Part III: The Challenge of the 21st Century Photojournalism
Stephen Mayes finds journalism in general to be a conservative medium. One of the biggest challenges among many, he notes, is that traditionally most photojournalists and editors have the picture in their mind before they arrive on the scene. Mayes himself has contended with this challenge and weathered “some really bruising ethical battles”, during which he has learned that in the issue of ethics, there are never two sides to the issue.
“When I'm discussing ethics, I insist I see at least three perspectives at the table… I always have the protagonist, the plaintiff and a third party at the table when discussing ethical issues because it is always fascinating what comes out when you do.”
Mayes is not just hypothetically on the battle lines of these ethical fights. From his work with HIV/AIDS communities to jurying numerous photography awards to his directorship of the Tim Hetherington Trust, Mayes has had to contend with how the transferring of traditional photojournalism ethics into a new media landscape can harm media literacy.
He recounts three examples of how these ethical debates have played out both negatively and positively: 1) Time Magazine’s story ‘Opioid Diaries’ published online in February of 2019, and in print on March of the same year; 2) the controversy over some of the images in Poulomi Basu’s longterm project, ‘A Ritual of Exile’ raised by her technical producer; and 3) the success of ‘Everyday Africa,’ a photoblog and collective of 30 photographers capturing daily life in Africa.
photographed by James Nachtwey
A Bad Habit
As a first example, in his essay, ‘A Bad Habit,’ published on Medium on May 22, 2018, Stephen Mayes reflects on Time’s ‘Opioid Diaries’ piece, photographed by James Nachtwey, for which he received praise within the industry because it was an entire issue covering one of the most devastating epidemics in the United States without advertisements. While the photojournalism industry celebrated the publication, Mayes was taking pause to ask, what good have we really done with this piece regarding how the epidemic is understood? Despite the correct methods of collection seemingly being used, Mayes points to what he believes is an old, problematic visual trend in the piece: the implicit bias inherent to the story that results in presenting an incomplete depiction or portrayal of the matter or issue at hand.
“Seeing this photo geek's fantasy made real on the page inspired a recognition of everything we’ve gained with social media and the diverse perspectives that enrich our understanding of the world. Through social media, I’ve been invited into the lives and homes of people stunned by the impact of opioids represented in the most intimate personal detail, shared online for all to learn from. I recall especially the video diary — sadly no longer online — recorded by a man in his middle-class home, an environment familiar to millions, as he shot up, climbed into the car and drove singing to work. Day in and day out it was an otherwise unremarkable life that continued like most people’s in a routine of ups and downs (metaphorical and literal), until the day it suddenly stopped. No visiting photographer could have captured the casual spirit of his relationship with his drug, nor the bewildered response of his widow as she found the recordings and remembered those same days, but understood their significance now for the first time. It is a story of devastating poignancy, made powerful by the very banality of the circumstances and our familiarity with the characters and their roles."
Mayes concludes that while the method of collecting these images fall in line with traditional ethical requirements, the story lacked an all-encompassing visual comprehension of those affected by the opioid crisis. Instead, when looking through the series of images in the ‘Opioid Diaries’ (like many professionals working on the ground, or those who have lost loved ones), Mayes was left asking, “... is this really what the epidemic looks like today?"
Ultimately, Mayes main concern is the potential risk and social implications that stories that lack comprehensive visual context could have upon the very people they claim to want to help. He reflects on how the story relies on what he describes as the junky behind the dumpster narrative, albeit with beautiful images, that may look good on the page, but arguably does not encompass the myriad voices of addiction in America today.
"These are not even the people next door; they are us in so many unremarkable details that simply would not have made it into the language of the 20th-century photo essay. They have no place in Nachtwey’s cataclysmic representation of broken lives lived under bridges and on the streets with law enforcement as the only point of contact with the sober world. Suddenly, seeing the opioid crisis represented an apocalyptic black and white imagery (a stylized form of news representation carried over from the 20th-century) we recognize that the victims of drug-use and social exclusion are now victimized again by the camera. Why are they the exclusive representatives of an epidemic that claims 60,000 lives a year across all walks of life?”
