• Photojournalism is a particular form of journalism (the collecting, editing, and presenting of news material for publication or broadcast) that employs images in order to tell a news story.(Wikipedia Contributors, 2020)
  • Photojournalism is a form of journalism in which written copy is subordinate to pictorial usually photographic presentation of news stories or in which a high proportion of pictorial presentation is used(Merriam-webster.com, 2020)
  • The art or practice of communicating news by photographs, especially in magazines.(Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2020)
  • Photojournalism is a form of journalism in which stories are presented mainly through photographs rather than words.(Collinsdictionary.com, 2020)
  • Photojournalism is a form of journalism which tells a news story through powerful photography which traditionally are black and white images(Tate, 2017)
  • Photojournalism is a balance between photography as an art form and journalism, which is content-related, any photograph that reaches the highest level for both is an exceptional picture. (Definitions.net, 2020)

Photojournalism is a term used to identify news imagery, according to OCA. I just felt the need to search for confirmations on the definition. In many definitions, the word ART is added. As proposed by Postema and Deuze,(Postema and Deuze, 2020) “…an independent pursuit
of accurate information about current or recent events and its original and deliberate aesthetic presentation in any sensory form, for public edification and emotional resonance.”

The entry into the article by Postema and Deuze might be better suited as conclusive reading, but it puts the three viewpoints in the coursebook into modern perspective perhaps, at least it gives personal artistic purpose to the discussion.


Reflection on three viewpoints

Three viewpoints on photography and its social position in either usage, benefits or intentions.

Martha Rosler: In around and afterthouhts

Coursebook opinion to reflect on: Martha Rosler believed that the social conscience of well-meaning photographers such as Lewis Hine was not helping the social situation because it  reinforced the gap between rich and poor. She argued that the need for the poor  to rely on the rich for sustenance and social change is not beneficial in the long  term and that it’s simply a way of reinforcing hierarchical structures imposed by  capitalism.

The essay In around and afterthoughts by Martha Rosler, was for me rather difficult to follow, written in an unpleasant, staccato style and using extremely long sentences, it does not make her message clearer. Furthermore, this essay was written almost 40 years ago, just before the computer, internet, social media, mobile-/smartphones changed everything. In that context, her opinion strengthens perhaps.

Of course, there is in every good deed some selfishness involved, of course, professional photography is just another profession and career, money, ambition are just as much personal drivers as for any other human.  Rosler avoids slightly her approval on photography of any social group. Is it only ethically correct when the photographer comes from within that same group? How small can one define a group, the poor? the female poor? the native American female poor? At some point in an extreme, the second person is always a group outsider. Is it less ethical to depict one defined group’s situation with the personal context and reference by the photographer defined in another group? Does Rosler, by defining the group she tries to defend, not do the same as the photographers she criticises? What are the allowed personal motivations for a photographer and what should her or his personal social group in relation to the subject be? Does it matter in the end? If images are made out of spectacle or amusement they still can produce photographs with impact on the subject’s situation. The ethical starting point is not specifically a guarantee for success either, neither the personal motivation. Also, is the repetition of depiction and presentation of a given situation a bad thing and does it reduces the chances of change? In regular marketing this is not the case up to the stage of overexposure (Rossiter, Percer and Bergkvist, 2018), I dare to dispute this is different within photography, more specifically if that photography has an external cause, repetitive exposure of the situation can help with the cause or the adopted cause by the media involved. Yes, perhaps in the specific case of the extensive, never changing depiction of the Bowery situation, she has a point indeed, but strangely, in that specific situation almost all styles and tons of photographers with all kind of reasons made pictures there and every media used images from all that diversity. The Bowery Mission still uses the same images to ask for support for their help in this neighbourhood (Bowery.org, 2020). Is giving money equally disputable as making photographs for the wrong reasons? Charity is an argument for the presentation of wealth….(Rosler, 2006). Will the cause of helping the social injustice and poverty in the Bowery be served without photographs, without charity and supported only by the most righteous ones.

Yes, her moral on photographing poverty, misery, injustice or any other low hanging fruit for a documentary purpose makes sense, yes, when a photographer finds his new flash more exiting then the immense social problem itself, I fully agree with her feelings, but when it comes to serving a cause and with what method, what route to follow and against what cost, the moral compass of a photographer probably does not defines the effectiveness of the specific photographic material, on top of that, the effectiveness of materials and methods in general. Outside an opinion on photography and its ethical position, she does not display enough knowledgeable arguments to disqualify any effort, changing that situation, in or outside photography.

As Susan Sontag in contradiction observes: “Lewis Hine was appointed staff photographer to the National Child Labor Committee, and his photographs of children working in cotton mills, beet fields, and coal mines did influence legislators to make child labor illegal.”(Sontag, 2014) There could be a discussion about the result of change but not on the effect of the images by Hines on the political landscape.

