Spring 2010 | Online Exclusives

Steps Learned Along the Way: Redefining Photojournalism’s Power

‘Even in the best of times, even when highly recognized within the field itself, our images are only tools, not an end in themselves.’

By Wendy Watriss
Taking photographs and telling a story with them is only the first step. Photojournalism at its best embodies our ability to benefit the issues and RELATED ARTICLE
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people with whom we connect. When photojournalism loses its sense of mission, it can descend into adventurism or opportunism and, at worst, a continuation of historic forms of exploitation. It is incumbent on photojournalists to make their work an effective medium for change. With this in mind, we should use the Internet to reenergize the field with its new possibilities.

Historically, photojournalism has resided somewhere between reportage, the delivery of information, and individual interpretation. Its effectiveness relies on a strong public platform and powerful modes of distribution. For decades its capacity has been linked to mass media, particularly print, because of its potential to reach large audiences in a credible manner.

From the 1920’s into the late 1960’s print-based photojournalism strongly influenced public opinion. But even as remarkable photojournalism was going on during the Vietnam War, another visual medium, television, began to exert a more powerful impact on public awareness and conscience. It could reach far greater audiences and do so far more rapidly than print. The financial resources of television exceeded most print outlets.

Today the Internet—with its larger reach, more rapid delivery, cheaper cost, and interactivity—challenges both print and broadcast media. It is decentralized, open, inclusive and versatile. It has disrupted everything, including how photojournalists are paid. It is forcing photojournalists to find new outlets to present their work. Today, however, unlike 30 years ago when serious picture magazines started to fail, the Internet offers more opportunities and platforms for photojournalism.

On the other hand, it is the very democratic nature of the Internet that poses a serious challenge to photojournalism. Without any accepted vetting of online information and pictures, it can be time-consuming and difficult to determine what can be trusted or how to read the information one finds. With amateur and ill-informed opinion as easily arrived at as more serious and responsible information, the idea of credibility is being uprooted. This situation presents real difficulties for photojournalism because so much of its power has been connected to the credibility—and influence—of its source of distribution.

My media experiences offer me many vantage points from which to evaluate the effectiveness of media distribution. I’ve worked professionally with newspapers, television, photojournalism, independent documentary photography, and now the museum and gallery world. One of my biggest lessons has been in learning the benefits and limitations of different methods of distribution. Concerned photography requires a method of distribution that imbues it with power. Generally, it’s the ingenuity and commitment of the individual photographer that makes it work.

During the first four years of my professional life, I reported for a newspaper in St. Petersburg, Florida and then moved to New York to be an associate producer for one of the great experiments in television, the Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL), the predecessor to PBS, created to offer an informed alternative to commercial television. For the first time public television went national in prime time covering news and cultural events. For three years, some of the best and brightest from both television and the print media produced extensive news essays on the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the farm workers movement, electoral politics, and drug laws. Content and visual imagery were both taken seriously. It was innovative, exciting and it made a difference because influential people watched it.

In the early 1970’s, I began to freelance as a reporter-writer and photographer, doing work for Newsweek and The New York Times in Central and Eastern Europe, along with feature stories for magazines like Smithsonian. Returning to the U.S. with the aim of rediscovering my own country at its roots, I embarked on a long documentary photography and oral history project on political and cultural frontiers in Texas with my partner Frederick Baldwin. After finishing a book based on that project, I turned back to my longtime concern with war and its effects.

Agent Orange: As Journalism


By 1980, combat in Vietnam had ended, but veterans were battling the long-term effects of that war. Their physical and mental problems were largely being ignored. They were often the object of belittlement and scorn and blamed for their disabilities. It was then that I began to look into Agent Orange—what it was, how it had been used in Vietnam, and what were its traceable long-term effects. There was the start of a lawsuit and veterans’ groups were fighting to gain public recognition for the issues of veterans’ health and the impact on their children. The media, as a whole, paid little attention.

