The difference is what’s missing. In fact, it is only when a photograph does not show it all that it begins to become powerful and potent. Why ? because it forcefully demands viewer participation by understanding the concept. See, the big difference between a powerful photojournalist image and commercial stock is that one misses a lot context while the other shows it all.
One might think that the photojournalist image shows it all. But not at all. In fact, the most powerful news images that you have ever seen are just a glimpse of a whole picture and only hints at the rest of the context. It does not answer, it asks. And it does by a very powerful trickery of the mind that demands that we attempt to understand everything that we see. It’s a survival instinct we inherited from our cave-living ancestors. So, if an image is incomplete in the description of a scene, we automatically seek to find out more. And when we do, we become invested in that image. We imagine the surrounding, we fill in the void with our own experiences, sounds, smells, emotions and then we comprehend, we ingest and, because that is the only way we trully learn, we empathise. The closer we come to experiencing what we see, the more we are indelibly touched. And because images go directly into our long-term memory, its impact is long-term.
A commercial stock image, on the other hand, tries to explain everything in a frame. A scene of a happy family having a barbecue will show exactly that and will go out of its way not to leave anything out. It doesn’t want to hint at anything that is not seen. It is a fact in of itself. A statement. It answer and doesn’t ask. Viewers do not connect as much as there is no necessary efforts to understand it. Landscape photography works the same. It shows, it presents and beyond the frame, there is no additional information.
That is why marketers are more and more seeking UGC for their communication campaigns. Not because they are photojournalistic but for their ability to connect with viewers via the same process. A casual shooter will unconsciously leave out a big chunk of context because they are part of it. They don’t have a need to insert everything in a photograph because they assume that the viewer – in this case, their friends or family – already know the context. That leaves the virgin viewer – the ones that know nothing of the shooter – the task of rebuilding the situation surrounding the image there are looking at. This builds relationship, understanding and more importantly, authenticity. After all, what we first seek in an image is how we relate to it.
Obviously, there is a huge gap between a casual shooter and a photojournalist, even if their process is similar. A photojournalist has the mastery of visual storytelling, acute technical skills, and a keen eye for finding those instants that tell more than what they show. In other words, they seek them out. A casual shooter does it by accident.
Photography is all about framing, after all: Making a decision into what to include and what to exclude. Mastering the right balance between the two, building solid bridges between the visible and the hinted, crafting the first words of a phrase that the viewers is forced to finish, explaining without telling, those are the attributes of great photography. Anything short of it is just illustration.