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media economy multimedia photography

Shaul Schwarz: A photographer finds a new world of expression in film

Reel Peek Films

“Magazines are hungry for video,” says Shaul Schwarz, a still photographer who has been interested in film since 2006. Schwarz — who recently directed both Rise, Red Border Films’ story of the people who built One World Trade Center, and Narco Cultura, the 2013 full-length documentary that grew out of his photojournalistic account of the drug culture on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border — is fascinated by the notion that photos can do more than merely illustrate a story. Schwarz is attracted to the way film can provide image-makers with a voice and, in the editing, a level of control over the narrative that’s rarely found in still photography.

In light of the growing demand for quality visual storytelling from media organizations, Schwarz has set up Reel Peak Films, a production company combining photojournalists and filmmakers. With photographers and directors like Maisie Crow, Uriel Sinai, Christina Clusiau, Gillian Laub, Yoni Brook, Leeor Kaufman and Jared Moossy — along with editors Jay Sterrenberg and Bryan Chang and sound specialist Juan Bertran — Reel Peak Films is a network of highly skilled freelancers formed with the aim of producing high-quality films of around 10 minutes in length (for example, Schwarz’s film Ashes to Ashes, Peter van Agtmael’s piece on Bobby Henline, a badly wounded Iraq veteran-turned-stand-up comedian, both of which featured on LightBox, and Christina Clusiau’s Black Rush Life).

“We’re not just taking pictures and doing audio,” says Schwarz, while also acknowledging that Reel Peak is not inventing a new visual form. Reel Peak’s priority, he says, is focusing on the film component around which a larger story and presentation can be built. Schwarz’s hope is to connect the collaborative model that large film projects demand with the journalistic ethos of his partners’ photography backgrounds. “We can go further and deeper into the story,” Schwarz maintains, combining “old school journalism’s hard-hitting perspective and great access” with strong, cinematic aesthetics — an approach very different from, say, that of TV crews.

Schwarz works in the field with a small footprint: no rigs, just a DSLR, and occasionally a sound person. This intimacy, Schwarz says, means “most people don’t even realise I’m doing video.” Reel Peak Films is emblematic of a major shift in the media, as disparate organisations increase their online presence and produce more programs and stories. The past year has seen broadcasters and magazines set up documentary film units, including TIME’s Red Border Films. The Atlantic started three video series, the New York Times expanded its output, placing its videos outside their pay wall; and the Washington Post opened a political channel.

As we concluded in the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project I directed, the intersection of broadcasters, magazines and newspapers in digital space means there is no such thing as traditional media any longer. While there will continue to be print platforms, the screen has become the primary access point for most news and information, and media outlets have to be cross-platform. An encouraging feature of this new media economy is users’ demand for compelling stories. Ooyala, a company that runs 1 billion video streams per month for media organisations, including The Daily Telegraph in the UK, analysed the viewing habits of nearly 200 million unique viewers in 130 countries, and found long-form video (i.e., more than 10 minutes) very popular. MediaStorm reports very large audiences for their stories, with users viewing them years after the original release date, demonstrating that quality storytelling enjoys a long life online.

With distribution partnerships in place, Walter Astrada’s Undesired attracted a six-figure audience in the first week of its release. The online audience for a story like Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Driftless can quickly be 20 times as large as for a print publication, and has the potential to replicate print run numbers on a daily basis. More than half, and often two thirds, of those viewing MediaStorm pieces online stay with them to the end, even with running lengths up to 20 minutes or more.

None of this new and compelling information, of course, should be used to shore up simplistic arguments or proclamations about the imminent “death” of photography. Schwarz continues to shoot stills, and has recently completed a National Geographic assignment. In fact, paradoxically, he finds that he is now able to take more time with his still work — producing book projects, for example — now that he no longer looks to print media exclusively to make a living. Schwarz describes his photographic work as both “solitary and fun,” but when he wants to tell a complex story, he turns to film.

This post was originally published on TIME LightboxMarch 2014.

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media economy multimedia

Scarcity, abundance and value: the economics of digital culture

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Understanding the changing relationship between scarcity and abundance – and how they affect value – is essential for visual storytellers seeking to operate in the new ecology of information.

The foundation for this changing relationship is the fact that the web is built on a structurally open system.

Open doesn’t mean all is equal and free of from power.

There are, for example, obvious international inequalities in terms of geographic and class access to the Internet.

It is also true that commercial interests (whether that be Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter or individual corporations) are able to exercise great power on the web.

Nonetheless, because the founders of the web took the historic decision not to patent and thereby privatise its invention we can all have our own piece of digital space.

So the system remains structurally open because anyone can, for very low cost, broadcast, publish and distribute information. Anyone can establish a web presence from which to attract and reach audiences. This simple fact, combined with other changes in digital technology, has altered the parameters of the media economy from scarcity to abundance. This has been well described by Nicholas Carr:

As the Internet becomes our universal medium, it is reshaping what might be called the economics of culture.  Because most common cultural goods consist of words, images, or sounds, which all can be expressed in digital form, they are becoming as cheap to reproduce and distribute as any other information product. Many of them are also becoming easier to create, thanks to the software and storage services provided through the Net and inexpensive production tools like camcorders, microphones, digital cameras, and scanners….The shift from scarcity to abundance in media means that, when it comes to deciding what to read, watch, and listen to, we have far more choices than our parents or grandparents did.

Of course, this doesn’t itself address issues of quality amidst abundance, but social recommendation, the filtering done by trusted sources, delivers a rich stream of information. I can avoid cheesy cat videos on the web just as easily as I can bypass tabloid newspapers in the shop. But I can get unexpected reports and stories much more easily now than when I had to rely on either the physical library or the newsagent.

The great challenge is how to financially support good stories in this era of information abundance. Approaching that question requires us to appreciate three things:

  1. Good journalism has always been indirectly subsidised and never paid for directly, and this is complicated by the way the artificial scarcity prices of print advertising have collapsed since 2000;
  2. We cannot confuse or conflate value and price: people value quality information and stories for their utility or experience, but the price that can be charged is driven more by issues of access and availability than content worth;
  3. Being able to charge scarcity prices depends on having something unique, long-lasting, easy to access and easy to pay for.

This is the eighth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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media economy multimedia

Digital and the the desire for long form journalism

The world is at her fingertips

The disruption of the Internet, the turn to online news sources, and the global spread of mobile technology are sometimes seen as producing a new age of distraction and superficiality.[1. This position draws on the likes of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and crops up in articles such as “Smart readers are too distracted to read smart content.” There are two problems with these claims. First is that the science on the impact of technology on thinking is contested, as the arguments reviewed her make clear. Second is that the claims are very absolutist, giving a sense there is a general social-psychological condition that automatically affects all. The New York Times ran a good series on brains and computers in 2010 but its opening character revealed that “distraction” might be a conscious choice. While 17 year old Vishal Singh was used as example of one whose love of computers and the Internet meant he couldn’t focus on school homework, he had no trouble concentrating unreservedly on his true passion – film making – spending hours editing short sequences and getting an A in his film studies class. As such, he is hardly “wired for distraction.”]

Without claiming that these are in fact the best of times for visual storytellers, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that contemporary developments are building on and encouraging a healthy appetite for engagement with news and information.

