Misery Is Photogenic

Posted on 3/24/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

On his blog Enzo dal Verme reported on last weekend’s “La Fotografia In Italia” conference in Milan. He commented, “One of the themes that emerged and seemed to touch a raw nerve in many of those present, was the fact that the majority of features on the market cover tragedies. Raffaella Carretta, the editor of Gioia, was the one who broached the topic saying that she couldn’t stand pictures of poor Indian kids and the like any longer. Her statement provoked a few raised eyebrows, but most of the other participants expressed opinions similar to hers.”

It was pointed out that “disasters and misery are easy targets for photojournalists, especially when they are shot in the Third World, because you can get exotic images with a high emotional charge. Images of disasters closer to the First World (where the readers usually are) are not entertaining, they are scary. …A few photographers reacted saying that they produce what the market asks for. Someone said that photojournalism is there to reveal the ugliness of our world and documenting various aspects of tragedies is right and proper.”

Enzo said he prefers photojournalism that is inspiring, but acknowledged that “in the distressing panorama of today’s information industry, anything not related to the celebrity culture or a disaster seems to get very little space.”

Given the declining space available for imagery in print publications, it seems that anyone with hopes of a career (that’s earning a living) in photojournalism needs to concentrate on photographing either celebrities or disasters. Many photographers may lament the lack of uplifting stories. Others may choose to avoid pathos when documenting events and try to provide a more balanced perspective. But, I suspect that when their work is presented to the editors it will be rejected if pathos is available from a competitor. And, if there is no pathos, the editor may reject the story entirely and go with a completely different story.
We are also living in a society that has become much more focused on instant information in short burst that supports pre-conceived notions. Fewer and fewer people are willing to take the time to explore an issue in depth, or even to check facts. This leads to a desire for dramatic and shocking imagery, not images that might give a truer picture of a situation in all of its complexities.

Enzo reported that Magnum photographer Ferdinando Scianna told of an experience he had when going to cover an earthquake. “A fellow photographer on the plane took a doll with a smashed head out of his bag. The photographer confided that the prop was always in his luggage when he covered natural disasters so he could place it here and there in order to add some drama to a picture.” After narrating this episode, Scianna made it clear he feels photojournalism should be about documenting reality, not about creating spectacular or tragic images.

Another example of pictures that don’t tell the whole story was the 1993 photo of an emaciated and exhausted little Sudanese girl collapsed on the ground with a vulture nearby ready to move and taken by South African photographer Kevin Carter. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod has attracted Carter to this emaciated Sudanese toddler. She had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon the vulture landed nearby. Carter waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn't. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. He was later criticized for just photographing — and not helping — the little girl.

Is There An Alternative To Print?

Some photographers are discovering that there is a growing cause related market for imagery that will be used mostly online, and in some cases in brochures, to assist non-profit organizations in raising funds. Many of these organizations are willing to fund projects and pay reasonable rates for photographs that will help them raise awareness for, and fund, their cause.

While many of these organizations will plead poverty and ask for, or expect, images for free a number recognize that when their story is told by skilled professionals who delivers a professional looking product their revenue raising capabilities are enhanced.
Such organizations will also use pathos to tell their story and are not immune from using the most heart wrenching imagery to motivate viewers. Some may occasionally set up images that distort reality, but at least they usually have a more comprehensive understanding of the situation than a reporter who has flown in for a quick stop, or an editor who has never left his office in a major city.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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