Mayes expands on to say:
“Time’s magnum opus to one of the most devastating crises of our generation is far too visually reminiscent of those mid-20th Century images shot by Eppridge in Needle Park that both created the visual vocabulary of photojournalism today and helped relegate photojournalistic storytelling overall to intense, stark, single-issue narratives; narratives that are now being challenged by the power of social media image saturation.”
In an article published by the Pew Research Center titled Newsroom employees are less diverse than U.S. workers overall, writer Elizabeth Grieco wrote: More than three-quarters (77%) of newsroom employees – those who work as reporters, editors, photographers and videographers in the newspaper, broadcasting, and internet publishing industries – are non-Hispanic whites, according to the analysis of 2012-2016 American Community Survey data.
Is there a correlation between how stories are conceived due to the lack of diversity in newsrooms and, as Mayes express, the implicit bias inherent to the story that results in presenting an incomplete depiction or portrayal of the matter or issue at hand?
'A Right to Remain Silent?'
Juxtaposed to the ‘Opioid Diaries’ visual story, Mayes ponders over the controversy regarding some of the images in the long-term project ‘A Ritual of Exile: Blood Speaks’ by emerging female and Indian photographer Poulomi Basu, which were raised by a technical producer working in her team. The four-year-long transmedia personal project explores the social, emotional and physical consequences of condemning women during menstruation, which in parts of Nepal results in exclusion, isolation, and defamation perpetrated under the guise of tradition.
In 2017, after the New York Times Lens Blog published the story in an article titled In Nepal, a monthly exile for women on January 5, 2017, Poulomi Basu’s technical producer questioned her methods of collecting work for her project, specifically in reference to two images.
An editor's note appended on April 17 of the same year stated :
“After the publication of this article, questions were raised about the circumstances under which several photographs were taken. Because of incorrect information provided by the photographer, a portrait of Saraswati, a 16-year-old mother of a newborn, was accompanied by an inaccurate caption. The caption asserted that Saraswati was “forced to stay in a closed dark room” with her child, that “she was not allowed to clean herself” and that she “was forced to cook” in the room while her newborn “coughed from the smoke.” Actually, mother and child left the room — where the door was often open — when her husband cooked meals and waited outside until the smoke cleared. Moreover, Saraswati also went outside twice a day, including in the morning to wash.
Another image of Saraswati being taken to a hospital on a stretcher did not mention that the photographer and an associate paid for the stretcher. Had editors known this, the image would not have been used.
Both images have been removed from the slide show.”
Mayes recounts his conversation with Poulomi Basu’s technical producer after the scandal erupted for the story had been shortlisted for the Tim Hetherington Trust’s Visionary Award. As Mayes worked to navigate the scandal he repeatedly bumped into the following issue, which he explains:
“I met [Poulomi Basu’s technical producer] who was accusing her of various transgressions in the field and he had this dossier of stuff. It was all very compelling and very convincing. But at the end of an hour talking to him, I said, ‘Okay, I don't know Poulomi, but given that all this may be true, how do we address these issues without damaging the women of Nepal [who are the focus of the story]? Because what you're saying is to kill the story and frankly that's not acceptable. There's a serious issue here.’
Nobody's challenging the [importance of the story in itself], just the manner in which it has been covered. All the bells went off in my head. All these organizations who are pulling the work were basically throwing Nepalese women under the bus; the book was pulled, The New York Times pulled her work, Sundance canceled on her. It was the industry’s peremptory response which came at the expense of these Nepalese women that got me really interested.”
Mayes further investigated this scandal by having a conversation with Poulomi Basu, published on the Tim Hetherington Trust website, in which she expressed in her own words:“The institutions of Western media have culturally appropriated the issues to put themselves in a dominant position so that they may cast judgment from a position of perceived cultural superiority. I believe this to be the case with some of the negative reactions within major institutions that decided to sidetrack ‘A Ritual Of Exile’. My perception and expertise, informed by both my professional practice and my life, is being denied by institutions that are unwittingly reinforcing the structures of patriarchy and prejudice.”
Poulomi Basu added the following note:
"He wasn't my 'fixer'. He was a technical producer working on my team. The Indian Court of Justice has now got a criminal case against him for harassing me and stalking and defaming me and he is absconding!!"