Here is what we found in the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie multimedia research project (see section 2 of the report for details and sources):

  • Over the last two decades – and consistent throughout that period – American data shows people enjoy reading (51% say they enjoyed it a lot), and there has been no decrease in the number reading a book on a typical day (c. 30%). Now, though, the proportion (currently 20%) reading those books via electronic devices is growing
  • In Europe and the US there is a strong appetite for news, with 75% or more of people accessing news daily
  • International news is a topic of interest for 44%+ in Europe and the US
  • At least two-thirds of the 16-24 age group in Europe and the US are interested in news, so the future is not so bleak as sometimes feared.

Significantly mobile technology is helping to cultivate this appetite for news:

  • accessing news is one of top things mobile consumers do
  • it increases the amount of news they consume
  • it increases the number of longer stories they read
  • organisations like the Wall Street Journal report people spend at least as much time (40-50 mins) on their tablet app as they did with the printed paper.

Web video is the subject of current debate, with some producers questioning its value. That argument makes some good creative points that need to be examined in more detail, although there is wide variation in what counts as “web video.” But it is clear that news consumers like linear video. Media organisations we surveyed repeatedly said it was one of the two most popular formats for people coming to their sites. As a result many media organisations (especially those formerly known as newspapers) are investing heavily in video production. All this makes online video the fastest growing multimedia format, with encouraging audience behaviour for those producing stories:

  • News is a popular category on YouTube (it was the most searched for item in four out of 12 months in 2011)
  • There is no strict correlation between length of video and popularity – one-third of popular videos were 2-5 minutes in length, and nearly one fifth were longer than 5 mins
  • Oyala, a large video streaming platform, reported that long form videos of 10 minutes+ accounted for 57% of viewing time on tablets they served
  • Multimedia completion rates can also be good: MediaStorm says that more than half, and often two-thirds, of those viewing their stories online stay with them to the end, even when stories run up to 20 or more minutes.

We can also point to studies commissioned by the Associated Press demonstrating that audiences desire breadth, context and depth – news consumers feel they have the headlines and what they want is the background. To that end, they value the depth visuals (both still and moving) can bring.

This shows the audience is out there, they have an appetite for visual stories, and are consuming long form journalism and video. This does not mean the audience for visual stories can be easily found or quickly engaged. It still takes a good story, and one that is accessible to as many as possible. But both audience desire and our ability to reach them is being encouraged by the digital transformations many feared would have a negative effect on the future of visual stories.

This is the seventh in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

FOOTNOTE:

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media economy multimedia

The global spread of mobile technology and what it means for visual storytelling

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The global spread of mobile technology is reshaping the media economy.

By 2017 there will be 5.2 billion mobile users worldwide, up from 4.3 billion currently, and the number of mobile Internet connections will exceed the number of people on the planet (albeit with a different distribution). The proliferation of smartphones, laptops and tablets has made the screen the primary access point for much information and is helping to drive the growth in online news sources. In the US, smartphones have outpaced almost every other technology in the speed of mainstream adoption, and are the backbone of most media interactions.

Instead of one technology killing off and totally replacing another, people are now getting their news through a combination of different new devices and sources. Nearly all media organisations produce mobile content, and those like The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal are seeing one-third of their readers coming in via mobile devices and the number is growing rapidly. The proliferation of devices for accessing the web enables and encourages multiplatform consumption.

The visual is at the heart of these developments. According to a Cisco executive, the “dramatic adoption” of mobile technology means “we are rapidly approaching the time when nearly every network experience will be a mobile one and, more often than not, a visual one as well.” That is because mobile video is the biggest single component of mobile data traffic – it now accounts for 51% of this traffic and will rise to 66% in 2017.

Mobile feeds social. The growth in mobile is fuelling the number of Americans – not just the young – who access news via social networks, which increased from 9% in 2010 to 19% in 2012. In the UK, social networks are equally important, with the Reuters Institute reporting that they provide the gateway to news for 20% of users.

These developments mean being mobile and social is essential for every visual storyteller. That does not mean every story has to be designed for mobile only. It does mean that to have the chance of reaching the largest and widest possible audience, at least some element of every story, or some version of every story, needs to be readily accessible on mobile devices and easily shareable on social networks. Storytellers need to find their audiences, and audiences in the new media economy are increasingly found, at least in the first instance, through mobile and social.

This is the sixth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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Featured media economy multimedia

The primacy of the screen

Google screen study

 

The screen has become the primary access point for much information.

The shift to online news sources, the growth of mobile platforms, and the expansion of video output are both cause and effect of the screen’s increasing dominance.

The above graphic comes from a 2012 study commissioned by Google and conducted by Sterling Brands and Ipsos. They concluded that 90% of media interactions by Americans were now screen based. This could well be an overstatement, despite the good mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, because the research sample was 1,611 people aged 18-64 in Los Angeles, Boston and Austin, three connected cities. Nonetheless, because of the many intersecting factors contributing to the dominance of the screen, it shows at least a clear trend.

This study reported that screens were employed both sequentially and simultaneously. Sequentially meant people would use different devices individually in different contexts and at different times. simultaneously refers to “the second screen experience”, where viewing on one device is accompanied by another. While mobile devices enable access anywhere anytime (assuming network connections), Pew found they are most often used for news in the home. And whether sequential or simultaneous, the study concluded that smartphones were the backbone of daily media interactions, the most common starting point for activities, and the most common companions in sequential use.

The main thrust of the Google/Sterling Brands/Ipsos findings are supported by a 2013 BBC study of global multiscreen news consumption:Multiplatform news consumption infographic

Jim Egan, CEO of BBC Global News Ltd, drew an interesting conclusion from this study:

Avid news consumers are hungry for information wherever they are and expect to stay in touch on all the devices they now own. There’s been speculation for years that mainstream uptake of smartphones, laptops and tablets will have a negative impact on television viewing, but this study has found that the four devices actually work well together, resulting in greater overall consumption rather than having a cannibalising effect.

The primacy of the screen is good news for visual storytellers. Increased access to, and consumption of, information is being enabled by these devices. The challenge will be how to make stories work on, and across, different screens, especially smartphones. The challenge will also be how to link print and other platforms with screens in this new ecology of information.

This is the fifth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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media economy multimedia

Newspapers, advertising and the Internet: How journalism has always been subsidised

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The disruptive power of the Internet changed everything in media. But it did not cause everything.

The decline of newspapers, so long the editorial paymaster for photojournalism, is a trend dating back six decades.

Globally there are mixed signals concerning newspaper circulation, with some reporting growth in Asia offsetting falls in Europe and the US, while other sources reveal “printed newspaper readership is now declining in almost all major economies,” including China and India.

In the US, UK and Canada, the data is clear and dramatic. The Communications Management Inc. study on Sixty Years of Daily Newspaper Circulation Trends shows newspaper circulation has been falling since 1950:

CM2011 newspaper circulation comparison

Because the defining characteristic of the new media economy is “the separation of information from its means of distribution” we cannot conclude that the decline in newspapers means the demise of journalism, visual or otherwise. The reverse is in fact true – journalism has many homes and benefits from the freedom of circulation and distribution that the Internet makes possible – the Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News is a great example.

The problem is that the traditional homes of journalism have seen their already parlous financial health further undercut. However, we have to remember that most media organisations are in business, but not primarily the business of journalism. Legacy organisations (including great ones like The New York Times) spend no more than 20% of their budget on news content (in fact, in the US the industry average is 12.7%). The rest goes on the management and operation of the distribution model.

