Missing multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya?

March 25, 2011 · by David Campbell · multimedia, photography

Libya pjs Missing multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya?

World Press Photo announced the shortlist for its inaugural multimedia award this week, with three narrative stories and three interactive projects. Coming after six weeks of monumental global events, it got me thinking: where are the multimedia stories from the revolution in Egypt, the disaster in Japan and the conflict in Libya? Recalling Paul Conroy’s March 11 photograph (above) of his colleagues running from an air strike in Libya prompted this thought, so let me explain the connection.

In an interview accompanying the WPP announcement, the chair of the jury, Ed Kashi, outlined multimedia’s benefits. ‘Multimedia’ embraces a huge range of approaches and styles and their are few if any rules. It is a concept that has been applied to everything from the short-form news story to the long-form documentary, from something that adds a little audio to something that is predominantly video.

Everyone has their preferences, and mine are for stories that have still photographs at their heart, accompanied by audio of the subjects and their environment, supplemented by video if and when appropriate. These are the sort of projects well done by the likes of MediaStorm, the Bombay Flying Club and duckrabbit (who prefer to call them “photofilms”), and I have tried to follow their lead in the two I have produced to date.

I think of multimedia as fundamentally a photographic project that can address context through additional technologies. While I’ve seen some video pieces from Egypt made with DSLRs, these are either television reports or scenes with sound but no overall story. They are impressive demonstrations of what these cameras can do visually, but they are not the photo-based narratives I find most compelling. I think the absence of this type of multimedia project from these events is a missed opportunity for photojournalism. Please correct me If I’ve overlooked examples, but I can’t think of any. So how did Conroy’s photo trigger this post?

Large numbers of the world’s best-known photographers have made their way to cover recent events, and they have produced a considerable body of compelling work that has been published in print and on-line. Conroy’s photo shows (left to right) Lynsey Addario, John Moores, Holly Picket, Phillip Poupin, Tyler Hicks, and (as Photojournalism Links worked out) the legs of Yuri Kozorev between Poupin and Hicks. It makes great sense for photographers to band together in dangerous environments, and the last thing we should be asking of them in such moments is to whip out the audio recorder or start shooting video in addition to taking stills, let alone spend their nights struggling with Final Cut Pro to produce a film.

However, once an event has gone on for a few days, and once we have seen a range of similar images from photographers working together, wouldn’t it be possible for one or more photographer to find a new angle on the story and develop that angle with sound as well as stills?

Reflecting on his weeks in Egypt covering the revolution, Ed Ou remarked:

Having been photographing Tahrir for the last few weeks, it became very difficult to make images. You start to run out of ideas, because you photograph the same thing every single day. Until today, it was really hard to keep things fresh or give a new angle that wasn’t being repetitive.

Ed noted in another story that after doing his stills he was shooting video for Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, but what I imagined was this:

  • instead of another day shooting stills of people in Tahrir Square, a photographer found a protester they could spend a day with taking pictures and asking questions
  • during that day, with a simple audio recorder, they record their subject reflecting on what they did before the protests, what made them come to the square and what they wanted the protests to achieve
  • at the end of the day, in addition to filing pictures, the photographer FTPs their audio files to an editor/producer in their agency/news organisation
  • a day or so later, that agency has a 3-5 minute story with some focus and depth to go alongside the stills galleries, as well as another saleable commodity

Think of the possibilities in Libya – a story with an accountant from Benghazi who has taken up arms to fight Gaddafi’s forces, or the insights of a migrant worker caught in the camps on the Tunisian border. We have television reports with their obvious conventions, but we don’t have the combination of powerful still images and the subjects speaking for themselves.

Last year, after more than sixty well-known photojournalists went into Haiti to cover the earthquake, Michael David Murphy wrote about the problems of redundancy in visual coverage. While I don’t agree with his proposal for a pool system to deal with that, I do think the convergence of the corps of international photographers on Egypt, Japan and Libya again raises questions about both the dimensions of the story we could see, and the different forms in which we could see it.

