We are not the paparazzi. While photojournalists often have to photograph famous people, we do not stalk our subjects, provoke them, and then sell the photographs to the highest bidder. We do attempt to fade into the background and be unobserved ourselves. Not to steal moments in a voyeuristic way. Rather to get out of the way and let life's honest moments present themselves. A photojournalist is an observer. And a recorder. And a sharer.
One could describe a photojournalist as a reporter, and photography is his or her medium, instead of words. But that would be inadequate, as well.
Reporting is the act of gathering information and presenting it to an audience. Journalism, on the other hand, is more complex. Reporting is part of it, but journalism requires the analysis of information, then breaking it down, sorting through it, and presenting it in a compelling and relevant way for audiences. And the whole process is guided by an ethical code including the concepts of fairness and accuracy. The viability of information must be confirmed and its meanfulness should be established.
In this sense, the mission of the photojournalist is the same as his word-plying brethren, be it the spoken or written word. The standards are the same: citizens must be able to trust that the pictures they see are fair and accurate representations of the content depicted.
One question I am often asked is “Do you write stories, too, or are you just a photographer?”
It’s evidence of a word-centric society that doesn’t realize just how important visual communication is becoming in the modern world. Since its inception, photography has always played an important role in documenting the world, but more and more, society is bombarded with images meant to communicate. However, we are often unaware or ambivalent about the motivation behind the images, and we tend to lump them all together.
Most people view photography in a rather casual way. You know, the “Kodak Moment,” with people smiling and acting silly for the camera. Warm, fuzzy moments. But still photography is one of our most effective mediums for communication, even in today’s world of viral videos and endless blogs.
The way photographs depict frozen moments in time is extremely powerful. In photographs, moments are no longer fleeting. They stare us in the face and allows us to examine their messages in great detail. That characteristic creates a direct link to our primal emotions like no other medium of communication. A great photograph is something that you feel. Something that hits you in the gut, not in the head.
That emotional link offers an opportunity to make connections between the viewers of photographs and their subjects. The connection may be with those who live in abject poverty halfway across the world, or the victims of war or abuse. It could be with characters or personalities right here in our own community. Sometimes a connection is as simple as seeing a mother cradle her child at a local festival.
We can see ourselves in other people. Most emotions are universal, regardless of culture or personal beliefs.
The ability to make connections and see beyond the superficial level is what makes photography a powerful tool for communication, whether viewed in a newspaper, in a magazine, on your television, or on your computer screen.