The Editors Speak Up

The Landscape is Changing But Photojournalism 
is Alive and Well
 
by Joe Elbert 
 
 
Apparently the catalyst for Dirckís editorial were the questions "Is photojournalism dead?" and "Are photo editors irrelevant?" Damn, thatís pretty weighty stuff, and I wonder whether itís time for this story to be recycled.

I believe that a more interesting story would be new venues opening up for photography and not the demise of the art but the changing landscape.  Itís possible that photojournalism is undergoing a metamorphosis.  A couple of months ago, I watched a three-part series about Magnum that was created in the late í80s; it was a thoughtful historical piece.

There were glimpses of documentary photography during the í30s, but it really took World War II to make photography more than an art form.  By 1939, photographers were confronted with a very different reality of destruction and human tragedy. Photojournalism was born out of necessity. The common denominator was documenting conflict. At the same time, the most dramatic pictures that have become icons capture the human spirit.  Have we put too much emphasis on conflict and passed up stories about the human spirit?

If you believe conventional wisdom, photojournalismís heyday was 1947 to 1972, ending with the death of Life magazine as a weekly.

Nearly 10 years ago, I joined The Washington Post as assistant managing editor for photography. I wasnít quite sure where to take the department, but an old fantasy was banging around in my head. Would it be possible to create an environment where photographers would be storytellers? We have the foundation of photojournalismís golden age, but the glue -- human spirit -- would be the key ingredient.

Post photographers probably were given more personalized attention than any of them desired. The phrase "Victim of the Week" was coined. A new lingo was used around the light table while editing film. Post photographers were heard using words such as "relationships," "dignity," "storytelling" and "intimacy." The bar had been raised, and they met the challenge. In fact, during the last few years, theyíve been raising the bar for themselves.

I believe that our strength lies in approaching each situation for an interpretive picture.  Too often, we hear complaints that photojournalists publish only bad news.  The majority of our work is the celebration of life, and thatís the magic of the human spirit.

My only tip to picture editors is to remember what it was like as a photographer: Never let go of the things that drove you mad, and try to change the environment to what you wish you could have had.

I spent my formative years at the Courier-Tribune and the Herald-Times, both in Bloomington in southern Indiana.  Shooting pictures in the Midwest translated to interpreting photo requests and making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

In 1973, I joined The Miami Herald.  On my first day, I was assigned to take a mug shot.  Two hours into the assignment, I received a page to call the office -- the chief photographer wanted to know what was taking so long, and I explained that it was much more than a mug shot. Okay, everyone has this experience, and I donít need to share the expletives voiced by the chief photographer. But Iíve never forgotten that episode -- no longer a virgin, I discovered what it was like to work for a Neanderthal. I could sum up my career as a staff photographer by talking about when I wasnít on probation.

Seven years later and tired of being on probation or parole, I became an assistant picture editor. It  was an opportunity to see whether I could end what I considered generational child abuse of photographers. It was a crash course, learning the newsroom, translating pictures to words for news meetings and, most importantly, never forgetting how I had been treated as a photographer.

At all of the management courses I've attended, only one maxim has stuck with me: "You can't motivate people; you can create an environment for motivation to take place."

I hope that the secret of our success is environment. Our photographers understand that assignments are merely a springboard for interpretation. If they need two hours for a mug shot, fine. What they produce will be more than a mug.  Everyone is general assignment, and the picture editors attempt to play to individual strengths and interests. The goal is to have fun and take pictures. This sounds shallow, but it takes a lot of work. And it works.

There was some resentment when Carol Guzy, Lucian Perkins and Michael Williamson won POY with foreign picture stories. But how much we travel is really an insignificant part of our overall coverage. We're a local paper, and we work hard at covering metropolitan Washington.  Nancy Andrewsí First Place portfolio was almost entirely local coverage, although she took one military flight to Bosnia.

Iím not as concerned with imitating other newspapers as with defining the best partnership of gifted photographers working with gifted reporters. If you look at the portfolios of Nancy Andrews, Carol Guzy, Michael Williamson and Dudley Brooks that swept POY, no single style emerges. They could just as easily have come from four different newspapers -- no cookie-cutter approach. To me, thatís the real reward. (Click here to see four photos from the Post's photographers.)

We publish about 500 pictures per staff photographer each year, and the majority of the images are interpretive. Words and pictures have a natural rivalry for space. I don't see this as a limitation but as healthy competition that contributes to higher standards.  Pictures and stories are packages. Content and quality determine the space allotment.

Back to the changing landscape: Online sites such as AOL, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News, The Washington Post, The New York Times didnít exist five years ago.

Tom Kennedy put up our award-winning portfolios on washingtonpost.com and received 500,000 page views in three days. For the first time, we could share our work with the world.

Thereís an old saying among managers -- "We donít have a problem; we have an opportunity."
 

David Friend's Article Monica Cipnic's Article
 
 
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