Prompted by recent discussion by photojournalists intent on maintaining their credibility, their identity, and their jobs:
Language and ideas are closely aligned. When a high profile group or person appropriates a word and redefines it, that action can have major impact on both the language and public perception. “Journalism” has been adopted by the media to define the activity it’s involved in and the resulting product. It follows that a journalist is a practitioner of journalism. The adoption of these terms then means that a person keeping a journal has no definitive moniker.
The current discussion about the practices of photojournalism attempts to include documentary photography and apply the same rules necessary to news photography. The caveat here is that many documentary photographers are not news photographers. Often, these documentarians make photographs as a way of keeping a journal, but that journal is for their own use, not to inform the public.
“A picture is not the same as the actual thing,” to quote Gary Winogrand, one of the greatest documentary photographers ever. Winogrand’s work was included with that of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander in an exhibition, called New Documents, at the Museum of Modern Art. The implication was that documentary photography was just as easily celebratory of the world as it was indicting or even exposing. Perhaps a better word for certain types of photojournalism would be “exposition.”
Other documentary photographers include W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and Anders Petersen. Their work is different from each other’s, but there is little doubt that it is all documentary and none of it can be impugned, even though a great amount of work is done in the darkroom. Smith said 90% of photography is done in the darkroom, Robert Frank recropped pictures for later editions of The Americans, and Anders Petersen’s work is heavily burned and dodged.
Why does any of this matter? Public perception. If there is confusion in the terminology, there is confusion of ideas. How about “photoshop?” Do you? Right. And then there’s “post process.” First you take the photo, then you process it. Is post processing when you hang it on the wall?
Let’s be careful out there.
Michael A. Shapiro