Photojournalism in today’s media would occasionally be better as a written story. The photojournalism in question includes images of topics that are told through protest photography, reporting on social media phenomena, some environmental portraits, and images about economic stress. In these cases, we’re often using images to promote or impose a narrative instead of relaying a visual representation of something that happened. Photography related to these topics can and does take a secondary role with text.
Four main types of stories are prone to misleading imagery:
Protest photography is mostly comprised of crowds, people carrying signs, and interaction between activists and police. These tropes can be effective for raising awareness about a variety of issues, but what does an image of a protest tell us about the reason for the unrest? The images may be of a person that represents the issue via their dress, physical appearance, or expression. But again, this is usually an implication or promotes a narrative of the issues. It is difficult but not impossible for the media to be impartial and evocative when covering protests. Of course, a movement is a story in itself which is different than the reason for the movement. A story about the invisible or time-based phenomena that inspired the protests could better distill the issues, and obviously accompany images from the protest.
Part of the challenge with photographing protests is that protests can be about social media phenomena. In an era defined by communication via social media, it is easier to write about social media phenomena rather than photograph the phenomena in the real world. Also, citizen journalism disseminated via social media has taken the place of professional photographers in-part due to the availability of phones with cameras. The media captured by citizen journalists can be anecdotal without an editorial process. Phone video is more forensic than explanatory, communicative, or editorialized. Citizens become the unwitting extension of ubiquitous surveillance. Those who capture a major event may suffer emotionally or personally for their involvement and not receive remuneration for the personal work and risk, and viewers are prone to being wrecked emotionally. This does not invalidate or usurp a different set of values for citizen journalism. Point being, that data-driven, written journalism may be a closer representation of reality than photographs and be a more deliberate dialog.
Converse to the forensic tendency, portrait stories suggest a conversation without the sound, leaving the possibility of an imposed narrative. While an evocative way to share about a personality or character, environmental portraits give credibility to a word story without proving that anything happened. They do suggest a level of transparency and trust to the photographer, reporter, or outlet, and for better or worse, also expose an aspect of identity. A portrait may be a helpful aspect of a photo-essay but has the potential to require a complicity of the photographer with the subject matter or issue. Environmental portraits within someone’s home show a great amount of trust and information but sometimes only prove the photographer was there. Of course, there is nuance to portraiture and respecting the dignity of the person in the image is paramount.
Economic phenomena are inherently tempting to try and photograph because they are often international and have impact, but are also ethereal. There are signs of economic stress or health, but these may be misleading. Photographers might look for evidence or mood to illustrate these stories without claiming they are photographing “poverty”, “houselessness”, or “recession”. A column by an economist would be far more informative about a recession but photography could still grab readers' attention and set the mood.
There were a couple reasons for bringing up this issue of photographing word stories; the Covid pandemic has exacerbated the tendency to tell word stories instead of visuals because photographers had to socially distance. Visual feature stories and documentary work were more limited during the lockdowns. That said, there are powerful pandemic stories. There is also a phenomena where, in an attempt to combat the lack of representation and exploitative economics of the photography industry, practitioners have neglected powerful aspects of the medium. Photographers try to make the case for a world-view through proving their presence instead of leaving the interpretation and analysis to viewers. The impartiality of a photograph that relies on the intelligence of viewers may still be achieved with psychological distance and coexist with contextual copy.