Spring 2010 | Online Exclusives

A New Focus: Adjusting to Viewers’ Increasing Sophistication About Images

In an age when visual literacy is common, photojournalists may need to bring fresh sensibilities to their work.

By Jörg M. Colberg

With imagery resembling fine art photography, Jonathan Torgovnik portrays a Rwandan family, in which one daughter was conceived through rape. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik ©.


After more than 50 years of photojournalism—using mostly black and white images, sometimes blurry, sometimes crooked—it is time to realize that this visual tool has become blunt. Perhaps this is why those who judge news photography awards say things like “it feels like we’re seeing the same picture again and again.”

Last year Stephen Mayes, a judge during much of the last decade for the World Press Photo awards, observed that most of the more than 400,000 RELATED ARTICLES
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images he had seen in the annual contest during the past decade “reflect a form of photojournalism that is now more romantic than functional.” His overwhelming impression, he went on to say, is “that photojournalism—as a format for interpreting the world—is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world.”

At a time when many photojournalists are remaking their lives to fit their work into changing business models, it is difficult to raise the topic of how much their visual language also needs to change. Yet, to my mind—as a critic and curator who deals mostly with fine art photography—these two challenges are intertwined. Success will probably not happen in one unless progress is made in the other. No longer can photojournalists afford to rely on clichés, exemplified by predictable poses of weeping mothers and of starving children staring off into the distance, of soldiers cradling their fallen companions, or the countless others each of us can bring to mind. It is important to realize that each of these stories is still in need of telling, but the hoped-for connection between journalist and viewer is not likely to happen anymore in conventional ways.

In fine art photography, the pace of adaptation to a world dominated by images has been quicker, with boundaries being tested and expanded through ubiquitous experimentation. While I am under no illusion that fine art photography can be—or should be—a constructive model for photojournalism, its practitioners have firmly grasped the notion that those who view their work do so with heightened levels of visual literacy. Fashion photographers, for example, borrow from imagery outside of their realm. In doing so they often provoke attention—and garner their share of criticism—as they go for the taboo; some have gone so far as to stage waterboarding. Yet pushing at the edge, as they do, would not work if viewers were not already familiar with such images and with their embedded meta-narratives.

In our time the boundaries between the fine arts and photojournalism (or documentary photography) have become fuzzy. Increased visual literacy accounts for some of this, as fine art book publishers along with fine art museum and gallery directors seek out the work of photojournalists, such as those who’ve been in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring their images to new audiences—or maybe to an audience not being reached by newspapers any longer. And a younger generation of photojournalists, including photographers such as Mikhael Subotzky, Peter van Agtmael, Jonathan Torgovnik, and Jonas Bendiksen, are using an imagery that does not look all that different from the work being produced by fine art photographers.

Added to all of this is the explosion in the number of images being sent and shared, tagged and touted. Clearly the Web is revolutionizing visual communication. Anyone with a mobile phone or computer has access to every kind of image imaginable. All of this demands new skills as people struggle to quickly absorb a deluge of images. Similarly, digital media require us to reassess the manipulative power of imagery, whether it’s being used to sell us something or provoke us to act.

With the viewer’s cultivation of a suspicious eye and digital media tools that make it easier to manipulate images comes an increasing number of questions. Sometimes the manipulation of an image is clearly unethical; other instances merely underscore the realization that what images represent for us today is not the same as it was 50 years ago

In effect, the problem of image manipulation is not the central one, given that photographs have always been manipulated: Strictly speaking, making choices about how to take a photograph is a manipulation—as are various commonly accepted post-processing steps (adjusting contrasts, cropping, etc.). The real problem is that at a time when viewers are able to read images quickly and astutely, they are dealing with media whose credibility has eroded considerably. When trust in those who deliver news diminishes and knowledge about what can be done with photographs spreads—thanks to computers and digital cameras—the expectation that photos have been manipulated increases. Given these circumstances, viewers have plenty of reasons to question the photojournalism that they find in newspapers, magazines and on the Web.

Additionally, as frontline photojournalism reaches viewers, what seems familiar will simply be overlooked or ignored while what is unpredictable—what does not make an obvious attempt to seduce us—will leap out to catch the eye and engage the mind. As viewers find images using an old formula to try to provoke an emotional response, their impulse is to block the attempt and move on. Unless photojournalists find fresh ways to convey what they are seeing, their work won’t reach audiences.

This is where the intersection with changing business models happens. With fewer mainstream media publications able (or willing) to support the efforts of photojournalists, new ways to fund such work must be created. It would be disastrous to view this as only a business or aesthetic problem. What photojournalists do is critical in our democracy, which after all relies on an informed citizenry. Photojournalists have to adapt their visual sensibilities to the literacy level of their audience and they ignore this necessity at their peril. For our democracy, their failure to adjust will have a profound impact on our collective peril.

Jörg M. Colberg is the founder and editor of Conscientious, a blog devoted to contemporary fine art photography. His e-mail is jmcolberg@gmail.com.

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