If I am correct about this absence of stills-based multimedia, photojournalism – as both an industry and creative practice – is currently missing a great opportunity to offer more in a way that is manageable for photographers in the field. In the first instance this is not the responsibility of individual photojournalists. I think agencies should take a lead in setting up a workflow along the lines indicted above. It would benefit all of us, but none more than the subjects of the stories.

Featured photo: New York Times photographers Tyler Hicks (right, in glasses) and Lynsey Addario (far left), run for cover during a bombing run by Libyan government planes at a checkpoint near the oil refinery of Ras Lanuf on Friday, Mar. 11. Copyright Paul Conroy/Reuters, via MSNBC Photoblog.

18 Responses to “Missing multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya?”

  1. David, it is an interesting assessment – if you’ll allow me to pick up on two points – you mention that adding audio and video and final cut editing to a photographer’s workflow can be asking a bit much, and I agree – it does increase the time taken to deal with your material, especially if working alone. This is something we have to remember about ‘multimedia’ is that it often takes longer than editing just stills. (I hate the term ‘multimedia’ by the way, as it reminds me of art school where people would call their paintings ‘mixed media’ because they’d stuck a feather on it or something). Part of this is just proficiency – as I do more audio and video editing, I get better and faster at it, just as adding captions seems slow and long first time you do it, but soon becomes a natural and quick part of the job.

    Which brings me to the second point, where you suggest the following workflow:

    at the end of the day, in addition to filing pictures, the photographer FTPs their audio files to an editor/producer in their agency/news organisation
    a day or so later, that agency has a 3-5 minute story with some focus and depth to go alongside the stills galleries, as well as another saleable commodity

    This is exactly what happened to me the first time I was asked to do a audio slideshow for NY Times. I took pictures, recorded audio and sent the files to the paper where an editor and producer put them all together, thus relieving me of the burden of editing them together myself. In this instance, I did of course edit down the photo selection and also quickly edited the audio into manageable chunks, cutting out some irrelevant or useless bits, but essentially my role is to report from the field as it were, and then trust my editor and the producer to combine the raw material.

    This is something I think should definitely be part of every news organisation/agency’s setup. Having dedicated producers and editors to put together the material gathered by the photographer eases the strain. I would like to see more of these dedicated producers and departments. Photographers could of course make suggestions, even do a rough cut to send and for more long term pieces work together with the editors after the fact. But there is no reason to do it all yourself, all the time. How many TV crews have you seen that operate as a one man band…? Now, having said that, I’ll turn back to the ‘multimedia’ project I’m editing….

  2. Very interesting points David. I was/am very surprised too by the lack of multimedia, in whatever form. I would think a photographer working in those situations, with hundreds of other photographers covering the same story, would be actively looking for fresher ways to tell the stories, stronger ways to present content, ways that edge out those ‘competitors’ and ways that educate viewers better. I’ve seen a bit of video, but nothing with the voices of those whose countries have seen such upheaval. It really does not take a great deal of extra effort to record some sound, mash it up with some stills/video/whatever, then distribute. There is such great potential it’s daft….the number of personal stories from Egypt/Japan/Libya etc must be beyond imagination. Maybe that’s the problem…
    I’m afraid that I think some of the reasons may lie in the fact that a lot of photographers are more interested in their photography than the story. You don’t get a WPP award for multimedia, do you?
    Oh, hang on…

  3. Totally agree. Good post. Good points.

    I think it is worth pointing out that one of the reasons we don’t see this work is because most news photographers have little or no interest in recording audio or are crap at it. Its a real skill and in fact these days on the BBC you are more likely to see ‘news’multimedia reports by radio journalists who don’t mind firing off a few shots.

    Here is what Kevin Marsh (ex Today editor, now in charge of the BBC College of Journalism wrote in a post when the new controller of Radio 4 was announced):

    Commission a new multimedia, multiplatform World News strand:

    The Radio 4 audience is clear on this – they want more world news. It was, perhaps, the most persistent theme of the letters and emails they used to send me.

