather man outside, looking up at clouds. I said I thought it was funny that, with all the data available, he was looking at the clouds. He said, "If I predicted snow every time the data indicated snow, I would be a laughing stock. I check the sky to be sure."

As a journalist, consider the moral. How often do you make up your mind without actually seeing what you are reporting? If a theater critic wrote a review based solely on an interview with the director, not bothering to see the play, you'd fire that critic, because the director's opinion is not the whole story. You gotta see it to write about it, yada yada. Well, it's accepted procedure with reporters. Reporters don't go to places, they call people who will talk about it. In this shorthand journalism, photojournalism is a labor intensive anachronism, even in a world more attuned to visual information. It's a crazy aberration that, as photojournalism gets better and the public is becoming more attuned to visual communication, photojournalism's prominence in the newsroom is diminishing. Staffers lose status jobs , freelancers are squeezed.

The Internet is Visual

There were only a few people on the Internet until it became visual. Now it's taking over the communication world, all because pictures and graphics were added. Shouldn't this tell us something? Journalism is in a precarious time. The public demands more sensation after more sensation. Well, the big secret is there is just not enough sensation to go around. What does any industry do when there is not enough product? They manufacture more. In respectable news circles, it's called "speculation." Speculation is a false attempt to bring order out of the chaos of the deluge of information.

Human organizations handle chaos by imposing order? Ancient military organizations invented discipline. Governments and the Industrial Revolution extended this formula. Early industrialists had to transform the individual discipline of farmers to the orderly process of manufacturing. That transformation was necessary with new industrial workers, but the information age demands a return to the individual discipline of agriculture, because the knowledge worker has the whole process within grasp.

Find a Humanistic Approach

That's the idea, individual journalists finding their own, humanistic approach. Changing approach will be easier for reporters than photojournalist. The photojournalist is stuck outside a door, waiting for Mr., Mrs., or Ms. sensation to come out. If the digital camera could record speculation visually, it would be greater success. Isn't that a disgusting thought?

Well, if you are a practicing photojournalist, you are living this nightmare. You are not documenting the life and times of your community, you are chasing greater and greater sensations. What is the contribution to a better informed electorate if 50 photojournalists stand outside a door waiting for a young woman to come out?

When news was documentary, photojournalists were in a strong position. Now that news must satisfy rising expectations for sensation, photojournalism hangs around outside, literally and figuratively.

The life and times of your community is a continuing process. It's false journalism to pick certain points in this process and sensationalize them. It's like ending every sentence with an exclamation point!

How do we get out of this type of photojournalism? We've got to find time to change in spite of the next deadline. Today's edition of a paper represents a successful yesterday, not a successful future. Adjust your time warp to consider the future, beyond the next edition.

Graphic Design is Running Photojournalism

The last great, new ideas in American photojournalism grew from the adoption of the 35mm camera in the 1960s. Photojournalists could explore a situation with 36 exposures rather than arrange something for the two sides of a film holder. A graphic design revolution is the only major idea since the 1960's. We are averaging one major (non-technological) idea every 20 years. (Color has hypnotized us with its brilliance, but not its content or contribution to visual narrative.) People in other industries laugh at our progress rate.

Let's invent content design. While graphic design arranges word and picture reporting already done, content design arranges content BEFORE it's done. "Arrange" in the sense of assessing the full news report over time. Celebrity coverage is exhausted, so look for content in the 99+ percent of the world's people who are not celebrities.  It shouldn't be that hard. I'd like to have this bumper sticker printed, "IAMITT." Ideas are more important than things." Although photographs might seem to depict only things, the ideas in a photo make the great photographs.


Another bumper sticker would be "TILT," for Truth, Intimacy, Light, Timing. It's a better criteria than "news." "Truth" is more than accuracy, it's genuine portrayal. "Intimacy" means the viewer sees enough to empathize with the people and situation. "Light" can be more than descriptive, it can engage us in universal ways. "Timing" ranges from the right expression to being there when they are doing it, not when they are talking about it. If you think timing, photojournalists should go to the happenings, not waste all those hours at news conferences, where people are just talk about it.

It's difficult to get TILT in quick-hit photo assignments. In practice, editors, photographers and subjects agree on a convenient distortion of TILT. This mutual agreement is a safety net that homogenizes photographs. Try removing the safety net occasionally. Explain that you will be taking some risks occasionally. If failure is OK occasionally, everyone can risk trying something new.

Newspapers and the news media are knowledge industries. We had this corner long before Bill Gates or the Internet. We can advance by recognizing that the knowledge we are talking about is in the heads of working journalists. In a news operation, the most important ingredient comes in through the employee entrance.

