June 30, 2009

PJism - Staged or Real & Me

I've been following a conversation on Chase Jarvis' blog about two French students who staged a series of photos and entered them in a photojournalism competition. They won the prestigious event and instead of just accepting the award and the money, they revealed that they had setout to show that the conventions of what makes a great photojournalistic piece can be imitated and in fact rewarded.

There have been some very candid conversations on Chase's blog about these conventions. Sorta the old newsroom philosophy of "If it bleeds it leads."

An interesting observation was posted by someone named Marco Aurelio:

"....Photo-journalism is hobbled by the exoticizing of the Other, and its perpetual marriage to shock and awe obsessions with viewers where only the victimization of Others is important, and nothing else. it sells a lot more advertising space to cleave at society's morbid obsession with Others' pain. Where are the stories of life's endurance? if it doesnt have pain or blood on the shirt, it isnt photo-journalism?"

Amen brotha!

I must admit to also be captivated by the lure of photojournalism (PJism). The idea that you can travel the world, see world events first hand, while capturing and transmitting those events around the globe all for money, is very seductive, as I'm sure it is for many. A life of travel and adventure and $$ too? Yes, please! But much like a Margaret Atwood novel it's all about exploiting the pain and the gore. The sufferring and the catastrophe.

Two weeks ago, when I was out shooting with Jodi in Fort Frances, we got talking about my dreams as a photographer. I confessed that I'd love to shoot portraits and weddings from April to early November and then work as a photojournalist from November to April (coincidentally right when Canada gets blasted by piles of snow...go figure :D ) but that I didn't see myself as the traditional taking pictures in a war zone sort of pj.

Really, what I'd like to shoot and tell is exactly what Marco says in his post. The stories of endurance. The human story of everyday life. The awesome thing about it is that sort of story is everywhere. I don't have to go to Rwanda to find it. Now that I have the luxury of not being in that moment, I can see that I had a unique opportunity when I was in Fort Frances to tell the story of that border town.

Affected by the US economy and the global economy, with the main industry being the pulp and paper mill (the only one still open between Sudbury and Winnipeg I believe) there was ample opportunity to show a place that is struggling to survive and the people who are making a go at it: hotel managers, truck drivers, school teachers, nurses, hair stylists, restaurant owners, pastors, first nation's school directors... such a varied cross section of those who live and work there and whose livelihood is affected by the larger world around them.

Maybe it's something I'll return to do some day, but I'm kicking myself now for not taking the extra time to grab images of the town itself since for a week I was invited into the lives of not just one photogapher and her family, but also the lives of everyone else that I had the chance to take pictures of. Not that there really was the time for that sort of thing while I was there. Regardless, there is a story there and it's a situation that I'll be more open to looking for in the future.

I've always been a story teller and I think portrait work calls to me because of the ability to get to know other people's stories, especially when you meet them in their environment. There are many stories in my area that need to be told. Not just the mainstream ones. The maintenance of farmland, protected greenspace and the natural aquifers in my area is an important story. I've started a portion of that story (at least image wise) by shooting pictures of some of the government owned property near my house (land purchased for the creation of a second major Toronto airport). I need to pick up that story again... Food for thought. At least for me that is.

More soon...


  1. Kat ... you are so right about Photo-journalism and I think that the two who faked their way into the competition also made their point about "the victimization of Other". But this isn't a new point Susan Sontag in 1977 wrote about a bit in her critique "On Photography" where the 'Other' is always the victim of the photographer and the masses live in a "chronic voyeuristic relation" with those being photographed. These two have covered plowed land.

    I am heartened though by the question "Where are the stories of life's endurance?". Those stories are all around us, perhaps we cannot see them as easily as one sees blood on a shirt. Still for the most part these are not good news stories either, people lose their jobs, people go hungry, marriages and families come apart, some stay together and become stronger. Perhaps the time has come for a revival of the social documentary photography as practiced by the likes of Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans. The times we live in have some parallels.

    I encourage you to seek out and tell these stories.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment James! I've been indulging in the unplugged world for a few weeks and just getting back into the "civilized" world now. I'll have to look up Sontag's critique, it sounds intriguing and I'm sure I'd probably gain a lot of insights from it.

    I forgot to mention in my post that while I was in Fort Frances I had the honour of meeting John Morrow the director of a documentary film called "And When They Shall Ask." We got to talking about the importance of story telling and images, and he encouraged me to seek out stories of everyday life and living and not just the tragic heart tugging ones.

    I think a lot of problems in our world stem from the belief that we are all different and no one could possibly understand what we are going through, when in reality we all have the same basic needs that need to be met. Those common stories I think are the most important ones to tell. So, I guess the next part is for me to actually work on this aspect of things isn't it....

  3. You know Kat one thing that I remember from being a kid was when I found out that I wasn't special or unique, that what I thought and did was in fact common place, mundane even. I was so shocked. Yet in that I found solace knowing that the pain and anguish that I experienced as a teenager was also experienced and had been experienced by others. I had become part of a group and I was no longer alone.

    Photographing and presenting the everyday struggles of people helps others identify with that struggle. Perhaps it might even bring some comfort to then to know that they are not alone.

  4. That's it exactly James. It's just like what you're trying to do with Cancer Care and are doing with the TTC projects. I can't remember if you were involved with the photo exhibition outside Nathan Phillips Square last summer (I think it was last summer?) or not, but that exhibit was really helpful to me earlier this year when I was faced with a cancer scare. I remembered looking at those images and stories of people who had struggled through what I was potentially facing and it helped to know that there was a whole outdoor exhibit's worth of people who had been there and done that and in most cases lived to tell their story. It didn't make things easier, but it helped to know that it wasn't just me.

    For me that experience has really shone the light on the importance of photography in both the photojournalistic sense and commercial/portraiture sense. Both are equally important in documenting and storytelling.