Photojournalism means reporting visually. Yet this simple definition belies the complexity of a professional media practice whose mission remains constant, while the means of fulfilling that mission and the degree to which one believes it can be fulfilled shift along with technology, culture, and perception.
The defining characteristic of photojournalism is visual portrayal, with contextualizing verbal information, of an event – an observable occurrence that can be as simple as the fleeting moment of a child’s smile or as complex as a country’s struggle to rebuild after war. Henri Cartier-Bresson, often described as the greatest photojournalist of the twentieth century, defined the decisive moment as “one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance” (1952): “Photography must seize upon . . . and hold immobile the equilibrium of” that moment. A founding member of the great picture agency Magnum, CartierBresson believed effective picture stories required engaging the heart, mind, and eye: through “recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things,” the eye finds and focuses “on the particular subject within the mass of reality” and the camera registers “the decision made by the eye.”
Photojournalism images fall into five categories: spot news (significant, unplanned events); general news (ongoing issues and activities); features (interpretative essays about lives, activities, and issues); illustrations (staged or digitally created images communicating concepts); and documentary (long-form picture/word narratives). Subject matter addresses political, cultural, economic, or natural concerns ranging from a single incident (such as the moment when a screaming, burned girl ran from a napalm bombing in Vietnam) to a family’s long-term experiences with the ongoing illness and subsequent death of a grandparent. Serious photojournalism, practiced with the goal of witnessing (or showing the world to itself) should be distinguished from paparazzi photography, with its goal of capturing celebrity life. However, the line between the socially responsible “watchdog” for the public interest and sensationalist voyeur-satisfying insatiable curiosity is as difficult to establish in professional media practice as it is in everyday life.
Discussions of photojournalism’s origins underlie scholarship about visual ways of knowing: the role of the seer versus the role of the seeing technology. Newton (2001), for example, roots visual reportage in the evolution of consciousness through the human need to survey the environment in order to survive. In that case, the medium of reportage is the eye/brain, which mediates stimuli gathered through perception into meaningful information. Such technologies as sketch pads and cameras developed as extensions of the body. Pioneer photojournalism educator Cliff Edom (1976) maintained that cave art was a form of visual reportage, that the “illustrated press” dated back to illuminated Egyptian manuscripts, and that even fine art sometimes portrayed significant events. As early as the 1830s, British and US print publishers relied on field artists to draw scenes for conversion to woodcuts and engravings. In 1842 the Illustrated London News began a 16-page weekly containing 32 woodcuts.
Photographic historians date the beginning of actual photographic reportage to 1826, when the first image was created by means other than the action of a human hand and tool. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s eight-hour exposure (a heliograph) at LeGras recorded the changing patterns of highlights and shadows across the turrets of his estate, making permanent the first light-written image. The oldest extant light recording of a human figure is Jacques Louis Daguerre’s 1838 image of a man having his shoes shined on a Paris street. The daguerreotype, with 20- to 30-minute exposures, captured fine detail for portraiture, as well as such newsworthy events as battle scenes, fires, earthquakes, and uprisings. A daguerreotype of the 1853 train wreck near Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for example, was used as the basis of an engraving published in the New York Illustrated News (Carlbach 1997). Although William Henry Fox Talbot patented his paper negative process in 1841, making possible multiple reproductions of the same “pencil of nature” image, the more durable and detail-sharp wet collodion, glass negative process, introduced in 1851, led to the mass reproduction of photographs in print.
Seeking to record new views of the world, such nineteenth-century enterprisers as Nadar photographed Paris from a hot-air balloon and Frances Frith documented foreign lands. In 1873–1874, John Thompson published a four-volume documentary of life in China and teamed with radical journalist Adolphe Smith on the monthly publication Street Life of London, laying the groundwork for such (now classic) photojournalistic publications as National Geographic magazine, founded in 1888.