Media organisations are in the business of advertising, advertising has accounted for 80% of their revenue, and that revenue has subsidised the journalism that provides the content that draws the readers/views in to see the advertisements. Above all else it is the collapse in advertising revenue for print media that has been the single largest cause of journalism’s financial crisis, as this graph from Mark Perry shows dramatically:

Newspaper ad revenue 1950-2012

The disruption of the Internet has put added pressure on print advertising and online advertising has not replaced print losses.

There are some vital lessons flowing from this for the future of visual storytelling. We have to understand that:

  • journalism (reporting, stories, pictorial coverage) has never been a viable, stand-alone product. It has never paid for itself directly and its users have never directly paid for all of it. Journalism has always been subsidised by indirect sources, principally advertising;
  • the culture of “free” is originally a product, not of the Internet, but of the mass media model – it comes from “free to air” radio, “free to view” television (both financed indirectly by advertising) and newspapers with small subscription fees making up no more than one-fifth of their revenue, all of which enabled many generations of users to get their information for no charge at the point of consumption;
  • there will not be a one-size-fits-all, single business model for good journalism in the future, but it will continue to depend on sources of indirect subsidy;
  • successful journalism operations (of which there many good examples) are becoming sustainable not by discovering some untapped, secret pot of gold, but by diversifying income, making new connections between advertising, paying for content, selling data and technology, events, freelancing, consulting etc.;
  • photojournalists and visual storytellers should not pin their hopes on “paywalls” for established news sites as the single best solution, because even if they work on some measures these are not going to bring back a lost golden age of editorial assignments, as user subscriptions can never replace lost advertising revenue for legacy organisations.

This historical perspective challenges some important myths about what happened to media. None of this makes the present struggle for critical visual journalism easy. But it should re-set the terms of the debate about what is happening now, and re-frame some of the strategic options for the future.

This is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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media economy multimedia

Disruption and the new ecology of information

What happens in an internet minute

The context for thinking about what is happening with visual storytelling is one of “disruption.” Yes, that term can be drained through overuse, but it is still vital in understanding the dynamics of the new media economy,

That is because disruption is more than just change through competition.

We have disruption because, as the Columbia University report Post-Industrial Journalism argued (p. 83),

the arrival of the internet did not herald a new entrant in the news ecosystem. It heralded a new ecosystem, full stop.

The Internet is not a competitor that stands separate from the traditional media institutions. Its dynamics have created something new that encompasses all who exist in the news ecosystem, including the traditional institutions. Even though there are still significant inequalities in Internet access within and between countries, the Intel graphic above makes clear the scale of the disruption the Internet produces for all.

The metaphor of the ecosystem and ecology is important here because it reflects the way the media economy is made up of networks through which news and information is produced, distributed and consumed. How can we understand the impact disruption has had on the ecology of news? Richard Stacy puts it best. The defining characteristic of the new media economy is “the separation of information from its means of distribution.”

This means (according to the Columbia study, p.1):

Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the startups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate, narrowly and broadly, outside the old strictures of the broadcast and publishing models. The past 15 years have seen an explosion of new tools and techniques, and, more importantly, new assumptions and expectations, and these changes have wrecked the old clarity.

As a result it no longer makes sense to speak of a traditional, print based media opposed to a digital competitor. There is no such thing as traditional media any longer, even if print remains a mode of distribution for some. When ‘newspapers’ are streaming more video on some services than broadcast stations, broadcast networks are competing on the web with everyone else, and public radio networks have multimedia producers for visual stories, you know the media world has changed forever. Everybody is implicated in the digital ecosystem, even if you think of yourself as a print producer, and that goes for individuals as well as organisations. We should therefore refer to the traditional distribution platforms for journalism as “the organisations formerly known as newspapers, radio and television.”

And if you want a sense of how we have come on the web, then find time to watch this 1995 PBS computer show introducing the Internet, and note how much more visual the web has become in its second decade:

This is the third in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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media economy multimedia photography

Learning to COPE: Multimedia freelancing in the new media economy

Guest post from D J Clark

How people make a living from ‘multimedia’ reporting and storytelling is one of the most pressing issues.

In the new World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project report (p. 44) is a colourful diagram. As an illustration of how indirect revenue can subsidise work, “Ways to make money blogging” sits in the midst of a discussion about how the old media system is now broken and how “in the new media economy all media is multimedia, social media, and it is increasingly mobile.” Examining the various income streams laid out in blue, yellow, red and green, I realized how similar this was to my freelance business as a photographer turned multimedia journalist.

The diagram below represents a quick email survey of five Beijing-based international freelance visual journalists, including myself, who have successfully made the transition from a single media (mainly photography) to delivering multiple media (mainly photography and video) to international clients.

easelly_visual_590

While freelance assignments still make up the largest part of our income, surprisingly it is less than half. Of that half, the vast majority (78%) is for regular media clients rather than one-off assignments. As with TV news, multimedia not only requires the freelancer to be well versed in a particular style of shooting, it also needs the freelancer to understand complex workflows, compression settings, subtitling, transmitting etc., which together make it more likely the media companies will use the same people repeatedly.

Of the five of us surveyed, three had formal contracts with at least one media company, but this still made up only 10% of overall assignments. Commercial work was the next biggest earner, although two people said this takes up very little time and is undertaken to fund equipment and editorial assignments.

Teaching on university courses, conducting media company training, and running workshops all formed a reliable income source for most of us. Grants only made up 6% of income, although four out of five of us had received at least one. Funding projects with grants and crowd sourcing is often put forward as a potential substitute to publishers but much of the money is spent on travel and production costs with little going back to the journalist as income. My most recent grant ended up costing me money as the project went over budget by more than the amount allotted to my fee.

One other surprise was stock sales, which in the old system was a trustworthy form of income even when assignments were slow. At only 3% there seems little point in investing too heavily in the time it takes to organize media for stock agencies and send it off – maybe better to upload to YouTube, Vimeo or Flickr as a way of promoting yourself and generating sales?

There was one additional question I asked the group. How much time do you put into social media and/or online promotion? All except one explained they find it hard to separate social media/blogging from their work, and the individual who was not so engaged said she should be doing this. “This stuff is completely intertwined with my life,” explained one journalist. Yet all of us answered 0% when asked how much direct income we derived from these time-consuming activities. Indirect income is another matter, however.

Recently I discovered the world of COPE – ‘Create Once Publish Everywhere’, a concept first championed by NPR and now used extensively by media companies to get their content to where audiences are, rather than trying to bring audiences to them. For multimedia freelancers it is also important to spread your content on as many platforms and in as many ways as possible. Sharing photographs on Instagram while working an assignment, tweeting from behind the scenes, sharing links on Facebook, uploading (when permitted) stories to your YouTube and Vimeo accounts, and blogging all help promote the journalist effectively, if not more so than having a personal website you expect people to find. Learning how to separate the noise from the signal and using time-saving social apps like Hootsuite are also key skills to save getting bogged down in the social stream so you can concentrate on the story.

This short survey is by no means conclusive but it does demonstrate that developing strong relationships with a few media organisations, taking on a variety of income creating activities, and devoting a good amount of time to online engagement that is not directly paid, all form part of modern-day, successful freelancing in the new media economy.

This is a guest post from D J Clark, with whom I have worked in various capacities for more than ten years. You can find out more about D J Clark at djclark.com. The MA International Multimedia Journalism he directs (and to which I contribute) is now accepting applications for September 2013. D J Clark’s newly released, free, and co-authored multimedia training resource is at multimediatrain.com.

