Friday, February 12, 2010

Making the grade: What makes a good picture?

I'm in the process of evaluating my Georgia Southern University photojournalism class' first graded assignment for the semester: portraits.

Their task was to create a journalistic portrait of a subject of their choice. The goal was to communicate something about the unique character and personality of their subject -- in a photograph.

It's a challenge for people who typically evaluate portraits, or any photograph, for their aesthetic value alone. While aesthetics are certainly a consideration, it is not the ultimate standard in photojournalism.

It's something I struggle to explain, at times, because assessing photographs seems like such a subjective thing, on the surface. Personal taste varies wildly, and many beginners have a hard time accepting criticism about a picture, especially when they feel that their grade might not reflect their honest effort.

So what does make a good picture?

Dennis Dunleavy, who teaches photojournalism at Southern Oregon University, wrote a post on his blog about this very topic.

Dunleavy very eloquently (and correctly) asserts that the value of news photographs is in their ability to persuade. Can this photograph make people notice? Can it make them care?

"... a picture, through its variety of visual cues, establishes a context of understanding that shapes perception and constructs a sense of reality," he says.

I told my students, on the first day of class, that this course will not be an introduction to photography, rather it will be an introduction to visual communication.

For the photojournalist, the reward isn't making someone like your photograph. The reward is when people - lots of people - get the message you intend your photograph to communicate. Quickly. Immediacy is one of the most powerful attributes of the still photograph. You will lose most of your audience if they have to search and ponder for meaning or relevancy.

Things like composition, angles, perspective, and lighting are aesthetic qualities. They are important, but in the end, they are simply tools to help achieve the real goal: communication.

Portraits can be complex, providing multiple visual clues about their subjects: expressions, gestures, body language, clothing, props, background objects. But some of the most powerful portraits are simple. 

One of the most famous portraits ever made, a photograph of Afghan girl Sharbat Gula made for National Geographic by Steve McCurry in 1985, is a study in simplicity. Little more than a head-and-shoulders shot, made against a door, providing a soft, monochromatic background. In this simple portrait, there are multiple, though subtle, visual clues about the the girl. But what made the photograph so memorable was her eyes.

Those eyes. They still allow us to connect, twenty-five years later, in a very immediate and emotional way to a girl and her people who were fleeing conflict between the Soviet Union and Afghan rebels.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It's about connections. Emotional, universal connections.  

That's what makes a good picture.

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