Scholars often correlate photojournalism history with technological advances. One benchmark was the development of half-tone techniques for converting continuous photographic tones into dot patterns for letterpress printing. The first newspaper half-tone, A Scene in Shantytown, was published in 1880 in the New York Daily Graphic. Other late nineteenth-century benchmarks included rotogravure, which made possible the reproduction of multiple high-quality copies of text and pictures from a single plate; flash power; roll film; and moving images. Key twentieth-century developments included the 35 mm camera, wire transmission, color printing, stroboscopic flash, offset printing, and digital imaging.
Scholars also cite the critical roles of aesthetic, cultural, and economic forces in photojournalism’s development: artistic and scientific drives toward realistic portrayal of the material world, surveillance and propaganda functions of governments and institutions, economic imperatives of mass distribution systems, public fascination with visual media, experimentation in advertising media, and the rise of modernism. Popular opinion linking photographic realism with the assumption of accurate and transparent representation fostered its use by news publications, as well as natural scientists, and supported growth of the social and behavioral sciences. Social reform highlights were Jacob Riis’s late nineteenth-century visual documentation of New York City slums and Lewis Hines’s early twentieth-century investigation of child labor.
Institutional forces played a key role in the professionalization of photojournalism. This can be seen in the creation of cooperative news agencies such as the Agency France Presse (founded in 1835 as Agence Havas), the Associated Press, Reuters, and United Press International; of organizations such as the Danish Union of Press Photographers (founded in 1912) and the National Press Photographers Association (1946); and of international picture agencies, such as Black Star and Magnum. The great picture magazines, such as the Arbeiter-Illustrierten Zeitung (1921), Münchner Illustrierte Presse (1924), Life (1936), and Look (1937), used high-quality printing techniques in black and white and eventually color to build mass appeal. The magazines were particularly influential in developing the picture story, or photo essay, a carefully designed layout of pictures, captions, and text. Influential Life editor Wilson Hicks (1952) believed word– picture combinations communicated better than either could alone. The picture magazines were largely responsible for the rise of such photographic stars as Margaret BourkeWhite, W. Eugene Smith, and Robert Capa.
For much of the twentieth century, the term “photojournalism,” attributed to University of Missouri journalism dean Frank Luther Mott, referred to reproducing still photographs in combination with words in print publications to report subject matter of immediate and significant interest to the public. Although the major picture magazines lasted only about four decades (except for National Geographic), specialty magazines and books continued to publish photo-documentaries. As the twentieth century progressed and video journalism, information graphics, and digital media developed, they came to be grouped under the inclusive term visual journalism, which can also include editorial cartoons and multimedia packages with both still and moving images, graphics, and audio. This relatively new form, sometimes called new media storytelling, is characteristic of visual news dissemination on Internet sites, particularly as newspapers commit resources to online versions.
Increasingly, the twenty-first-century visual journalist must be skilled not only in making excellent digital photographs but also in combining both still and moving images with text and sound for electronic dissemination via media ranging from home computers to personal display devices. Print publications of visual reportage come and go, while Internet sites such as digitaljournalist.com demonstrate the ease and cost-effectiveness of publishing full-color picture packages for worldwide distribution.
In some ways, this is a return to the “generalist” journalist of the mid-twentieth century, when word journalists were often expected to carry cameras to collect images for their stories. Although specialization prevails, those who can write, shoot, edit, and design have an advantage, especially during times of shifting economies, technologies, and audiences.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of images in mass media, photojournalists still find themselves asserting the reportorial power of authentic photographs over the misperception that pictures are best used to illustrate text and enhance layout. Contemporary analysis of the appropriate role of photography in news reporting founders on issues of truth and privacy under the general term photojournalism ethics. On one end of the ideological continuum are those who argue that all photographs misrepresent reality because they are necessarily “mind driven,” human-motivated, minute slices of time, place, and action. Exacerbating those arguments are abuses of digital manipulation techniques. On the other end are those who argue, as did Andre Bazin (1961), that, because a photograph records the energy of light rays reflected from realworld subjects, photographs hold a referential trace. Film scholar Laura Marks (1999) argues that “electronic images, like all of us, owe their material being to electrons and their associated waveforms,” continuing an interconnectedness with the physically real into virtual space. A related argument is that photographs – whether “straight” (not overtly manipulated) or purposefully altered – provide evidence of something: point of view, editorial judgments, or even the imagination of the image-maker or subject. Defenders of photographic truth also point to the ease with which ideas can be manipulated with words as a general argument for the need for journalism ethics.