Stephen Mayes compels our industry to analyze our rigor regarding the methods of production alongside the inherent biases perpetuated by maintaining the outdated ethical systems and subsequent aesthetic methods of image production.
Whether one agrees or not, there is something to be said about the fact that with a growing demographic of freelance, emerging photojournalists, primarily working on self-funded long-term projects (some of which are supported by grants), media publications should make available a set of clear guidelines around what is expected for publication. This is about accountability, and it should not rely entirely on photojournalists, who already struggle with access to clear direction and paid opportunities.
'Everyday Africa' is a success story.
Stephen Mayes highlights a success story ‘Everyday Africa, the Instagram photo-blog, which aims to capture daily life in Africa. Started in March 2012 by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merill, the collective of 30 contributing photographers has gained a strong social media presence.
A dynamic alternative in storytelling, Mayes celebrates the images and spirit of ‘Everyday Africa’:
“I have watched the Everyday Africa stream on Instagram with a great interest for some time. Speaking as [someone from a Western Country], our perception of Africa has always been so restricted, so limited. We have only ever seen it in terms of famine, war, and poverty. To understand the fact that someone who is malnourished can also go shopping and get married is quite shocking and everyday Africa embraces that in a way, which is I think the most revealing of all the Everyday feeds.
To me, it's almost like it's the inverse of journalism as we've understood it. Journalism I grew up with was always a process of exclusion.
Here’s the irony; 20th-century journalism is all about excluding information. In other words, if we are doing a story on famine, we exclude all of the other information [around that story]. So when we make a photograph [the people we are photographing have] to look hungry and we, therefore, end up stereotypes, which to some degree are useful, but we don't tell the full story of that person. That person who is starving is also in love, is the child of a parent, also has political views, or goes shopping. That person has a full life.”
People are going to come to us and explain what the protocols for photography will be. [I believe], we are not going to be the ones who set them and we need to pay attention.
“People are going to come to us and explain what the protocols for photography will be. [I believe], we are not going to be the ones who set them and we need to pay attention."
DO WE ONLY CONNECT WITH WHAT SEEMS FAMILIAR AND AFFIRMATIVE?
In Mayes’ experience as a jury member for some of the most prestigious photography awards, he sees that audiences are in fact drawn to what is familiar and affirmative.
“So all these pictures, which look like something we've seen before, those are the ones that win the prizes. Any image that looks like something we've seen before is already 10 notches ahead in terms of juries. And to be honest, I get it. I look at these and I feel reassured. It's neat. It's comforting. I understand it. It's not the sort of measure of snobbery. It's just a matter of recognizing how we as humans respond to what we see. It is the same process in marketing.”
Mayes asserts that we are living deeply in a new visual context and, as an industry, we must be open to challenging those same inclinations and diversifying the vocabulary of the visual image: including, how it is collected, discussed and permeated.
As Mayes so well explains:
Those of us who consider ourselves as the gatekeepers [of the photojournalism industry] are so far behind being gatekeepers that it is just laughable, but unfortunately, [some of us] still believe we are…
If we think that sitting at some fancy picture desk is going to enable us to control the ethics and the realities of how people are seeing photography - we're not at all. What we are doing is we're feeding into a culture that is reading imagery and it will read the imagery as it chooses, not how we choose and we need therefore to be super responsive to what's going on there. We can rally, cry, and scream as much as we liked about how bad things are and against the history of everything we've understood, but it does not matter.”
"We panic with the emergence of deep fakes and we can't tell the difference between real and fake ‘photographic’ images anymore and everything is in chaos. Everything is going to stay in chaos because it'll take a while for the ethical standards to emerge, I’m afraid. There’s no one organization that is going to be able to come forward to say, ‘This is a real photograph. This is not a real photograph.’ Rather, this is going to happen on a grassroots level. People are going to come to us and explain what the protocols for photography will be. [I believe], we are not going to be the ones who set them and we need to pay attention.”
Perhaps it is time to embrace the chaos, ask the hard questions, reevaluate and focus on what matters to us as a community, and professional industry— and, ideally, be willing to leave that which does not serve the conversation behind for the sake of the future of visual storytelling.
Written by Clary Estes
Editor: Adriana Teresa Letorney
Published July 28, 2019