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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Featured media economy multimedia photography

‘Multimedia’, photojournalism and visual storytelling

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What is “multimedia”?

Searching for a single definition in answer to this question is neither possible nor desirable. At its most basic, “multimedia” signifies some combination of images, sound, graphics, and text to produce a story. In different realms of practice people speak of “cross media,” “transmedia” or “mixed media.’ In photojournalism, “multimedia” has often been first understood as “photography, plus…”, principally the combination of still imagery with other content. Nowadays we see it in multiple forms ranging from online photo galleries where pictures are combined with text captions, to audio slideshows, linear video (both short-from and long-form), animated infographics, non-linear interactives, and full-scale web documentaries and broadcast films.

The digital revolution has been a defining development in the emergence of “multimedia” that blurs the boundary between still and moving images. But that boundary has long been blurred. Even a brief consideration of the history of image making shows considerable overlap between still and moving images. Close-ups and freeze frames are moments in which cinema employs the still image, and photo-stories and sequences testify to the influence of cinema on photography. Famous photographers like Man Ray, Paul Strand and Gordon Parks were all involved in filmmaking and films like Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (1962) and Agnes Varda’s “Salut Les Cubains” (1963) were based on still photographs. Ken Burn’s creative use of archival pictures in “The Civil War” (1990) was so powerful it gave rise to an effect now immortalised in video editing software. Modern television is not averse to deploying stills in either opening credits (as in David Simon’s “Treme”) or in news broadcasts, when a slower pace is needed to underline the significance of the event (the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq being two such cases), or when video is unavailable.

The roots of “multimedia” go deeper still. In the media history of photographic images, prior to mass reproduction of images in print becoming possible, pictures were displayed to the public with the help of technological devices such as the magic lantern (as well as the gloriously named phenakistiscope, zoetrope, praxinoscope, mutoscope, etc.) that created the perception of moving images in theatrical settings.

Moving forward again, we can recall other photographic projects in which images were entwined with other forms of content. Nan Goldins’ famous “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was originally shown in the early 1980s as a constantly evolving slideshow with music. Pedro Meyer’s “I Photograph to Remember” (1991), Rick Smolan’s “From Alice to Ocean” (1992) and “Passage to Vietnam” (1994), and Tim Hetherington’s “House of Pain” (1996) were all on CD-ROMs and it was speculated that CD-ROMs might replace books as the chosen platform for photographic presentation. Gilles Peress’ “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace” (1996) was an interactive photo essay, while Ed Kashi’s “Iraqi Kurdistan” flipbook style production (2006) closed the circle by deploying a nineteenth century technique on a twenty-first century platform.

Photojournalism has always been influenced by technological changes, and the arrival of DSLR cameras with video capability – the Nikon D90 in August 2008 followed shortly thereafter by the Canon 5D Mark II – have again highlighted the relationship between still and moving images, providing practitioners with dual image capability in a single camera body.

What is the significance of this history? It confirms that any attempt to strictly define “multimedia” would exclude more than it includes. And it demonstrates that what we need is not a restrictive definition of one genre, but an expanded understanding of “the photographic,” especially the long-standing and complex relationship between still and moving images, possibly what Tim Hetherington meant when he spoke of a “post-photographic” world. This is not a world in which one visual form has died, but a world in which multiple visual forms are alive and stronger than ever.

This is why this study speaks of “visual storytelling”. It opens up the field to different communities who share a common purpose in image-oriented reportage. It is the zone in which photojournalism, videojournalism, documentary, cinema and interactive storytelling have the potential to intersect. This does not create a new visual genre, but it constitutes a space in which photojournalists can bring their aesthetic abilities and commitment to reporting, and learn from those operating outside of photography.

This is not the “convergence” of everything into one, nor a place where a single new form replaces all others – none of this leads to the conclusion that all forms of print are passé. Instead, we have arrived at a place where image making is important to storytelling, and storytelling encompasses many forms across many platforms.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Image credit: Magic lantern show, 1881. This engraving of a magic lantern show is from La Nature (vol 1, 1881), and is signed ‘Smeeton Tilly’. The image being projected depicts a castle at night. © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library — All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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multimedia

World Press Photo Multimedia research project

I’m pleased to announce that I am directing a research project for World Press Photo – under the auspices of the World Press Photo Academy and supported by the FotografenFederatie (Dutch Photographers Association) – that will map the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism.

‘Multimedia’ is an imprecise and problematic term, and some refer to ‘photo films’ or ‘web documentaries’. While not a replacement for other approaches, these concept point to an emerging consensus in photojournalism that, , presenting a story through a combination of images, sound, and text offers a number of advantages. Stories are able to provide greater context and give their subjects a voice, while being easily distributed through new digital channels (the web, apps) that are no longer constrained by the limited space of print publications. However, one of the major challenges is to see how the production of quality content through these means can be supported and expanded.

This project, underway now and to report by next April, will examine these issues through a comparative study looking at multimedia trends in three parts of the world: the USA, Europe, and China. In each of these locations, this study will ask five general questions:

1.  How is multimedia being produced?
2.  How is multimedia being financed?
3.  How is multimedia being published and distributed, and who is publishing/distributing multimedia?
4.  How are viewers consuming multimedia?
5.  Which types of multimedia attract the most attention, and what are the criteria of success?

The aim is to have a comprehensive survey that makes clear what is possible and practical. I don’t envisage defining what ‘multimedia’ is or is not: rather we want to see the full range of what is happening globally and how it is being made possible, and what we can learn from that for the future.

The research is going to involve a combination of secondary literature and primary interviews with key players. I am also keen for anyone interested in the topic to contribute, so will be making appeals for information from the photographic community.

There is a dedicated email address for the project, so please get in touch at david (at) worldpressphoto.org.

A final note:  as an independent research and practitioner, I make a rule of recusing myself from public comment on organisations who employ me. As a result, while I will continue to publish my own personal analyses on photojournalism here, and I will not be making any comments about any issues relating directly to World Press Photo, the World Press Photo Academy or the FotografenFederatie while working on this project.

 

 

Categories
media economy multimedia

Paying for multimedia: MediaStorm’s Pay Per Story scheme

Few things remain more challenging, and require more experimentation, than finding a way to fund new visual stories. It has never been easy to sustain documentary work, but now we have a new development that is worth watching. MediaStorm have built an enviable reputation as the leading multimedia production studio, and their launch of “Pay Per Story” with the release of “A Shadow Remains” by Philip Toledano and “Rite of Passage” by Maggie Steber, is an important moment for this issue.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Brian Storm since we taught together for a week in China in 2008, and I’ve continued to benefit from his advice on projects and insights on the industry. I’ve visited MediaStorm a number of times, most recently in April, when I got a behind the scenes look at the player that powers PPS. For this post I checked a number of factual details with Brian this week while writing this post.

Here are a few thoughts on what MediaStorm is doing. In particular, I want to call attention to the need to frame our discussion of this development in a particular way if this is going to be a productive step.