Researchers approach the complexity of visual truth by examining both methodological and epistemological characteristics of a particular image or set of images. Methodological refers to technological and behavioral means of image production. Technologies include tools (cameras, lenses, means of recording light, and means of production and dissemination). Behaviors include not only events that garner visual attention (ranging from the subtlety of gesture through the complexity of war) but also the effects of individual differences on interaction between photographers and those observed, and on subsequent preparation of images for publication. Epistemological refers to content issues: what we say an image means. Image content is created, altered, and disseminated (behavior) with technology. Yet the meaning of that content is ultimately created, perceived, altered, disseminated, and forgotten or remembered by viewer minds influenced by the full range of contexts and human differences.
Of particular significance is the issue of the public’s right to know versus the right to privacy. Here again, method and epistemology are interconnected. One methodological shift, for example, is toward professional use of images taken by nonprofessionals (the photos of prisoner abuse taken in Abu Ghraib, for example), whose images and videos are either picked up after major events and distributed via international agencies, or are posted on the Internet. A related shift is toward the use of images of lower technical quality – in part because of the ease of producing digital images with low-tech cameras and in part because lower-quality images may be perceived by an increasingly skeptical public as more authentic than images produced through technical expertise.
Another important shift is the effect of digital imaging on visual archives; film made archiving a matter of storing negatives and prints for later retrieval by fact checkers and historians. Digital images involve decisions to erase files and on how best to protect authenticity. Increased digital storage capacity and pixel-examination software are improving archival practices and image authentication routines. The growing use of stock photography, fueled by digitization and online accessibility of image collections, such as the US Library of Congress and the British Museum, are systematizing image use.
Legal trends throughout the world vary. US courts, for example, increasingly demand that photojournalists turn over their recorded visual evidence, while courts in Japan increasingly honor journalists’ rights to protect their sources. Organizational codes of ethics governing truth and privacy issues continue to be strengthened.
What has not shifted, however, is the commitment of the serious photojournalist to recording history in as authentic a manner as humanly possible. One need only recall the Holocaust to understand the consequences of not having reliable visual evidence readily at hand. Attempts to deny the occurrence and/or extent of the Holocaust eerily echo Orwellian prophesies of vested interests altering truth by erasing and rewriting – or repicturing – history (Brennen & Hardt 1999).
- Bazin, A. (1961). On the ontology of the photographic image. In What is Cinema? (trans. Hugh Gray). Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 14.
- Brennen, B., & Hardt, H. (1999). Picturing the past: Media, history and photography. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
- Carlbach, M. J. (1997). History of photojournalism. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
- Cartier-Bresson, H. (1952). The decisive moment: Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson. New York: Simon and Schuster; Paris: Éditions Verve.
- Edom, C. C. (1976). Photojournalism: Principles and practices. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.
- Hicks, W. (1952). Words and pictures; An introduction to photojournalism. New York: Harper.
- Marks, L. U. (1999). How electrons remember. Millennium Film Journal, 34 (Fall). At http:org/ journalPages/MFJ34/LUMframeset_horiz.html, accessed September 25, 2004.
- Newton, J. H. (2001). The burden of visual truth: The role of photojournalism in mediating reality. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Rosenblum, N. (1997). A world history of photography. New York: Abbeville.
- Schwartz, D. (1992). To tell the truth: Codes of objectivity in photojournalism. Communication, 13, 95–109.