The great dilemma of modern times is how the individual relates to the group. This is echoed in the newsroom. We've got to examine exactly what can best be done by the individual, and what can best be accomplished by the group. For instance, reporters get edited after the fact. They have the satisfaction of the first draft. The copy desk respects this draft and checks before making substantive changes. In contrast,  photographers are edited DURING the process. They shoot under more specific instructions and are often not consulted on negative selection. This difference speaks volumes.

If It's Not Right, You Got It That Way

Here are some ways photojournalists perpetuate their status.
1. All education and training effort is devoted to improving what we are already doing. Photojournalism gets better every year but it's the same old thing. Think of it this way. We replace the spark plugs, clean the windshield, etc., but WE DON'T CONSIDER WHERE WE ARE GOING. We work to improve the next assignment, but seldom ask questions about the grand mission of photojournalism. Is, "Illustrate written stories," the grand mission?

2. Photojournalists go off by themselves to invent new ways. They had to do this in the beginning, because no one else was interested. All the education of the last 50 years has improved photojournalists, but it's put them in a different camp. They even go to separate conventions to emphasize that difference. This is the opposite of modern organizational thinking.

3. Journalists accept an atmosphere where most creative energy is devoted to the next edition. I call this one "catch the deadline tiger by the tail." Any idea that might interfere with the next edition is considered taboo. The digital camera is the biggest innovation since the acceptance of the 35mm camera. Have its possibilities been exploited in any way, beyond the deadline tiger?

4. So much of this education is a control thing. "This is how it's done, this is how I do it, this is how you should do it." It teaches control journalism. Photojournalists don't say, "Stand here and point," anymore, but they must control subjects in a half-hour assignment. The American education system turned your creativity off the day they took away your crayons in the first grade. Since then the system has been, "Shut up and listen." New people should be contributing new ideas, but recently trained photojournalists are the most rigid of all journalists. This is terrible preparation for the future of journalism.

"That Won't Work Here."

These ideas restrict possibilities rather than expand them. They are holding us in the wrong era. New ideas suffer the fate of, "That won't work here." "Won't work" doesn't address an idea. It's a non-sequitur. Force yourself to separate an idea's merits from its practicality. If the merits are good, then address the possibilities. Be positive, dream, "It would be nice if we could do that," instead of, "That won't work here."  If the problem is the deadline tiger, figure out a way to beat the tiger. Take turns. "You feed the tiger today while I try something new."

Photojournalism has used new technology to improve its efficiency, but not to improve its ideas. There are no idea farm clubs in photojournalism. Compare the digital camera to the computer. Computers began as calculators and then became typewriters. It wasn't until they became visual communication devices that they change the world of communication.

The digital camera started life as a communication device. Will it advance, as the computer did, to a convergent, multi-media instrument or will it regress to become a pocket calculator?  Silly question but I raise it because the digital camera has been a static innovation. It just hasn't done anything. Maybe the Platypus, digital still/motion camera is the technological step that will prompt innovate the use of digital pictures.

 Platypus May Be Your Last Chance

Photojournalists, especially newspaper photographers, have one last chance to control their medium with Platypus. This opportunity comes from a particular convergence of technology, experience and economy. Here's how. Newspaper and television photojournalists' images follow the words, to a greater or lesser degree. Photographers often go with reporters; their pictures "illustrate" written stories. If a newspaper photographer must shoot still and motion video, the reporter won't have time to hang around. The newspaper reporter knows nothing about writing to accompany video, and doesn't even try.

In this bare bones experiment, the newspaper story is read voice over the independently shot video. In practice, the photojournalist is free to compose a moving visual story unfettered by compliance with words or a producer or director.

Folks, you have just landed on a new planet. If you miss this opportunity to develop a new form of visual narrative, photography may be forever a directed art. That is, someone else always directing the person holding the camera.

Visual Techniques Were Not Invented Yesterday

Study film history. Disaster movies and television news are not the only forms of visual narrative. Watch the twenty second opening of the "Tonight Show" closely. It's not a news technique, but they have invented an opening visual narrative that properly introduces the show. You should be inventing a new one for news. I'm sensitive to this because I was a local television director in the 1950s. We were very aware that we were inventing a new camera technique. Live television introduced the idea of multiple cameras capturing a single setting. I watch a television news show and see a dozen techniques I helped invent. What are you inventing, or, are you just waiting outside that door for the next celebrity of the week to come out?

If you are still struggling to improve traditional newspaper photo assignments, read the accompanying article on photo assignments.

 © Tom Hubbard, 1998

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 has been teaching photojournalism at the Ohio State University since 1983. He retires in June 1998 and plans another career as a newspaper photojournalism consultant. Hubbard has written many articles on photojournalism, first when he was doing it at the Enquirer and later when he was teaching it at Ohio State. You can see these articles and photographs he has done during his career at his web site, You can contact Hubbard at

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