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Rules for Photojournalism in the age of social media

The world of photojournalism has changed but photojournalists do not seem to have noticed. Either schooled by tired teachers repeating the same outdated mantra to wide-eyed students or self-taught by blindly following obsolete rules, they are hitting a wall of incomprehension and misunderstanding. The result is an unhealthy combination of painful frustration and very poor reach. Change is long overdue and for this purpose, here are some preliminary elements for a better understanding.

How the genre defines itself is obsolete:

Photojournalism is the child of the printed press and really matured with the rise of the magazine format. For a long time, both thrived thanks to each other. Subsequently,  it defined the seemingly indelible preconception that the printed press format is the only one to practice. In particular, the notion of the photo essay: Multiple images ( with an opener, a double page, details, verticals and if possible, a closer). Photojournalism tells a story, and as such, should physically take the shape of a sequential frame by frame, well-defined, narrative.

Photo essays are replaced by slideshows combining multiple pictures from various sources, quickly compiled together to increase the numbers of clicks on ads.

Today, printed magazine are almost all gone and those that remain are just pale shadows of their past glories. Strict budget rules drive their editorial decisions, not great photojournalism.  Along with their decline, so did the traditional story format of photojournalism.  While the Internet held the promise of more space for longer, more extensive photo essays, it really never happened. Instead, it is sometimes replaced by slideshows combining multiple pictures from various sources, quickly compiled together to increase the numbers of clicks on ads.  There is no style continuity, no established narrative, every image is horizontal (fits better) and has hardly any credit. But more than often, it is one picture that is used, either as an attention grabber to support a click bait headline or as lonely illustration somewhere lost in the text. Even if the subject was submitted as a well-crafted photo essay, it is deconstructed into little one photo units disseminated over multiple websites, if lucky.

Shooting photo essays and trying to get them to fit the current format is thus doomed to complete failure. 

Attention deficit:

The reality is that there while there is potentially more room there is much less attention span.  With digital came the explosion of sources, all competing for the same limited time. Digital audiences scroll rather than investigate. They expect information to come to them rather than having to make efforts to find it. Furthermore, information is consumed on the go, whether while waiting in line or in between responding to emails. It has to be quick, succinct and to the point. It has to fit how audiences consume images on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and any other social media. 

To reach the broadest audience, photojournalism has to appeal to its audience new diet. One image at a time. It has to reframe the photo essay structure into the confines of a single frame. It has to fit into the feeds of social media ( Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc).

One photo tells the story. Image by ©Anthony Neste

It has to fit in one image because it is also how its audience communicates with each other. One snap at a time. Friends, families, brands share news and events with each other via photos, most entirely one photo at a time. They have become experts at communicating with single photos. Thus, it is no surprise that they expect the same from professionals. If they can do it, they expect everyone else to do the same. Photojournalists included.

To fit, contemporary photojournalism thus has to follow 1 simple rule: one image.

The messaging is skewed.

The Photojournalism community has set their standard of quality by comparing with old ‘classics”. Thus, in an effort to convey legitimacy, scores of photojournalists have taken the habit to reference past iconographic images. The composition of their images frequently recalls acclaimed classics. While there is an immediate benefit -our brain love references – it also diminishes the impact of the image as it is then merged with another unrelated event. Eventually, they become mingled in our memory as one and looses any individuality.

Deja vu: referencing classics is a double edge sword. Ultimately, the photo becomes the story. @ Jonathan Bachman / Reuters and @Marc Riboud

Instead of studying the great legends of photojournalism and hoping one day to match their vision, today’s photojournalists should study the non-celebrity top influencers of Instagram and understand the essence of their appeal. Composition, like fashion or language, evolves. It has period-specific trends and timely symbolism which can quickly lose their impact because of saturation. Today, those are no longer established by professional photographers but emerge from an accumulation of “likes” in social media. Those are the elements the photojournalist should refer to when shooting news events. Because more than anything else, photojournalism must be deeply anchored in its time. And fluently speak its current visual language. Not the language of its forefathers.

The platform has changed.

If the medium is the message than photojournalists are speaking a foreign language. Photojournalism’s medium has changed dramatically. Instead of pages, it is infinite scrolls, instead of desktops, it is mobile devices and instead of large screens, it is small pocket-size displays. This is today’s photojournalism medium. There is no room for the wide landscape view or the overcrowded shot. Today’s visual ecosystem screams for content with immediate understanding. Each image needs to be more than a picture, it has to trigger an immediate reaction. One thumb-scroll down, and it’s over.  Photojournalists need to master this new medium with more dexterity than their own cameras.

One thumb-scroll down, and it’s over @Instagram

They have to seek out “likes” and re-shares with a passion. Not for popularity, but for distribution. Because those will guarantee that their images are seen and that their message is being heard.  The better an image fits the medium, the wider the distribution. A photojournalist audience used to be limited by the print circulation of the magazine it appeared in. Today, it’s potentially 3/4 of the world.

Embrace the medium instead of fighting it.

Understanding the audience change:

The photojournalist audience has evolved: It is photography native. Millenniums have grown up in a world full of photos, both as spectators and creators. They are highly literate in photography. Never has a generation been so well versed in photography. It’s photography everywhere, all the time. The response for the photojournalist is to match their expectations. Easy tricks and lazy compositions are ignored while creativity is rewarded. Visual references are taken for what they are: just references. For their images to stand out, today’s photojournalists’ have to use a visual vocabulary that matches their audience’s knowledge. There is no room for deception  (photoshopped trickery get pointed out very quickly), no space for dullness and no rewards for elaborate sophistication. The news image that stands out today is technically perfect, highly focused in its messaging and innovative in style. It is self-supporting, highly accurate in its reporting and entirely original. It is hardly discovered in the Washington Post, Time magazine or Paris Match but rather on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

There is a direct, unfiltered path to the audience. Use it.

Photojournalism new ecosystem: Not your dad’s print magazine.

Avoiding the popularity trap.

A note on popularity. Too often, photojournalists confuse their own popularity with that of their images. Using social media to bolster one owns popularity will only lead to creating a limited audience and diminishing the value of their work over time. It’s not the photographer that should be popular, it’s the images. Every one of them. The photojournalist that seeks to gather followers will soon fall into a repetitive body of work, both because it is what got them there and because that is what its fan base will be expecting. The message is no longer about the story, but about the photo itself ( and its photographer). It’s no longer photojournalism but idolatry. Great for promoting workshops, horrible for the journalism.

Some takeaways:

        Fit the feed.  On Facebook, a photojournalist competes with posts about losing weight, someone’s vacation, nasty jokes, and a cute cat video.  Use that as an advantage. When taking a photo, think how does it fit in someone’s  feed so that they will notice. Not so much by tweaking what it said but how it is said.

        Escape the cliché ( the image is not the story). Sure, an image that looks like an older iconic image gets a lot of attention. But its core message is quickly lost in the process.

        Don’t be a friend to your audience ( unless workshops are your aim). Be an authority.

        Listen. Your audience is telling what it’s interested in, take notice. Apply

        Listen visually. Drop copying Henri Cartier-Bresson, learn from Kim Kardashian.

        Think energy transfer: Photography is electricity. Without electricity, there are no photos. Those pixels are just an electric current made to circulate in a certain way. It’s pure energy. This energy has the ability to convey feelings of happiness, love, compassion from one place in the world to million others, even through time. That is what a photograph is: energy transfer.

    Build trust: At the core of photojournalism, regardless of its format, is trust. Is what am I seeing true? Always be trustful


Photo by Petteri Sulonen

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