What makes good photojournalism?

“A camera is a mechanical device which records a moment in time, but not what that moment means or the emotions that it evokes. Whereas, a painting, however imperfect it may be, is an expression of… feeling. An expression of love. Not just a copy of something.” (Charles Ryder in Brideshed Revisited).

As a painter, I shared Charles’s skepticism towards photography.

A camera can depict a face mid-expression – distorting emotion and capturing an image that never existed in real time. A photo can portray one side of a story but too easily crop out the other. You can shoot with altered lighting, backdrop, context, thus impacting mood and story implication.

As Ric Stevens (Deputy Editor at the Press) said today, you can never take too much care when selecting a photograph to accompany a news story.

What makes good photojournalism?

Photographer Paul Comon said great photographers take images that “cross language barriers, appeal to people of all age groups, and to individuals of both sexes equally.”

“Subject content, and its proper treatment, is the most important element of any image.”

International expert on photojournalism Ken Kobre said the most dramatic photojournalism results not from city desk assignments, but from breaking news situations.

The most powerful shots are “real”, not prearranged; photographers are observers, not stage-directors.

This means that the best time to take photographs often isn’t the best time to do an interview.

Kobre said that “the photographer and reporter should not become joined at the hip. Each has different needs. One is following the action as it flows down a street, while the other is checking a quote and making sure the name is spelled correctly.”

But what if the “photographer” and the “reporter” are the same journalist?

The benefit of writers taking photographs is their background knowledge of the story. This contextual awareness ensures that words and images develop alongside each other, in the most complementary way.

As news moves online, we are provided with literally limitless space for uploading images without incurring additional costs. Given the visual-heavy nature of the internet, photojournalism is on the rise.

Sam Ruttyn’s Nikon Walkley award winning photo essay in the Sunday Telegraph encapsulates the ideal relationship between photo- and print journalism (and of course it helps that Rosie Squires is a very good writer).

The winning image appeared on the paper’s front page, and accompanied Squires’s article inside.

Ruttyn’s shots of five-year old Josh Carter preparing for another round of brain surgery were unembellished, yet powerful.

Ruttyn described the photo shoot as the most amazing of his career to date.

“My five-year old son Archie is almost the exact same age as Josh so it was quite confronting to watch the surgery up close like I did,” he said.

Ruttyn’s pictures force me to disagree with Charles Ryder. With the Carter images as proof – photography does have the potential to express feelings.

Image credit: Photographic Communication, edited by R. Smith Schuneman