Purpose and Power of Visuals
Photojournalism is our window to the world around us. A picture is worth a 1,000 words.
The purpose of photojournalism is to capture the people and events that make the news. Photojournalism can supplement a text story or can serve as a stand-alone story.
We remember news stories in images because they are powerful and emotional.
Photographers have the power to frame the narrative surrounding complex issues, people, current events, and more. The media has a lot of control and influence over what issues the public discusses and how the public visualizes these issues.
For example, research shows that if we can more easily visualize a particular risk, then we are more likely to over-estimate the chance of that risk materializing in our own lives. Is it easier to visualize a terrorist attack or cardiovascular disease? Because it’s easier to visualize a terrorist attack, we tend to over-estimate this risk compared to the cardiovascular disease risk. And this impacts what our nation, politicians, and society focuses on in terms of money, resources, and attention.
Bottom line: Visuals are powerful.
Categories of Photojournalism
The following categories are defined by the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) and included in the Best of Photography competitions. The College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) Awards also use these categories.
Feature (Enterprise): A photograph of a ‘found situation’ that features strong human interest elements, or a fresh view of an everyday scene. A picture that uses humor or focuses on the lighter side of life is well suited for this category. Examples
Portrait: A single photograph that captures a unique aspect of a local figure’s character and personality. Examples
Sports Action: A peak action picture that captures the spirit of a sports competition—either on the part of an individual or an athletic team. Examples
Sports Feature: A sports-related feature picture that depicts the jubilation of victory or the agony of defeat. The event covered should be separate from the game action or outside of the field of play. Examples
General News: Recognizing that much of the daily news coverage is planned in advance, we seek to reward outstanding achievement based on creativity and timing at organized events such as general meetings, promotional events and staged coverage opportunities. Examples
Spot News: An event that is not planned, so the photographer must react on instinct and news judgment. This picture may be of a breaking news event, or a part of issue coverage. Examples
Domestic Picture Story: This is a series of photographs surrounding the same event, person, or idea. The photographs tell a story with detailed paragraph-length captions and powerful photos. These photo stories have even more power to influence the frame, perspective, and tone applied to the event, person, or idea. As we look at these examples, think about an alternative frame, perspective, or tone that could be applied to these examples and become equally as powerful. Example 1 and Example 2
The creative devices tips still apply to photojournalism. Other helpful hints are found below.
- Have a working camera with you at all times. Even a smartphone is acceptable.
- Have one clear subject in your photo. The subject should be in focus and stand out from everything else in the photo. A street is not a subject. Seven people walking down the sidewalk is not a subject. One person walking down the street is a subject. Note: This rule is sometimes meant to be broken. You can take great photos of a mass crowd or a group of people, however, more skill is required. It’s easier to stick with the rules as you’re learning. Then, break them later when you know what you’re doing more.
- Take a lot of photos. For every subject, take 10 photos. **I can’t emphasize this enough. Move around and take a lot of photos!**
- Act natural. Make yourself comfortable and invisible.
- Move around without violating Tip 4.
- Place subjects so that they are moving or looking into the photo, rather than out of it. For example, if a person is pointing to the right, be sure he is at the left of your photo.
- Keep the light behind you so the subject’s face is lit (unless deliberately creating a shadow out of the subject).
- Avoid using the flash as much as possible. Use natural light.
- If you’re shooting sports action, then avoid evening or low-light conditions (the photos will be blurry)!
- Be aware of the background. Make sure there are no trees or objects protruding from your subject’s head or limbs. And, make sure there are no photobombs.
According to the President Emeritus of the NPPA Alicia Wagner Calzada, photojournalists must live up to a high standard because ethics are “what sets us apart from art and advertising.”
She notes that when journalists are reporting, they should not cave-in to pressure from people who ask, “what do you want me to do?” Journalists should instruct people to continue their behavior as if they were not present.
Photojournalism is capturing history the way that the stories actually unfolded. You are telling the story with images. You are not supposed to manipulate the story. These are reasons why there is a code of ethics.
Copied from the NPPA Code of Ethics
- Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
- Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
- Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
- Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
- Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
- Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.
Breaking Ethics Codes
Following ethics codes is about establishing and maintaining the trust of our audience. The cases below illustrate when that trust was broken.
- Brian Walski from the LA Times combined two photos to create a more aggressive and confrontational presentation of the situation.
- Time magazine made OJ Simpson look more sinister by manipulating the color, burning the corners and shrinking the prisoner ID number on his mugshot. Newsweek did not alter the photo.
- Klavs Bo Christensen, a Danish photojournalist, was disqualified from a photo competition because of using too much color saturation.
- Read thoughts from photographers about manipulation, staging, and excessive digital editing of photographs.