    There’s an opportunity here – the BBC has the most extensive global newsgathering operation of any news organisation. Increasingly, its reporters are recruited locally and can offer the kind of insights that British journalists posted from London – however brilliant – never quite achieve.

    Plus, audio is finding a new life on the web. Either as deeper, more involving podcasts or in combination with still images or video in those multimedia slideshows I keep ranting on about. Like this; or this; or this multimedia show on the 2010 Iraqi elections.

    So what about a new WN title … created from the ground up as part radio programme, part podcast, part interactive web product?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/blog/2010/09/the-best-job-in-britain.shtml

  4. Very good point indeed.
    I just came across this work by Patrick Chauvel for Condition One: http://www.conditionone.com/
    which seems to be a sort of immersive experience of the Libyan frontlines.
    I know of a couple of photographers who were in Egypt are currently working on multimedia/video pieces at the moment, but you’re right, we need more from the photojournalists there, and networks, magazines and newspapers need to provide the technical and editing support these photographers need…

  5. Thanks to Tom, David, Ben and Olivier for the comments. Looks like we are all on the same page, and developing the desire to tell a story beyond photographs, getting the basic audio skills to do so, and having the support of agencies/publishers/broadcasters to enable it are the key steps. Of course, not every photographer has to do this; its just that given the numbers on the front lines of these stories for days, for some not to do so is a missed opportunity.

  6. I have also been curious about the lack of more recent multimedia- not just video but multimedia in the sense of integrating stills, audio, video into a rich interface The Chauvel piece is an interesting experiment- seems to be shot with Ipad- but could it be in part because of how the tools are changing? The shift away from programming in Flash to FCP? They are just tools but do in large part shape the way a multimedia piece will look and feel.

  7. I agree with you David but I have a few observations for you on this exactly subject. I have been a staff photographer for Reuters now for several years and having done a fair amount of Multimedia before I started here I have not done more than a couple of small projects since I got here. It is rather difficult to see all of the raw material that comes through here and have no-one around to pull it together to make some really stellar finished pieces almost as it’s happening in the real world. There are unfortunately a number of realities that make this next to impossible to do at traditional media company.

    1: You need people designated to do the editing on a project like this. Unfortunately these companies are not in the habit of hiring people to have on hand “just in case” or to pull people out of their normal workload to work on special projects like this because even though a story like Japan or Libya is a massive story the organization still could have thousands of stories that are happening elsewhere they have to report on.

    2: There is not really a market for these stories yet other than on the news organization’s website. You mention “another saleable commodity” but who is paying for this stuff? Right now maybe there are a couple of outlets like The Daily but for whatever reason (I have been fighting this but in a corporation there are dozens of levels of management that this has to get through) most news organizations that have the ability to collect this type of content do not see themselves as the conduit through which people will read it. Most news organizations like Reuters, AP, AFP, etc are still in the business of selling traditional content and letting the editors put it together however they want to present it on their own websites.

    3: This leads into the issues involved with getting enough content from the field to either the editors that are located elsewhere either within the company or that subscribe to the service and want to make their own content. Audio is easy, and is probably the only thing that would be realistic to do. Your argument here is spot on, it would add a ton of information and would really add depth to these photo stories. The issue comes when you, as an editor, need to fill a 3 minute edited down bit of audio with images. The 40 images that your photographer sends in will be hard pressed to fill that much time. Editors usually like to see an entire raw take when doing a project like this and the photographers in the field cannot send hundreds of images via satellite phone (talk about a chew out.)

    4: Staying in step with the story is all that these photographers are concerned with right now. Taking even an hour sometimes to sit in an office and put together a multimedia piece could be putting your life on the line. These situations are changing so quickly that your only job is to make sure that you are where you need to be, either to take photos or to keep yourself safe and most photographers are not nearly as well-versed in the ways of Final Cut Pro as an editor so putting together an MM project takes days not minutes.