Pay Per Story means you pay $1.99 to access feature length stories and support material, and that access is on-going, so it’s not pay per view. As is standard for MediaStorm, revenue is being shared 50:50 with the photographers whose stories are being produced. PPS is also being applied only to the new editorial work MediaStorm does, so access to client projects and workshop stories is not being monetized through individual payment. The player for the stories is HTML5 meaning it can be viewed on phones and tablets as well as computers, though whether it can be viewed on a device different from the one it was purchased on is not clear to me, and something I would still like to check, because ease of access and use is one of the key conditions for success. (Update: MediaStorm confirm that once purchased you can log in on other devices to view, which is an important feature).

In the PDN report on PPS, Brian noted that the majority of the 30 plus stories they have produced since 2005 have had million or more views. Because they are “non-perishable” – that is, they are not time specific, with sell by dates – it is possible that revenue from new stories will be accrued over a long period of time.

Given the vast investment MediaStorm makes in its stories, they would need to turn 10% of viewers into paying consumers to full cover the cost of production. That’s a very high proportion when you consider most media companies count it as a success if they turn 2-3% of their audience into payers.

This means we need a sense of perspective on this development. Pay Per Story is not a silver bullet strategy. It’s not a self-contained, all encompassing business model that’s going to right all that’s wrong with the editorial sector. And Brian seems sanguine about it being another source of revenue rather than immediately a replacement for the client work or training they undertake.

That said, in announcing the move, Brian was keen to highlight the wider implications of what they are doing:

…the reality is, no company or industry can sustain itself for long without producing a product for which people are willing to pay.

At MediaStorm we think it’s time for us, as content producers and publishers, to bring this conversation into the limelight. Frankly, our long-term survival as an industry depends on it.

We believe that our industry is in need of a sustainable business model that will allow us to continue to report and produce compelling stories. While Pay Per Story may not be the definitive answer, we believe that it can be a step to getting us there.

As one of the experiments that could really help, there is no doubt PPS is significant. But it’s more than a question of whether individuals will pay. I think Time overstated the case when they said the video player that makes PPS possible was a “game changer” – there are no single things that will by themselves change the game in my view – but licensing the rich functionality in the player, which effectively makes MediaStorm also a software company, is a major part of this development.

While many are wishing MediaStorm well, some of the immediate reaction to MediaStorm’s introduction of Pay Per Story has been quite silly. Many of the comments on PDN talked of the problems with paywalls. If we were talking about daily, general news – content that is dated within minutes if not seconds, and can be sourced from credible sources elsewhere – then the paywall analogy might be relevant. I’ve certainly been very sceptical of paywalls for organisations like The New York Times, even though I am a digital subscriber.

What MediaStorm is doing is not building a paywall. It’s offering unique stories, rich accounts with lasting value, to which people can purchase on-going access. From iTunes to Louis CK we have plenty of examples now to show that people are willing to pay for content they want and which can be accessed easily. Those instances are often dismissed by those who say they don’t scale easily for something like photojournalism and documentary, and that’s true in one sense.

However, it overlooks the lessons we can learn about how people value things in the digital world and are willing to pay and pay often. We are now witnessing photographers releasing book-like apps that cost much more than the MediaStorm stories, though I’m not aware of an analysis of their prospects. But if you want an example of an individual pay per story experiment that was quite successful, think about Nick Turpin’s 38 minute In-Sight film, which he sold via Distrify for two or three times the amount MediaStorm are charging, and which earnt him a not insignificant amount of money. What Nick had was a community who were interested in his work, and that is something, with an engaging social media strategy, MediaStorm have perfected too.

My one concern about the debate over PPS as it moves forward is we have to be careful about how it is framed, at least in so far as it allocates responsibility for success or failure. Maggie Steber wrote a tough response to some critics who obviously dismissed the idea of paying for her story. I can appreciate her frustration, but in the end if potential customers choose to behave in certain ways there is not much producers can do about it.

And the least productive thing is to turn any resistance into a moral rebuke. We might think people who readily pay three bucks for a coffee but bemoan $1.99 for a visual story are “mistaken and shortsighted.” In the end, however, it is the producers not the consumers who are responsible for getting people to part with their money. I think if the stories are engaging and easily accessed – as they are – then a paying clientele will be found. The issue will be the size of the paying community.

Finally, let’s not turn this into a debate over free versus paid, as though those two things are unrelated. MediaStorm is in part successful because they employed the idea of free to leverage the web over some years, building a great portfolio and an engaged community around their work. We have to work with the open dynamic of the web, not against it, and Pay Per Story is consistent with that logic by focusing on particular kinds of projects.

Let’s hope it succeeds within those terms, and whatever its course, MediaStorm keeps us posted about what it learns from the experience as it goes along.

 

Categories
multimedia

Laygate Stories: a new multimedia project

 

Laygate Stories’ is a multimedia project that portrays, in their own voices, the lives of those living and working in the Laygate area of South Shields on Tyneside, in the north-east of England.

Creating new visual stories excites me, and its a pleasure to again be working collaboratively with Peter Fryer on this project, which is part of an Arts Council England funded commission (‘Homelands’) organised by the Side Gallery in Newcastle. Peter undertakes the photography, I take the lead on the audio and the technical aspects of production, and together we edit the pictures and sound into a ‘photo film’.

The work is centred on the diverse community along Frederick St and the Laygate area. This is a vibrant area made up of indigenous north-easterners, a long-established Yemeni community – who were once migrants but now includes second and third generation British citizens – as well as people from Angola, Bangladesh, the Congo, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Poland and Somalia.

Through existing contacts and friendships within the community, we are documenting the daily interactions of the different social groups that constitute this community. The work does not profess to be an all-encompassing overview of the area but uses short photo-films to give people a platform to express their everyday thoughts, feelings and concerns, and to reflect on their place within the community.

This project builds on our earlier work in this area, especially the ten-minute photo film ‘The Boarding House‘. It is also inspired by The New York Times One in 8 Million‘ project, which uses sound and images to introduce characters in that city. Their purpose was to showcase “ordinary people telling extraordinary stories, of passions and problems, relationships and routines, vocations and obsessions.”

We have endeavoured to show the everyday, believing that this gives an insight into the extraordinary things people have to offer and the different histories they have to tell. We have also ensured that those who volunteered to speak are involved in the way their stories are produced.

We begin with four stories. Over the next year we will be adding more from this diverse community as the work progresses. As individual pieces they offer insights rather than a developed narrative, but we hope that once we have a dozen or so portraits available the cumulative effect will be the story of a community.

We are grateful to the Side Gallery and the Arts Council England for support. We hope you enjoy the first instalment, which is available on the project site at www.laygatestories.com.

 

Categories
multimedia photography

Post-photography: Tim Hetherington’s living legacy

Tributes to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros have been widespread and heartfelt after the devastating news of their untimely deaths in Libya. The injuries to Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown were also shocking, and hopefully they will recover fully.

Photojournalism Links has curated the numerous memorials, including many fascinating videos in which Tim and Chris articulate their visions. I wanted to pay tribute to them, and I’ve been ruminating for twenty-four hours about what to say. I hope its appropriate to offer that respect by pointing to a legacy that can live on.

Over the years I was fortunate to have talked with Tim on a few occasions. Many know him better than I, but even sporadic discussions, such as a debate over embedding in Afghanistan, were testament to his creativity, intellect and generosity.

Back in 2000 Tim was part of a Panos Pictures workshop that opened an exhibition at Side Gallery in Newcastle. Tim was the standout speaker, and presented his “House of Pain” project (published online by Fred Ritchin’s Pixel Press). This was a multimedia piece that began as a student project at Cardiff in 1996 and was influenced by a work placement with Pedro Meyer. To experiment with multimedia more than a decade ago in order to take photojournalism into new areas is proof of Tim’s energy and vision.

