Friday, January 22, 2010

The Mug Shot: Assignments that make photographers want to scream, Part 2

The head shot, or mug shot, as it's referred to by cynical newsroom denizens,  is the most rudimentary kind of photograph published in news periodicals.

Just to be clear to those not schooled in newsroom lingo, "mug shot" refers to any generic head shot, not just police mugs created when someone is arrested. It may also refer to simple photographs of buildings or objects, not just people.

They are ubiquitous and even sometimes necessary - a necessary evil to those who would rather spend their time telling stories with their pictures instead of making mindless snapshots of newsmakers' faces.

Truthfully, although the quality of headshots submitted for publication varies wildly, they are simple for a trained photographer to create. Easy as pie, really.

So why the protest? It has nothing to do with degree of difficulty. Sometimes, the use of mug shots is perfectly appropriate. A simple head shot is frequently all that is necessary to identify someone who makes an interesting quote, but does nothing of particular visual interest. It is customary to publish a head shot of a columnist, as well.

It has more to do with allocation of time, resources, and use of editorial space.

It has been my experience (and that of many other photojournalists I have talked to) that the mug shot is far too frequently the default choice as a visual story element assigned by some editors and writers. A chronic problem? Not really, but just enough to annoy the living daylights out of photographers who are more interested in documenting real people living active lives.

In a past job, I once worked for an editor who was obsessed with mug shots. The newsroom management was pushing for more visuals, and this editor insisted on mug shots of people quoted in stories or mentioned in the story lede (that's newsroom lingo for the first paragraph of a story) whenever possible. The editor wanted mug shots of every public official in 3 or 4 counties, including the municipalities within those counties. "Readers want to know what people look like," was the rationale. I never made it to every council and commission meeting, but spent a lot of time shooting head shots of officials sitting behind microphones. It was sheer tedium.

The biggest problem I had with that wasn't the ennui. It's that I wasn't really doing  journalism. Shooting mug shots is a form of documentation and reporting, in a sense. What someone looks like can certainly be considered a "fact." Documentation and reporting can be drudgery - just ask a good investigative writer. But journalism is about documenting facts, sorting through them, and helping people understand how those facts might be important or enlightening. I'm just not convinced that a tiny picture that only shows what someone looks like accomplishes much worthwhile. Color me skeptical.

"Large photos and documentary photos drew more eyes than small photos or staged photos."
-- The Poynter Institute, Eyetracking The News

There's been numerous studies about the reading habits of newspaper readers. One of the most well known facts is that a photograph can significantly increase the readership of an accompanying story. Lesser known, however,  were findings which showed that mug shots do NOT significantly increase readership. And I challenged my editor's notions about mugshots in a meeting about visuals. In front of the executive editor, no less. My challenge was met with skepticism, and I wasn't prepared. I couldn't produce a copy of the report. And, at the time, internet search engines weren't quite so robust, and I couldn't locate the study on the web. Foiled.

So now, a bit belatedly, here it is!

The latest eyetrack studies, focusing on readers' on-line habits this time, confirmed the same findings conducted on printed products years ago: mug shots don't substantially increase readership. A postage stamp-sized mug shot on a test page was viewed by only 10% of participants.

To be fair, this study mostly considers the size of photographs on web pages and concluded that bigger photos hold the eye longer than smaller photos - well, duh! The study also determines that faces drew the eye, which, on the surface, might give some credence to the notion that readers want to know what people look like. It's not rocket science, though - viewers' eyes will be drawn to faces in a picture - regardless of the type of picture. That's human nature.

Mug shots are typically published very small. And this study strongly suggests that small photos don't get much attention, even if they show what someone looks like. And it suggests they aren't likely increase readership of the accompanying story.

Based on this study, however, the only case you can make for using mug shots with every story is if you use them big - and that might produce a fistfight with me.

Another study, a little older but more thorough, strongly suggested that large photos and documentary photos drew more eyes than small photos or staged photos. Mug shots received relatively little attention. More vindication?

Ultimately, this topic is not such a big deal. Fact is, with photo staffs shrinking at newspapers everywhere, editors are much more likely to stick a point-and-shoot camera in a reporter's hand and ask him or her to produce a mug shot for a story. So most staff photojournalists are largely relieved from this duty, albeit for dubious reasons.

Hmmmm. This post might be the result of an ornery mood. Maybe the result of writers block with a blog newbie. Perhaps an exercise in catharsis, in response to long ago unsuccessful attempts to enlighten the visually challenged. These things bubble up on occasion. I hope, oh readers, that you may be entertained, if not enlightened.

One thing for certain, THIS photographer needs a better mug shot of himself -- for the paper, that is, not for police files.

Any volunteers?


  1. BUT, one thing you didn't mention, Scott, is that we sometimes use mugs to break up blocks of gray when we have nothing else. You might argue that's just bad design, but there's certainly the issue of deadline pressure because those of us that design pages also do many other things in this multimedia world, as you well know. Not arguing, just sayin'.

  2. Of course, Eddie. Never meant to imply that there aren't legit uses for mug shots. Mug shots often serve as simple graphic elements to, as you noted, to break up blocks of gray -- much the same way pull quotes, info boxes, etc. are used. Nothing wrong with that.

    Nor did I mean to say that photojournalists should ever feel that making mug shots is a task that's beneath them.

    My main gripe is when some feel that mugs are necessary elements for every story. Or when mugs are used to to fill some requirement for visual elements to a story. To me, mugs don't count. There should be discussion about how to approach stories visually. You know that. Not everyone does.

    I could go on about mugs (like how letting political candidates supply their own mug shots to the paper is usually a very BAD idea), but I think I've already gone on too long.

    Maybe I need to write funnier ...

  3. That's one BIG mugshot of you Scott. I think I worked for that same mugshot editor you reference.

    My paper has a set size (small) that all mugs are "supposed" to run. We don't get many out of the office mugshot assignments and try to get subjects to come to the office if possible.

    I don't fancy them either, but try to remember that it's probably the only time that person is going to get their picture in the paper. And I do agree they are often used to break up a gray page.

    But, the real problem I have is an extension of the mugshot - the environmental portrait. We get a lot of those, many of which I think ought to be mugshots.

    It's really a matter of poor or late planning. A story is scheduled for 1A and the photo is thought of at the last minute. And it's either 1.get a good portrait of the subject, or 2.find a stand alone photo to run. In this case I'm damn sure I'm going to make an interesting portrait.

  4. Proof that mug shots should not be published at large sizes!!!

    Totally agree about the environmental portrait, Brian. Not to knock portraiture, but it shouldn't really be the preferred approach.

    How many times do you think photojournalists get asked "Can you snap a picture for me?" Mug shots and portraits are the results of that approach.

    The default approach to photography for any kind of news publication should always be documentary photojournalism. And the research backs up that view.

    But that approach takes commitment and cooperation. Not to mention knowledge about the process of creating documentary photojournalism. There IS a process.


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