    5: You can only do one, maybe two things well at a time. I actually contend that photographers can be really good at gathering audio, especially when they are in a situation where they can have a little bit of time to do it. One issue is that, as a photographer, I can look at a situation and know exactly where I need to be to take the photos that sum up the experience. To get audio I could have to talk to 20 people to find one who can speak english, is articulate enough to express their experience, or isn’t trying to cram their point of view down my throat that is taking a lot of time away from me taking photographs, which is the job my company actually pays me for.

    Overall I fully agree with you and I definitely feel that there is a big gap in coverage from situations like this. I also feel that news is being presented in a very 2D way currently that is not the ideal method of presenting information, especially on the internet. It’s not that these companies don’t want to do these types of things, it’s that they just do not have the infrastructure to do it right now and they do not have anyone to sell the finished product to so it’s low on the list of ‘to dos.’ Do I think it’s the future? Yes. I think news in the next couple of years will stop being presented in a linear method and will incorporate far more graphics, timelines, images, multimedia, and other methods of getting the FULL picture to the reader. Another thing that news organizations stink at right now is that their stories, photos, or projects tend to disappear after a week or two. It should be not only possible, but easy, for a reader to work their way through the current situations in a story like Libya but it should also be possible to go back in time in a story like that. They should be able to spend as much time as they want getting information and shouldn’t be limited by one story or one presentation.

    You bring up a lot of points but the reality of the situation leans more towards these photographers doing a project like that when they get back instead of doing it while they are there. Presently the logistics just aren’t there for that.

    Lucas

  8. FYI: http://www.vimeo.com/21514274

    it’s comin, it just takes time.

  9. Hi there,

    I read this post with interest, and unlike most of your commenters I come from a radio background rather than a photographic one. Perhaps that is why when I hear the word ‘multimedia’ I don’t think ‘photographs with added extras’.

    Anyway, some interesting and very sensible points have been raised here, but I wonder if you had ever thought of trying to collect audio on devices that you carry with you anyway? I’ve been using Audioboo (disclaimer, I now work for them) on my iPhone to grab quick interview with people, record ambient sound, tell stories of my own experiences when I’m out and about. What I love about it is that I can record straight into the app and upload it without having to worry about all the cutting it down to perfection. It’s a different type of journalism to that which I would do on the radio, where I might spend hours cutting down long interviews and end up with just a 4 minute package, but it’s quite useful in some situations.

    I’ve heard some very very powerful audio come out of Egypt and Libya. Sometimes just a voice is enough if you learn to tell a story well. Describe what you’re seeing (which as photographers you should at least have a good eye for detail), create theatre of the mind and then choose to upload it as you wish.

    It’s hard, I want to be able to say give Audiboo a try, because it might be the thing that would fill that gap for you – at least until newspapers find enough editors to cut your material down nicely for you etc – but I feel a bit like I can’t now because I work there and I don’t want you to think I’m spamming you.

    Here are my accounts: http://www.audioboo.fm/spacekate and http://www.audioboo.fm/radiokate – which between them have a variety of interviews, diary pieces, atmos recordings (like the shuttle launching) and it shows I’ve been using it longer than I’ve been working here.

    I’m keen to get interesting people using the app and I will promote good content, so give it a try and let me know how you get on. I’d be happy to help with any questions on how to use it too, if that would help.

    Best wishes,
    Kate (@Radiokate/@SpaceKate/@Audioboo)

  10. Lucas, great points and you raise what for me are really important issues, and underpin the need for support for journalists in the field from editors and producers at the desks – especially in regards to breaking news journalism where time is of the essence I agree there simply is not the time and (currently) the infrastructure to do many such pieces. I’m sure as technology progresses it will be possible to send more data to editors to assemble, and these pieces will be asked for more and as such people will be hired to produce them (or asked to learn how to do so!). It wasn’t long ago when rolls of film were being put in envelopes and couriered to editors after all.

    Also, I think we shouldn’t forget that there is still a need and place for photographs on their own, without all the extra bells and whistles of video and audio, and I don’t for one second expect everyone to be shooting stills, video and gathering audio all the time. One solution to the ‘jack of all trades master of none’ syndrome that could arise is that I hope that journalists will collaborate more, with writers, videographers, photographers and radio journalists teaming up to do stories. Of course that already happens, and I think it will become more common.