Also on the work of Riis she notes: “The particular New York slum, Mulberry Bend, that Riis photographed in the late 1880s was subsequently torn down and its inhabitants rehoused by order of Theodore Roosevelt, then state governor, while other, equally dreadful slums were left standing.”(Sontag, 2014)

Again, perhaps cleaning up a street is not the solution Martha Rosler had in mind, but the imaged had an impact and resulted in changes, whatever the intentions and morality of the photographers.

Compassion Fatigue – Susan Sontag

Sontag indeed argues in On Photography (1979) the effect of repetitive exposure to intensive photographs numbs the audience. Resulting in reduced action-driven behaviour, apathy and lethargy. The coursebook mentions she reversed this opinion in her work Regarding the pain of others (2004), but outside some more nuanced opinion on the matter, I could not find any opposing statement, at large, she was slightly older, perhaps slightly milder? She did according to my interpretation not reverse her opinion.

In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now.(Sontag, 2017)

Nevertheless, repetitive exposure to poverty, war, starvation or any other distressing (sensationalist) images/situations/photographs can result in numbness to these images and the related situation according to Sontag. Although the passage around the quotation: “In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it. “(Sontag, 2014) She tries to argue the variable ‘time’ is the smoothing factor, not so much the repetition. 

The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.(Sontag, 2014)

But the struggle is not that simple. It also seems to be written from an activistic viewpoint. What action can an average viewer deploy after seeing war in a foreign country? Should an image always be a call for action? What would the same viewers response be if the same image was never seen at all? Again, the line is indeed thin. Exposure to over-exposure influences the response. There is hardly a fixed ruleset to define these clipping points. They differ per social group, per individual, per subject, per photograph, and as mentioned, its place in time and the time passed.

To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize. An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs—think of the Vietnam War. (For a counter-example, think of the Gulag Archipelago, of which we have no photographs.) But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.

Compassion is indeed reduced by time. Responsibility seems reduced, the urge to act on a historic even is absent, what is there to actor on, the past cannot be changed. Perhaps compassion increases on actuality (time) and distance ( geographical or social?).


Insider / Outsider – Abigail Solomon-Godeau


Indeed a hard to find essay, it seemed impossible for me which made I had to work with the summary in Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (Ashley La Grange, 2015). The insider/outsider arguments seem to be endless. The insider looks at the outside, the Outsider looks at the inside, one could summarise. Is the difference in social position in relation to the subject visible in the end result; the photograph? How long can a documentary photographer remain an outsider? Does compassion make you an insider? It is also the endless volatile social group dynamic discussion. When does one become a group member, an insider? Can one be a self-declared insider? Is distance the solution for truth? or the source of ignorance and incorrect interpretations. Does a group sees itself correctly or is its self-reflection always biased and therefore a lesser truth.

She introduces the word ‘liminal’, as unplotted space between inside and outside. To think about a truth of appearance to go beyond the binary of insider and outsider.

All three areas of thought seem not to refute each other, but form a unity in approach; intention, result, methods. Above these three, the common argument of ethics and morality, an apparently undisputed but differentiated element in every viewpoint.

Aftermath and aesthetics

Making documentary work by photographing the traces of an event and not the event itself has indeed a different effect, furthermore the event itself, how atrocious in itself, can be “reported” in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. In his short essay: Safety in Numbness, David Campany argues the use of these aftermath-stills and its position in art, journalism and towards moving imaging. He defines it as “late photography”, photography not in, or during the event, but after the event, leaving the actuality to the moving image media.

Cinema, we could say, was not just the invention of the moving image, it was also the invention of the stillness of photography(David Campany, 2003)

He notices the shift in cultural position of photography. Where it used to be in the centre of activity they are now moments for contemplation and reflection. By this new position in the chain of reporting, photography also gains more time and room to create a feeling more than depicting an activity or better actuality, logically this results in beauty and aesthetics.  “Late photography” also holds the risk sliding towards the “cheaper moodiness of images” (David Campany, 2003) but as he suspects Meyerowitz: “He has photographic skills honed over several decades. It may be second nature to him now, but he knows what makes a good photo and can’t avoid the beautiful.” (David Campany, 2003) 

However, the “retreat from an event” by this late photography, is “no guarantee of an enlightened position or a critical stance”.(David Campany, 2003)

Late photography provides some feeling of melancholy, it suits the phase of reporting, the aftermath, mourning and contemplating the event. But it lacks the urgency, the emotional compassion with the victims, with activism. It becomes an easier (calm) visually soothing almost, the anonymous depiction of something in the past while in the meantime it senses as a definite conclusion on the event in a form of superior imagery, the stills photograph.


Bibliography/Reference list


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Rosler, M. (2020). The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. [online] Whitney.org. Available at: https://whitney.org/collection/works/8304 [Accessed 4 Jun. 2020].

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Sontag, S. (2014). On Photography. London: Penguin Classics.

Sontag, S. (2017). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux.

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