Ten years on and Tim was back at Side for the opening of his Liberia exhibition in March 2010. Not only did he speak at the gallery on the first Saturday of the show, on the Sunday he showed the draft of his personal Diary project, and discussed the numerous challenges of filming in a war zone. He was again generous with his time and engaging with his insights, and we enjoyed continuing the exchange about Afghanistan.

Tim’s legacy will be rich and profound. But it can be more than the work he leaves behind. It should also be a living legacy in which the boundaries of photojournalism are continually pushed in pursuit of a story with purpose. To that end, the thinking he exhibited in his June 2010 interview with Michael Kamber could be the blueprint. The whole transcript repays attention, but here are some of the provocative extracts:

If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

If we are interested in the outside world and making images of it and translating it and relaying it to as many people as possible, then in some ways the traditional photographic techniques are really not important.

Authenticity and making a picture authentic is obviously important. I am not interested in traditional photographic techniques. I am not interested in putting a black border around a photograph as a way of saying that is authentic. You know, “protecting photography.”

My point about not being a photographer is that we can’t protect photography – forget photography – when we are interested in the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

We are making so many images, but we aren’t actually connecting these images. We aren’t exploiting what we have made. We aren’t mining it enough to make it into audiences’ minds. A strategy to hit people about this idea of Afghanistan across multiple forms – “Oh, I’ve read Sebastian’s book, “War”; I’ve read the Vanity Fair articles; then I saw the film and the film made me want to see Hetherington’s book” — is a multilayered thing. It is different than the images you see out there that are already lost.

And to make that happen, you have to navigate through the business side of things. That isn’t easy. But if we see ourselves merely as photographers, we are failing our duty. It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.

We who are working in the realm of photojournalism and documentary photojournalism have to focus on whom we want to talk to. We need to know who our audience is. That will help us figure out how to reach them, which language to reach them with. I don’t think enough image-makers do that.

I encourage them to look at many different forms. Not to say, “I am a photographer,” but to say: “I am an image maker. I make still or moving images in real-life situations, unfiltered and un-Photoshopped. I am going to look into how I can put this into different streams for different audiences; maybe some on the Web, some in print.”

That’s why I think the most important thing for our industry is not style, it is authenticity. It is: “I go to you because I know you have an authentic voice in the work that you have been doing.”

We all know that having professionalism in any field is important. We have a weird skill-set. Send us into a difficult circumstance and we will get out there and know how to find a story. That is what we do for a living. That is valuable. It is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution – in addition to citizen journalism, in addition to local photographers. The more, the merrier.

Tim died in pursuit of a story for us. I find it very hard to write those words. But if image makers, visual journalists, put his thoughts into practice, his legacy will be alive and productive. We live in a post-photographic world. It’s one where there are more images than ever before. Forget ‘photography’, meaning the industry. Don’t turn inward and protect a tradition just because its done things a certain way for a long time. Find ways, including photographs, to make “the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.” What better way to honour someone taken prematurely than continue down the path they helped forge?

Categories
multimedia photography

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.

Categories
photography politics

The new visual stories of ‘Africa’

What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? Is there a pictorial strategy that can account for one billion people, living in 53 countries that occupy 12 million square miles, speaking two thousand languages, embodying multiple cultures and numerous ethnicities, with manifold intersections with our globalised world?

Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity. This process embodies colonial relations of power that distill a complex, hybrid place into visual stereotypes that cast people and their place as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped and so on.

These stereotypes construct both conventional wisdom and its possible alternatives. Others can be reviled for their barbarity or exalted for the closeness to nature, but these options are no more than two sides of the same coin, and each distances ‘us’ from ‘them’. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical account of how (not) to represent Africa captures this dual operation, and news coverage often sees ‘Africa’ as a place of either human misery or natural exoticism. ‘Africa’ is therefore a mythic space, the quotation marks signifying its production.

The visual story that needs to be told about ‘Africa’ is not a single story. It is a series of stories assembled to end the idea of a singular ‘Africa’. We need accounts of complexity, contrasts, and diversity that are drawn from the everyday as much as the exceptional. We need reports that are aware of their own construction and understand how they either affirm or challenge stereotypes.

There is plenty of photographic work that does that. It is too much to ask of each individual project that it ticks all the boxes, but what projects like African Lens can do is aggregate and curate the rich material being produced so that we can see how, in combination, these images enable stories that complicate the simplistic and deepen the superficial.

How this project is framed will go a long way to determining its success. If we do not go beyond the limits of either/or options we will be stuck replicating colonial dualisms. This means that:

  • we need to interpret photographs in terms of the work that they do in relation to stereotypes rather than via an outmoded commitment to ‘objectivity’ and its spouse, ‘subjectivity’. When it comes to reportage we should demand accuracy, but photographs are inescapably representations and never simply mirrors or windows;
  • we need to exceed the idea that optimism versus pessimism, and especially “Afro-romanticism” versus “Afro-pessimism,” defines the options for stories;
  • we need to support new developments in the multimedia practice of photography that can literally give subjects a voice for their own stories.

Government speaker at a political get together, Abidjan. Photo: Joan Bardeletti.

There are many recent photographic projects contributing to this re-visualization of ‘Africa’. Consider Joan Bardeletti’s work on the middle class in Africa alongside Finbarr O’Reilly’s story on white poverty in South Africa. Think of Andrew Esiebo’s portfolio of Lagos nightlife and Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project, Michael Tsegaye’s pictures of working girls in Addis Ababa, Andrew Tshabangu’s documentation of Johannesburg and Marcus Bleasdale’s presentation of the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa to name just a few.

The problem with stereotypes, as Chimamanda Adichie says, is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” Because of this, the new visual stories of ‘Africa’ cannot ignore the issues of famine, injustice, poverty and war. While we can sympathies with Paul Melcher’s cry for no more “dying Africans,” we must have visual accounts of atrocities when they occur. However, they have to go beyond the stereotypes, as with the Condition Critical project on the Congo war or the coverage of human rights issues in Burundi and Malawi.

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time,  achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The need to re-visualize ‘Africa’ is a major concern of mine, and with my colleagues DJ Clark and Kate Manzo, we established the Imaging Famine blog last month as a way of continuing our Imaging Famine project by aggregating and curating work that both confirms and challenges stereotypes.

Many people are contributing to the production and circulation of new photographic portrayals of ‘Africa’ , and to support the recent launch of African Lens I wrote an editorial that summarises what I see as the issues involved in this important effort. This post reproduces that editorial.

Featured photo: Media circus photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Somalia, 1991. Paul Lowe/Panos.

Categories
multimedia

‘Living in the Shadows’ wins ‘Best of the Best’ award at SABEW

Earlier this month I was delighted to announce that “Living in the Shadows,” the multimedia story on China’s internal migrants I produced for Sharron Lovell, was named among the winners in The Society of American Business Editors and Writers annual Best in Business Journalism competition. Now we have heard it has gone one better…

The Global Post’s ‘Living in the Shadows’ project was awarded “Best of the Best” in general excellence at the SABEW competition. It was the only online project among the thirteen stories recognised from the original list of 163 winners, beating competition from The New York Times, the Associated Press, CNBC.com amongst others.