    I do think that there is space for all these different strands to exist together. We might get the still image or video clip and brief report on a situation, then a day later a wider edit, more in depth reporting and then a few days later a carefully assembled piece with more context. Which is kind of what happens a lot already if you follow a story as it progresses. When teaching, I tell students that they don’t have to do multimedia all the time, but they should practice the skills and utilise them where necessary and possible and collaborate with others to help better tell the story if need be. If you want to do something and don’t know how to do there are two options – learn it, or find someone who does it.

    There have certainly been times when I have gathered audio and even video and it’s never been used, and there are times where I wish I had done so when I didn’t. However, even with the media convergence of web based distribution, the fact that we have the potential to do this is exciting for me, but doesn’t mean I will do it on every job!

    I hope that more news organisations and agencies will see the importance of helping to facilitate their reporters abilities to gather news, gather quality in depth news and work with that to deliver informed, important and in depth pieces that tell the story as fully as possible, over time.

  11. I actually hope that over time the delivery of news becomes a product where the reader is much more immersed in the experience will come to pass. Traditional text and photos are still the preferred method of getting news, it’s just presented far too traditionally when so many other tools are out there.

    This will lead to more money for the organizations as the ability to hold someone’s attention for hours instead of minutes will be worth quite a bit in the advertising world. Presenting a story so that the person can dig as far back as they want while allowing them to leave it and come back whenever they like (difficult with the documentary approach to “multimedia”) will be the direction this stuff heads in I think. However… who knows!

  12. Lucas, many, many thanks for the informative comments. Your perspective highlights the need for infrastructures to make this possible. In that context, I endorse Tom’s comments that stills continue to have a central place, and that not every photographer has to do everything. I got thinking along these lines, however, by the fact so many great photographers were in these stories for a good length of time and occasionally (as in Ed Ou’s quote comments in the post) struggling with the demand for new images from the same location. That means, for some, there is time to make pictures and then record audio, but it all depends on the backup at HQ.

    Kate, no problem giving Audioboo a bit of a plug! It offers a great way of quickly and easily recording audio to add to a story flow – in the way the Guardian uses it in their live blogs. Although portable devices offer ways of recording audio files to incorporate into multimedia packages with images, I’m not sure Audioboo itself does.

  13. David,

    Thanks – I didn’t want you think I was just spamming. :)

    You can record audio with Audioboo while on the run and download it later to include in packages (our paid services will make this easier to do). I just see how there could be moment when you get caught up in the action (as one Guardian journo did when he got bundled into a police van in Egypt) where recording on a small device could be the way forward. His audio was incredibly powerful – in fact still sends shivers as I think about it right now…

    On a separate note – I’d love to hear stories from photographers that are about their personal experiences. What it is like to arrive somewhere in the midsts of war or disaster, what those initial thoughts and feelings are when you land somewhere – and then again when you leave. If any of you would care to share those stories please let me know – I would happily feature them on Audioboo as I think they would offer a side to a story that we don’t usually hear.

    Anyway, I’ll be bookmarking your blog to come back to. I happened across it thanks to a tweet, but it looks great. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    Kate

  1. [...] using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further [...]

  2. [...] Missing multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya? [...]

  3. [...] children under five suffering from acute malnutrition, their situation has to be pictured. # But, as with the coverage of Japan, Egypt and Libya this year, East Africa is being covered by a relatively large number of excellent photographers that surely [...]

  4. [...] But, as with the coverage of Japan, Egypt and Libya this year, East Africa is being covered by a relatively large number of excellent photographers that surely means there is scope for someone to do something different. Do all of them have to go to Banadir hospital in Mogadishu to photograph fly blown, emaciated children? Could not some of them record audio as well as shoot photos so we can hear from the people affected? Can’t their editors push for alternatives and offer greater support to achieve them? Is it beyond our collective capacity to follow the leads from critical questioning and see what’s really going on with famine?” [...]

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