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:
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.