My long-term immersion in the issue of Agent Orange and the realities of Vietnam veterans’ post-war experience took me from dioxin to the building of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. After doing some early photographs, I was fortunate to find a Life magazine editor who had been in Vietnam and was interested in the project. Life, though a shadow of its former self, was still open to publishing social documentary work. For a year and a half I had the magazine’s support to travel around the country visiting veterans, veterans’ families, activists, VA hospitals, and medical researchers. I had the best situation that photojournalism could offer at a time when an important magazine was still publishing such stories.

I knew that Vietnamese civilians and veterans and Australian and South Korean veterans also suffered the same effects as U.S. veterans. The response of their governments was the same—ignore it, blame the victims, cover up the problem. I tried to convince Life to publish Philip Jones Griffiths’s work on Agent Orange in Vietnam alongside my U.S. work. I thought that the story of Agent Orange, its use, its history and the aftermath of its spraying revealed such a flagrant misuse of power that the subject needed to be exposed in its totality. The issue of chemical warfare was not the only important aspect of this story; it was also the issue of governments sending people to war and then deliberately failing to care for them when they returned, wounded and damaged.

Life would not publish the photographs showing the damage in Vietnam and to Vietnamese civilians. My work on its pages, however, was recognized with a major World Press Award, Leica’s Oskar Barnack award, and other prizes. After appearing in the pages of Life, my photographs were widely circulated as the story reverberated throughout the journalistic world.

In the end, however, the recognition my photographs received changed very little for the veterans. They were still suffering.

Agent Orange: As Visual Instigator


So I stepped away from my role as photographer/reporter to find other platforms for my work. I joined forces with veterans’ groups to develop political organizing strategies that could reach people in power and bring about tangible reforms for veterans. Using these photographs in political arenas, we generated public hearings in the Texas Legislature and later with Congressional committees on Capitol Hill that resulted in state and federal mandates to improve medical treatment for veterans and official recognition of disabilities related to Agent Orange exposure. These mandates created a benchmark for evaluating treatment of veterans from the first Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The legislation also helped set a precedent for recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder as a legitimate disability.

I also put together a portable exhibition with the photography of Griffiths, Mike Goldwater and Goro Nakamura in Vietnam alongside my Agent Orange photographs. The exhibit went to hospitals, medical schools, and state legislatures. We gave the exhibit to veterans’ groups who have been touring it for more than 25 years.

I learned much from the Agent Orange experience, but perhaps the most valuable lesson was having to confront the limitations of photojournalism. Even in the best of times, even when highly recognized within the field itself, our images are only tools, not an end in themselves. To practice photojournalism in a way that brings meaning and change requires photographers to think past the boundaries of this profession.

My Agent Orange work and other assignments drove home the limitations of mass media and the print medium in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I wasn’t alone among photojournalists in realizing this. It pushed me in another direction, cofounding, with Fred Baldwin, an international platform and showcase for issue-based and creative photography. Based in Houston, Texas, FotoFest is a platform for art and ideas. Its purpose is to create and expand opportunities for talented photographers from around the world to present and distribute their work, enabling them to find new outlets and push the field toward further possibilities.

Other photojournalists have moved in other directions as they seek similar RELATED ARTICLES
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goals. There is Pedro Meyer with ZoneZero and James Nachtwey and others with VII Photo Agency. Photographers like Susan Meiselas have worked with activist citizen groups while others such as Heather McClintock and Donna De Cesare have aligned with nongovernmental organizations.

Another development is the work of journalist entrepreneurs who are experimenting with multimedia presentations and developing channels to distribute their work online. This is happening at VII and, in a different way, with MediaStorm, whose Web-based platforms are having a significant impact.

Photojournalism is at a new crossroads. The challenge is how to build credible online platforms that reach important audiences and take photojournalism beyond itself. Photojournalism has to build a strong public presence, a constituency of public concern. It needs to better promote its sense of mission and change. These are the challenges of photojournalism today.

Wendy Watriss is a photographer, curator, journalist, writer, and cofounder and artistic director of FotoFest, an international photographic arts and education organization based in Houston, Texas.

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