Heart’s eye view.

Stanley Cup photo comparison

About a month ago I received a call from a journalist friend who was in a state of outrage over the Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to fire its entire photography staff.  Surely I would share her outrage, right?  At the time, though, her words to me were just words.  My reaction was this: Meh.  I’ve never lived in Chicago, I’m not either a Sun-Times or Tribune girl, I’ve never worked as a journalist, journalism is changing anyway.  It was certainly not the reaction she was expecting, especially not from me.  That’s what happens when a news story isn’t accompanied by a good visual.

The seed finally sprouted last week when I saw the Huffington Post article about the Stanley Cup covers.  The subject of the post was a tweet by Brian Cassella. Cassella, a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune, featured a side-by-side comparison of the photographs that accompanied, respectively, the Tribune and Sun-Times stories about the Blackhawk’s Stanley Cup victory.  His comment, aimed at the Sun-Times: “This is a disservice to your readers.”

One image was visually interesting; the other was not.   One told the part of the story that words alone couldn’t bring to life.  The other was merely visual evidence to accompany the news.  The Tribune photo was captured by an actual photojournalist; the Sun-Times photo was not.  Seeing them side by side, I started to feel the indignity.

On Sunday photojournalist Karen Pulfer Focht brought the story to my heart. Focht works for The Commercial Appeal, the local Memphis paper that was once the Scripps Howard cash cow.  The CA opinion section includes, each Sunday, a piece titled “1,000 Words: a pictorial commentary on events in Greater Memphis and around the world.” I would share a link, but the former cash cow doesn’t want anyone to have a drop of milk for free and severely limits online content sharing.  Plus, “1,000 Words” doesn’t rate high enough to be included in the online edition.

But Focht is a real photojournalist, a passionate one, and she was happy to share the image directly with me when I asked.  With her permission, here is her Sunday “1,000 Words” contribution:

Karen Focht - John H White

If the hands of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John H. White could talk, what stories they would tell.  They have traveled the world, capturing images of many great people and events of our time.  White, my hero and mentor, was among the photographers let go recently when the Chicago Sun-Times decided to fire its photo staff and give reporters iPhones instead.  White’s hands are most at home on a camera, where they can instinctively respond, freezing moments in time as only he sees them.  As he once said, “Take pictures with the camera of your heart.”  In an open letter to the Sun-Times recently, Jerry Burnes, news editor of the Williston (N.D.) Herald, said, “Without the heart of a photojournalist, a camera is just a camera.  A picture is just a picture.  A newspaper is just a publication without its heart and soul.”

The decision to give reporters iPhones instead of continuing to pay photographers was difficult but necessary in the face of a rapidly changing business environment.  At least that’s what Sun-Times editor Jim Kirk (certainly not to be confused with James T. Kirk) said in his public statement.

Perhaps Kirk, using his head and not his heart, based his rationale on the fact that Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Damon Winter used the Hipstamatic app on his iPhone to shoot his front page New York Times series  from Afghanistan.

Hipstamatic is a tool, a good one.  But funky filters and lens effects can’t save a bad image; they can only add layers of interest to a firm structure.  In Damon Winter’s hands, the iPhone and Hipstamatic app provided a tool for bringing intimacy into a rough and foreign environment, as Winter stated on the NYT blog Lens.  To add a bit of perspective, I will attest to the fact that changing Hipstamatic settings during a photo shoot is actually harder than switching out a 50mm for a fish-eye, and that’s if the app doesn’t crash.  In either case the output depends entirely on whose hands hold the tool and how closely those hands are to the heart.  Winter’s hands, White’s hands, Focht’s hands, the thousands of hands of real photojournalists touch us in ways words never will.

Owning a camera, any camera, cannot not transform a person into a photographer any more than owning a gun can transform one into a murderer.

Too strong a comparison?  How deeply are your feelings about guns rooted in images, the ones real photojournalists brought to your doorstep or desktop?  No, it is not too strong a comparison.  It may not be strong enough.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Pete says:

    10 years ago I predicted this would happen, I worked for my experience behind the camera, I worked on the street, I been in the middle of riots, stood hours for a single shot that would at least put food on the table, worked all through the night in the pouring rain to make sure my picture editor bought my image. Then come along the bored ones who spend their redundancy money on a brand new shiny Nikon and a collection of lenses, stick it on auto and call themselves a photographer, they start doing weddings and portraits after reading a book…………
    FFS!!!! You are not a photographer, your a fat bloke with a camera, Your not a photographer your a bored house wife who were given a camera for Christmas. Your not a photographer, your the office 16 year old lackey who have been told to take a photo of a parade with your compact sure shot. There is no philosophy of photography, its a machine, the same as a car, same as a metal press, same as a bicycle, same as a pencil, same as a lock on a door……..its not a magical way to make money, its a machine a means to an end. The person holding the camera whose job is to capture the news, capture the bride, capture, the new born baby, to capture the fire that four people died in, capture the streets of Iraqi city where 50 people who have been blown to bits because of a car bomb.

    How many of you reading this know what an F stop is, what it does and how it effects your image. Real photographer have spend years homing their skills and still learning.

    If you are a photographer and spend your day fiddling with your camera and take 20 frames of the same flower because you want it right……..your not a photographer your a person with a camera.

    If you are waiting for the bride and it starts to rain and you don’t know what to do – Your not a photographer

    If your editor has shoved a point and shoot in your hand and told to get a quick snap of Prince Charles as he walks by…..tell him your not a photographer.

    If you have sat for a hour plus typing about the philosophy of photography for a WordPress get a life.

    Most REAL photographers have ethics, follow rules, carry step ladders in their car, use the view finder and spent years learning and know how to change film as well as cards.

    The real photographers are loosing their jobs because of people with camera including mobile phones offering to take photographers, its shit!!!!!!

    Take photos, take as many as you like but if you feel wrong when you say your a photographer. Don’t!!

    A friend of mine who is in his late 60’s who has worked as a photographer since 16, whose father was a photographer and his grandfather was a photographer. He is a fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography, won a heap of awards, including wedding photographer of the year, portrait photographer of the year many many time. He is also a qualified aerial photographer among other things, has to give up because three ‘photographers’ I use the world loosely have opened in his town, I don’t mind someone making a living but if none have no qualification between them………..That is a crying shame.

  2. Redneck Garage says:

    Great post!!! I love your comparison between a gun and camera. It is so true that many people think that just because they own a tool, it makes them an expert. In my world people think if they have Pro/Engineer, SolidWorks or AutoCad, it makes them a designer and draftsman.

  3. I’ve been waiting for the side-by-side comparisons.
    Here are my thoughts in a similar vein…
    http://zhouxingyu.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/history-on-film/

  4. Tophat says:

    Sadly, vanishing photographers are a symptom of a larger problem: the print industry is in trouble. I’ve been a journalist for six years now, and I’ve never had a photographer… my paper doesn’t have the budget for it. They barely have the budget to hire quality writers. I cringe at the thought that someday TV news is going to be the only source of information people have.
    I have to admit, I’m not a photographer. I do still get irritated that every 18-40 year old with a camera calls themselves a photographer, though… especially when they get offended that we’re not hiring 😛

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