Judges for the Best of the Best portion of the contest were Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post; David Callaway, editor-in-chief of MarketWatch; Kai Ryssdal, host of Marketplace on National Public Radio; and Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of ProPublica.com. The judges assessment of the project was that:

Living in the Shadows shines a vivid light on those living in the margins of China’s red-hot economic boom. The ambition is audacious: follow three of the 200 million migrant workers as they struggle to survive and adapt. The intimate portraits — captured through evocative photos and enticing and engaging multimedia — move storytelling into new dimensions.

Categories
multimedia photography

‘Living in the Shadows’ wins multimedia journalism award

I hope you will excuse this tiny bit of trumpet blowing, but I was excited to hear this morning that “Living in the Shadows,” the multimedia story on China’s internal migrants I produced for Sharron Lovell, has won an award in the United States.

It was named as one of the winners in The Society of American Business Editors and Writers 15th annual Best in Business Journalism competition. ‘Living in the Shadows,’ which we licensed to The Global Post, won for “Online excellence in projects for mid-sized web sites.”

Most credit goes to Sharron for her excellent photojournalism, in the truest sense of that word. Recognising the significance of internal labour migration in China, Sharron pursued a long-term project based around three families in Shanghai, shooting stills, recording audio and producing video. Thanks goes also to the multimedia team at The Global Post who structured our project into chapters.

I can’t say we ever thought of the project as business journalism, but we are very happy to be counted amongst those recognized for “the best business news reporting during 2009.”

Equally, we have been delighted to see the project deployed by Compassion for Migrant Children, who have used it to help raise awareness about migrant issues.

Most importantly, it demonstrates the power of multimedia – giving a voice to the subjects, providing context and developing a more detailed narrative – in the future of photojournalism.

Categories
media economy photography

Revolutions in the media economy (3): photojournalism’s futures

How do the revolutions in the media economy (detailed in the first and second post of this series) affect photojournalism? Given both the crisis in the distribution of information and the new opportunities for the structure of information, what futures are there for photojournalism?

This assumes ‘photojournalism’ is an accepted category of photographic practice.  It is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and may are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice where someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary or editorial photography, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

Of all the journalistic forms said to have died, none have had their demise declared more often than photojournalism. The recent Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan was previewed with articles lamenting a “dying field” because of the revolutions in the media economy, but such warnings have been frequent throughout the recent history of photojournalism (as in a 1999 editorial in The Digital Journalist, which was revisited in recent articles here and here).

Many of the concerns about the health of photojournalism have been well placed. The financial fragility of agencies like Eyedea and the liquidation of Grazia Neri show traditional business models are faltering badly.

This is the beginning of the end of a long decline. The traditional model of print distribution and direct editorial funding has been unravelling from the 1970s onwards, ever since weekly pictorial magazines like Life folded. This demonstrates photojournalism that required an editorial paymaster was in trouble long before the Internet was an issue or the global recession added to its woes.

How do photojournalists view the contemporary media revolutions?

As a community of practice photojournalism does not have a single voice with a consensus view. There are photographers attuned to the new media economy and working in new ways. But there have recently been a number of notable comments that indicate the world of photojournalism is paying minimal attention to contemporary debates about the revolutions in the media economy, or resorting to some commonly circulated but ill-founded views on how to proceed:

  • The photographic press is yet to explore in any detail the impact of the media revolutions on its constituency. For example, Photo District News had a blog post in June 2009 that devoted a mere two hundred words to wondering (without discussing, let alone answering) “if the journalism business fails, who pays for photojournalism?” but it and similar organs are yet to offer more detailed accounts.
  • One outlet that has offered a view is The Digital Journalist, which published two remarkable editorials in August and September 2009 – remarkable, that is, for containing some of the least considered commentary available. The August editorial held the Internet largely responsible for the current problems, made the mistake of conflating newspapers and journalism, and plumped for pay walls around news sites as the answer. In manner that would have befitted the East German regime in its dying days, it cried out – “Let us build that wall before it is too late.” It is very odd to see a major player parroting the same flawed arguments of the traditional media outlets that have done photographers no favours in recent years.
  • The September editorial of The Digital Journalist then demanded that foundations hand over large sums of money to multimedia publications (including itself), who would then distribute those funds to individual photographers with “projects that deserve coverage.” I’m a fan of the named companies who are a big part of the future (or, more accurately, the present) of photojournalism, but are the foundations really likely to part with large wads of up-front cash? Importantly, why would we want a system of new gatekeepers, and what about the fact that many of those digital producers are already partnering with photographers and getting foundation funding for specific projects? These arguments and proposals seem fundamentally out of touch with what is or likely to happen.
  • In an interview with John Temple, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Cheryl Diaz Myer endorsed paying for on-line content (“I’m a fan of micropayments for the web”). In a demonstration of how unfounded examples gain an aura of truth simply by being repeated, Diaz argued that if the news media followed the iTunes model or the Financial Times subscription system then things would be better – ignoring the arguments cited in my first post of this series that demonstrate Apple’s model cannot be copied because music is a different commodity to news, and that the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are atypical news outlets that distribute economically valuable information.
  • Leo Hsu’s foto8 post on “The End of Newspapers” takes a novel tack on the debate by asking, “Without newspapers, without the received standards of print publications, what expectations will we have of photographs and their ability to speak “truth”? In the wake of renewed concerns about photographic manipulation (which I have discussed here) Hsu is worried about how norms that contest fabrication will be governed. It is an interesting argument with respect to the veracity of images, but its assumptions about newspapers repeat the common mistake of seeing information and its mode of distribution as the same thing. It is the community of practice around photojournalism that establishes and governs standards, and that is independent of any particular mode of distribution, as the on-line debates about manipulation this year clearly demonstrate. Most importantly, contra Hsu, it is the practice of journalism and not the institution of newspapers that have, in some moments, sustained democracy. We must not confuse the two and their different roles.

There have been some good analyses of the new media economies from within photojournalism – Aric Mayer’s review of the publishing crisis and the crisis in editorial photography come to mind – but overall there needs to be a better recognition in the field of what is going on and what it means.

What inspiration can photojournalism take from the media revolutions?

Many of the recent debates within photojournalism have concerned the coverage of issues and the aesthetics of that coverage. In the wake of the last two World Press Photo competitions there have been insightful and provocative comments on how photojournalism pictures the world by Stephen Mayes and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, which prompted some heated feedback (see here for the comments on Mayes lecture and here for a response to Broomberg and Chanarin). Mayes observation that his years as secretary of the World Press Photo jury led him to regard the submissions to the contest as primarily “romantic” – that is, “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” – chimed with other critiques, such as Jörg Colberg’s thoughts on the visual language of photojournalism, which prompted an extensive discussion on the Magnum blog.

