the fake / warring factions
If you haven’t heard about the two students who staged photos in the style of classic reportage, read about it over at Horses Think. Yes, photojournalism has been stylized and has a gritty, scraped off the bottom of a shoe feel to it, but the stunt itself is pretty pointless in my opinion. All they really proved was that it’s possible to fake something, which, come on, we’ve all known for a very long time. It’s the basis of the entire fashion and motion picture industries.
They missed their own point – while they were interested in making a dramatic statement, the magazine was more interested in funding a photographer trying to reporting meaningful content. If the series had been an explicitly stated as staged, it would still work in a personal work context, but it’s fairly meaningless to say, “look, you were fooled,” when there’s no real way a viewer can tell if this type of photo is staged from the photo itself. If anything, they make a compelling argument for credential photojournalists who can be held accountable for the veracity of their content.
The incident did, however, recall the discussion over at VII Agency with Stephen Mayes, Gary Knight and Tim Hetherington about war and photography. They address the same issue those two students claim to be getting at in a much more interesting way. Hetherington says that even no aesthetic is an aesthetic. I take that to mean we may as well accept that styles are a part of journalism as much as they are of art, if only because as a business matter, individual photographers feel a need to develop some coherent body of work and a personal style is an aspect of that, or at least seems to be expected. That’s not news (excuse the pun). And as Knight points out, audiences eventually become bored with prevailing styles and an infusion of something new is not necessarily a bad thing.
There’s a lot ripping around the internet about the crisis in photojournalism. I don’t know if it’s really a crisis – more like an evolution into something better, more complex, which takes into account what’s outside the frame and admits to the fact that eyewitness accuracy is not the same thing as truth in any comprehensive sense.
Is art encroaching on journalism? Is photojournalism trying to be art? This debate almost has the feel of two sides duking it out, but when you think about it, nobody is encroaching on anybody else’s territory. There’s plenty of room for both eyewitness photography of discrete events as well as documentary work aiming to speak on larger trends that involves more ‘interference’ by the photographer. The two are complementary and the subject benefits from an application of both, so I don’t see why both types of images can’t co-exist on the page. Some notion of aesthetic coherence?
[The idea of building a coherent style has bugged me from the start. That seems to be aimed solely at having an optimally marketable product, being someone a client or customer can expect certain things from. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that when a photographer branches out into different styles most of the time he is better at some than others, and this gives the impression that his work is technically inconsistent. But if you are technically proficient in several styles, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t work in all of them if you can manage it, right?]
One of the VII guys said that the crisis is happening less in photojournalism than in print media overall. I agree. Photojournalism is changing, print media is in crisis. But I suppose since print media is traditionally where photojournalism lives, photojournalism is in crisis by association. I don’t think it’s as big an issue as the blogs, bless ’em, make it out to be.