In the scenario of the print medium, journalism bereft of photographs is unimaginable. Newspapers and periodical magazines consist of a staple of photographs with textual content, even at times going with hand-drawn illustrations. The role of a photo editor or an art editor is crucial to editorial work. It is all the more important in view of the readers’ perspective of juxtaposition of TV and internet vis-à-vis the frozen documentation of cold print.
Electronic media is considered to be the ‘hot stuff’. It is the immediate channel of communication. But the existence of TV and internet, though instant dispensers of information, does not automatically lead to the obsolescence of the print medium. This is the pertinent question doing the rounds in the context of the demise of classic news weekly ‘Newsweek’ and the famous tabloid ‘News of the World’. The ‘significance’ of the demise of the ‘Picture Post’ (1957) and ‘Life’ (1972) should not be exaggerated. Both had internal problems that might have been avoided. But can their demise be attributed to more instant media? By no means...
Instant may be prospective but it is not introspective. The running camera, though duly conveying the contemporary, does not satiate the avid quest of the viewer. The discerning among them look forward to the printed newspaper, which invariably reaches the next day. Though it reaches the next day, the daily newspaper is not considered containing perished news.
In fact, it is far from it. The print medium contains details which are pertinent and persistent. Along with the editorial, letters to the editor and features, it contains the vital photograph. The photograph is the vital element and makes the most impact because it encapsulates the story with insight and depth of historicity. The frozen frame underscores the need and the craving of the reader to retain the essence of the matter through a well-chosen impact-worthy still photograph with an apt title.
Photo journalism works within the same ethical approaches to objectivity that are applied by other journalists. What to shoot, how to frame and how to edit are constant considerations. Photographing news for an assignment is one of the most ethical problems photographers face. Photo journalists have a moral responsibility to decide what pictures to take, what picture to stage, and what pictures to show to the public. For example, photographs of violence and tragedy are prevalent in American journalism because as an understated rule of thumb, ‘If it bleeds, it reads’. The public is attracted to gruesome photographs and dramatic stories. A lot of controversy arises when deciding which photographs are too violent to show the public.
Photographs of the dead or injured raise controversy because more often than not, the name of person depicted in the photograph is not given in the caption. The family of the person is often not informed of the photograph until they see it published. The photograph of the street execution of a suspected Viet Cong soldier during the Vietnam War provoked a lot of interest because it captured the exact moment of death. The family of the victim was also not informed that the picture would run publicly.
Other issues involving photojournalism include the right to privacy and the compensation of the news subject. Especially regarding pictures of violence, photojournalists face the ethical dilemma of whether or not to publish images of the victims. The victim’s right to privacy is sometimes not addressed or the picture is printed without their knowledge or consent. The compensation of the subject is another issue. Subjects often want to be paid in order for the picture to be published, especially if the picture is of a controversial subject.
Another major issue of photojournalism is photo manipulation. What degree is acceptable? Some pictures are simply manipulated for colour enhancement, whereas others are manipulated to the extent where people are edited in or out of the picture. War photography has always been a genre of photojournalism that is frequently staged. Due to the bulkiness and types of cameras present during past wars in history, it was rare when a photograph could capture a spontaneous news event. Subjects were carefully composed and staged in order to capture better images.
Another ethical issue is false or misleading captioning. The 2006 Lebanon War photographs is a notable example of some of these issues.
The emergence of digital photography offers whole new realms of opportunity for the manipulation, reproduction, and transmission of images. It has inevitably complicated many of the ethical issues involved.
Often, ethical conflicts can be mitigated or enhanced by the actions of a sub editor or a picture editor, who takes control of the images once they have been delivered to the news organisation. The photo journalist often has no control as to how images are ultimately used.
Smaller, lighter cameras greatly enhanced the role of the photo journalist. Since the 1960s, motor drives, electronic flash, auto focus, better lenses and other camera enhancements have made picture taking easier. New digital cameras free photo journalists from the limitation of film roll length, as thousands of images can be stored on a single memory card.
Content remains the most important element of photojournalism, but the ability to extend deadlines with rapid gathering and editing of images has brought significant changes. As recently as 15 years ago, nearly 30 minutes were needed to scan and transmit a single colour photograph from a remote location to a news office for printing. Now, equipped with a digital camera, a mobile or a laptop computer, a photo journalist can send a high-quality image in minutes, even seconds after an event occurs.
Camera phones and portable satellite links increasingly allow for the mobile transmission of images from almost any point on Earth.
Photojournalism has been defined as photography intended, in conjunction with text, to convey information about a topical event.
Photo editing awaits precise definition. It is this invisible genius of the photo editor who selects the one and only frame from hundred thousand frames in this digital era to fulfil the ancient proverb ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’.
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group