Object Lessons

A J-school professor discusses the evolving state of photojournalism — and shares evidence from her latest project.

by Nina Berman ’85JRN Published Spring 2014
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Rogues' Gallery / In a new work, Nina Berman photographs trial evidence from cases of slavery and human trafficking, in hopes of indirectly revealing the mindset of the perpetrator. A billy club used by the brutal Chicago-area pimp Alex Campbell. In 2012, Campbell was sentenced to life. / Photographs by Nina Berman ’85JRN

>> See more of Nina Berman’s work: http://www.ninaberman.com/

How should one teach journalism today, and especially photojournalism, when everyone with a cell phone is a potential witness to history? What does the new generation of students need to learn about the modern media landscape?

There is a perception that photojournalists are misery chasers who jump from story to story looking for the next big thing — war, famine, tsunami — and when the action is over, they fly home and wait for the next disaster. That’s last century’s photojournalist.

Today, some of the best photojournalists work more like anthropologists or artists. The most serious ones are taking the long view and spending years on a story, publishing pieces along the way. Sometimes their work is funded by publications, but increasingly it is underwritten by NGOs and foundations, blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy. The model of the globetrotting photojournalist dispatched by New York photo editors to the far corners of the world to witness great moments in history applies only to a handful of working photographers today. Technology has democratized and globalized the industry, which means that breaking- news images are increasingly sourced from Twitter and Instagram, where pictures are shot by amateurs, writers, and local photojournalists already on the scene.

A mallet used by Donnell Baines to beat his victims in an Upper East Side sex-trafficking operation. In 2013, Baines was sentenced to sixty-two years in prison.

In class, I teach ethics, which is simple, and not. The number-one rule is that photojournalists cannot construct scenes and then pass off the pictures as found moments. Photojournalists observe and frame; the final image cannot contain people or objects that didn’t originally exist in that frame, nor can people or objects be removed from that frame. Everything else — color, saturation, contrast — is largely up for grabs. This is where things get murky.

Image effects are allowed today that weren’t considered appropriate in journalism just a few years ago. Influential photographers, sometimes in collaboration with a photography lab or digital retoucher, champion a style or create an app that is embraced by editors, and before you know it, we’re seeing a million pictures in the press looking the same, regardless of where they were shot or what they capture. A few years back, increasing the clarity and desaturating the color was popular. Now we’re in love with high dynamic range and blazing perfection. Soon it will be something else. I challenge my students to consider how these aesthetic decisions fit into a broader conversation about stereotypes and points of view.

People still cling to the idea of photography as an objective or neutral medium that captures a shared truth. There is nothing remotely objective about photography.

There are stylistic trends in art and in literature, and everyone acknowledges them. But rarely are they cited in photojournalism, perhaps because people still cling to the idea of photography as an objective or neutral medium that captures a shared truth. There is nothing remotely objective about photography. Where I stand, how I got to that spot, where I direct my lens, what I frame, how I expose the image, what personal and cultural factors influence these decisions — all are intensely subjective.

This souvenir notebook with the Statue of Liberty on its cover was used by enslaved women working in New Jersey hair-braiding salons to record their tips, which were then confiscated. The trafficker, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison.

With digital photography, there are so many processing options but little discussion of what those choices tell us about the storyteller and the story. In class we ask, does the aesthetic draw you in to the subject in a revealing and interesting way, or does it overpower the subject? This was a conversation when an almost too perfectly processed image from a funeral in Gaza won World Press Photo of the Year in 2013. What does it mean when an ordinary scene showing a village in Haiti is amped up with a torrent of color and contrast, giving the scene a drama that appears forced? When we see US politicians turned into a cross between Dr. Strangelove madmen and Ringling Brothers clowns, as they were in a recent photograph on MSNBC.com, are we looking at a crude use of black-and-white post-processing or a brilliant commentary on the moral emptiness and vulgar salesmanship that characterizes American political campaigns?

In the old days, a photojournalist might pitch a story to a publication and be sent off for a week, maybe with a writer, and the piece would be published, and it would end there.

Now, publishing might be the last part of a much larger scheme. Stories are projects with foundation and NGO partners; they incorporate social media and data and are seen by the public in the physical world as installations or exhibitions as well as printed pieces.

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