These are vital debates even if there is no single resolution. My concern here, however, is with how the revolutions in the new media economy provide photojournalism with new opportunities for the future. These opportunities are made clear by thinking about what the changing structure of information does for photojournalism, and this changing structure of information will undoubtedly assist photojournalism in responding to the concerns about aesthetics and coverage of issues. Inspired by the themes of my previous post, we can say at the outset:

  • The web is where it is at. Photographers must not ignore the full range of outlets (print media, books, exhibitions etc) but the Internet is the only platform with a growing audience for news stories
  • To be on the web means producing multimedia stories. ‘Multimedia’ can mean many things, from simple photo galleries through to stand alone topic sites with stills, audio, video and text together, but it is the combination of sound and image which offers the basis for the most compelling form for storytelling

To say as much is to state the blindingly obvious. Photographers have been using the Internet for years, but what is at stake here is something more than having a shop window on the web. It involves seeing oneself as a publisher of content and a participant in a distributed story, the form of which helps reshape the content of the story. Rather than just producing a single image or small series of images to be sold into another person’s story, multimedia on the web has numerous advantages for visual storytellers:

  • It allows photographers to focus on a story, and produce more content with greater control over how those pictures are presented
  • While the meaning of visual stories can’t be controlled, they can be directed through the construction of a narrative that draws on sound and text as well as photographs and video
  • It potentially overcomes restrictions on getting longer and more complex stories published for a global audience, especially younger generations who do not consume traditional media
  • It is an effective response to the conceptual challenge of how to provide context for a photograph
  • It can overcomes photojournalism’s objectification of people by giving subjects their own voice

This gels with the changing nature of the atomic unit of the news media discussed in the previous post. Running parallel to a shift from ‘article’ to ‘topic’ will be the move from ‘single picture’ or ‘photo essay’ to ‘visual story’ as part of the multi-dimensional narratives that make up a ‘topic’. Moreover, the visual story will be set in context, linked, updated and distributed across the web.

There are increasing numbers of photographers beginning to work in this way, as sites like Interactive Narratives or KobreGuide demonstrate. However, what I am trying to highlight here is more than a shift from taking stills to producing videos. It is about rethinking the capacity to tell stories in line with what Fred Ritchin calls a “new visual journalism,” which he outlined in greater detail here.

Ritchin has long been a leading proponent on these changes. Back in the early days of the web (1996) he produced what is still one of the most innovative multimedia stories, “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” which was organized around Gilles Peress’ photography and published by the New York Times. Ritchin analysed this production in a significant essay called “Witnessing and the Web: An Argument for a New Photojournalism” and has recently developed these ideas in his important book After Photography where he outlines, conceptually and practically, a new practice called “hyperphotography.”

Hyperphotography is a “paradigm shift into another medium, or more precisely into an interactive, networked multimedia, which distances itself from conventional photography” (p. 70). For Ritchin this means “an entire photograph can…serve as a node, a hyperphotograph, an ambiguous, visual, uncaptioned, tantalizing segment of a developing conversation leading, if the reader is willing, to other photographs, other media, other ideas (p. 71). Far from being abstract, Ritchin’s concept has practical pointers on how information can be embedded in images, offering viewers the option of deciding which links they follow in a non-linear fashion.

This move from ‘photojournalism’ to ‘visual journalism,’ from ‘photography’ to ‘hyperphotography’ does not involve either giving up on the still image or abandoning the documentary function of photography. It might employ a variety of new media formats, such as those used by FLYP magazine or the In a City flipbook curated by DJ Clark for the British Council. Whatever its exact form, it uses the power of photography to help structure a multi-dimensional story that through its links, context and openness can be a strong form of evidence for the story it wishes to tell.

How are photojournalists going to get paid in these changing times?

We have to constantly revisit this conundrum, but each time we get back to this point we have to remember something very important.

We can’t approach this issue via some misplaced nostalgia for a golden age that if it did actually exist certainly no longer survives. Photographic stories or documentary have always been difficult to fund directly. If there was a time when the majority of photojournalists simply waited for well-paid commissions to produce important work, that time is no more. We have to doubt though whether the past was like that, because in reality few if any photographers have been able to sustain a career entirely through editorial projects they chose to do. Even Sebastião Salgado had to do corporate and advertising work to cross-subsidise work on the social issues he wanted to explore, and Simon Norfolk sells his prints to a wealthy clientèle through a fine art gallery in order to support his visual critique of the US military.

That means, as mentioned in the previous posts, funding is increasingly going to be indirect. This was confirmed by Stephen Mayes of VII in a an interview headlined “Inventing Twenty-First Century Photojournalism.” Mayes began by stating “as long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble.” Instead he proposed this shift:

[The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.

Mayes’ thoughts were reasonably conventional in so far as magazines and newspapers were his primary distributors. Nonetheless, they attracted some outraged comments, with two people alleging that journalism dies the moment one enters into a partnership with the subject. To which Mayes replied, “it amazes me how this question comes up only when discussing non-publishing partners as though the integrity of the news industry is somehow unquestionable. Like fish in water we often fail to recognize the constraints of our existing media…”

I couldn’t agree more. If some of the great photojournalists had adhered to this absolutism we would have been deprived of great pictures – think, for example of how a Larry Burrows needed the US military to get around Vietnam, or a Tom Stoddart required assistance from MSF to travel in Sudan. Of course partnerships vary and anyone concerned about integrity will have to work hard to maintain independence, but that applies in all situations. Aside from the fact the old editorial paymaster model is all but gone, the idea that taking money from corporate media funded by advertising, so that one can create content which will attract more viewers for that advertising, is free from all moral issues is…well, rather daft.

Nobody works in an ethically pure zone. VII has to face those issues with its sponsorship by Canon, anyone working with an NGO or foundation needs to confront them too, and in accepting a commission from a newspaper or on-line site the same applies. Negotiating those issues requires transparency and reflexivity. Operating in the networked world of social media is one way to achieve that openness and integrity.

In the end, creating unique, quality content in a myriad of multimedia formats is the best way to produce value. We know great imagery on the web can drive traffic to sites and around particular stories, and where there is traffic there will be networks, relationships and the opportunity to find ways to fund that content. This does not mean multimedia, visual journalism or hyperphotography will kill off books, exhibitions and the printed image. But those forms of distribution will comprise only a part of a successful photographers portfolio of activity in the new media economy.

Next…what the new media economy might mean for universities and academic publishing…

Photo credit: Today is a good day/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
multimedia

War in multimedia

As I wrote in today’s photographic post on Afghanistan, John D. McHugh’s multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan offers some of the best visual insights into the military realities of that conflict.

McHugh, in a session chaired by Roger Tooth of The Guardian at London’s Fontline Club last week, also provides a series of good insights into both the benefits and problems of producing his multimedia stories. You can see a 79 min video of this discussion here. The discussion deals with these issues from the 30 min mark onwards, and reveals how uncertain the political economy of multimedia is for news organisations in the UK. How to manage, produce, publicise and value multimedia is still being worked out project by project. The visual revolution for journalism is still very much in its infancy here.

Categories
multimedia

Newspaper as television

The media landscape is changing radically. When The Guardian (rightly) wins a Broadcast News award for its July 2008 video on Zimbabwe’s rigged election – which was posted on the newspaper’s web site before being shown on BBC television – then we have proof that the barriers between print, on-line and television are being blurred by multimedia.

This convergence is not without its problems. The mainstream media is using ‘clickstream’ data on what drives digital consumers to their site in a way that could see more of the same superficial journalism in more outlets. According to Andrew Currah of Oxford University;

“A paradox of the 24/7 media environment is that – owing to the integration of newsrooms, and the duplication of stories across print, broadcast and online – the news agenda has become more homogeneous, despite there being more channels through which to access it.”

The work of The Guardian, and independent producers like MediaStorm, shows that creative and challenging stories can be produced and distributed. It’s up to the mainstream digital media to use the technological opportunities to do something similar.

[See Andrew Currah’s full report on the future of news publishing in the UK in the digital age, What’s Happenning to Our News, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, January 2009].