The phrase, “An image is worth a thousand words,” has seemed to have lost its effect since first introduced. The contemporary term, “citizen journalist” describes what is best known as the modern day journalist; an active participant in public affairs by the means of a smart phone, who chronicles daily events without the professional title of a journalist. Today, citizen journalists have the ability to capture unfolding events by the press of a button, and upload them without any form of verification. The ease in which regular citizens interact with the fourth estate, reflects immediate problems that particularly photojournalists, face daily. The dwindling economy for photojournalists, alongside the problematic editorial processes in which professionals, and citizen journalists undergo, shape a bleak, and controversial future for the field. Reading the Pictures, a website that focuses on the critical analysis of news images, seeks to reform the way in which this dying occupation functions.
In 2003, Michael Shaw (founder and publisher of Reading the Pictures), created Reading the Pictures. The intent of this website was to create an online community in which members, could productively discuss, and analyze news images. Speaking truth to visual power, funding and presenting independent photojournalism, and creating a “go-to destination for expert and citizen-readers alike to understand visual media culture, are the three main objectives of Reading the Pictures (Handler). These goals established by Shaw and his team, circulate around the idea of promoting formal interaction between citizens and the fourth estate to mobilize, not deteriorate the field of work. A formalized analysis of the content on the website, highlights areas in which these goals have benefited or detracted from the photojournalist community. Specifically, the editorial process and physical success of the website, come into question when discussing the contributions it has made to journalistic discourse.
Title Photograph by AP Images
Background Photograph by Lisa Krantz
The Editorial Process
The “Salon” is one of three sections on the Reading the Pictures Website. The Salon features ninety minute videos that include a panel of photojournalists, and visual academics, who discuss how the visual media frames the key social and political themes of the contemporary day (Handler). In the episode, “The Visual Framing of the Migrant Crisis,” panelists discussed the editorial process involved in displaying the migrant crises to the Western World. The iconic photo of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach, was compared to a similar, less known photo of another Syrian boy washed up on a beach. In this photo, the Syrian boy was wearing similar attire to Aylan Kurdi (a red sweater and jeans), but he was considerably older. Also absent in the photo distributed by Getty Images/ Andalou Agency, was the presence of Western foreign aid, which was included in the photo of Aylan Kurdi (Handler). Each photo was distributed on the same day, yet only one became the exclusive form of publicity for refugee coverage (Handler, ). The choice to share the image of Kurdi over the other Syrian boy, raises ethical questions about why and if certain photos should be published.
According to JPROF.com, “The two major purposes of publishing photographs, are to capture the attention of the reader and to illustrate and supplement the editorial content” (Stovall). The choice to distribute copies of the photo of Aylan Kurdi, versus the photo the unknown Syrian boy, attributes to the favouring of photos that capture the attention and the viewership of the majority.
When choosing what photograph to publish, editors consider the type of photograph, and what emotion it evokes. An old journalist proverb states that, readers will always look at pictures of children and animals (Stovall). It is easy to sympathize with those who are innocent and defenceless. Photographs that evoke emotion in the mind of the masses, forge change, but where do we draw the line when posting photographs that contain disturbing, and controversial content?
Background Photograph by Nilüfer Demir
Interview with Meg Handler-Editor at Large
Reading the Pictures prides itself upon uploading photos that are raw, and real. Their content reflects their mission to promote truth, and unfiltered photojournalism. It is especially important for journalists to practice honesty, because they are the middle ground between the higher estates, and the general public.
The Originals section on Reading the Pictures website, publishes original photojournalism by aspiring and established photographers. Amy Touchette, a fine art photographer based in New York City, uploaded a series of photographs under the title, When Photographing is Forbidden: Making Portraits in the McCarren Park Pool Locker Room. The series of photos featured young girls in their bathing suits, in a pool locker room. In New York City, it is against the law to take photographs of people in locker rooms (Handler). Touchette, went against the law to produce images of young girls, in pursuit of capturing the female identity through womanhood. The exploitive nature of this series, encourages conversation about the websites ethics and policies on censorship. I contacted Meg Handler, Reading the Pictures editor at large, to discuss Reading the Pictures editorial process and the future of photojournalism.
1. Can you outline the editorial process Reading the Picture’s takes when publishing a photo to the website?
The challenge Handler began, is to get photojournalists to write critically about their own work. Many people she approaches decline her invitation to write for the site. What was originally envisioned for the Originals section, has not been fulfilled due to the lack of critical thinking skills that people possess. Although, when they do connect with a photojournalist Handler receives multiple images (could be twenty) and goes through the process of deciding what three or so photographs will get uploaded to the page. She concluded that if Readings the Pictures had a larger staff, the editorial process would be much more expansive and intricate, "I see an article, I clip it, and Mike decides if he wants to write about it. If we had a larger staff, things would be a lot different. " As for now, the site is solely directed by Shaw and Handler.
2. Amy Touchette’s, article "When Photographing is Forbidden: Making Portraits in the Mccarran Park Pool Locker Room,” was seen as exploitive to some. What is Reading the Pictures statement on the publishing of photos like these?
"It is very rare to get a multi comment thread," she stated. People constantly fight on the comments sections about politics or other areas of personal interest, but rarely comment on the photo itself. As a moderator to the website, she must remain objective but the comments are starting to scare her (especially in regards to Gun Control). In regards to Touchette's piece, Handler stands behind the photographs, "I believe and I was taught that when people look, they bring their own baggage and it is not objective." Handler firmly believes that people should see the images for exactly what they are. Commenting on Touchette, she asserted that the photojournalist got the consent of the girls before taking the picture. "Amy believes teens cannot show how they look because of pre-defined images, so she wanted to give back to these girls. She is determined, but left it up for the people to decide whether they wanted to be included or not." Handler and Shaw will continue to post and take risks, knowing that not everyone will always agree with their choices.
3. From your personal experience and those of Reading the Pictures, do you think photojournalism is a “dying” career?
In wake of the 2016 election, Handler feels that the media will have to change their tune. Trump's presidency leaves the media unsure as to whether he will have a press core at all. She summarized the presses naiveté in covering the election proclaiming, "We are in a bubble. We think we knew everything. It is not true." When discussing the differences between traditional and modern journalism, Handler spoke of a required agency that the modern day photojournalist must have. "People have to be self-motivating, self-financing, and know many skills." Originally, photojournalism was directed by the publication, but now one must propose their own ideas to the publication. She also stressed the importance of ethics when editing and publishing work. "Be conscious of how you represent the subject, and where your work is going. Do not take pictures of hobos looking creepy." To her, the future of photojournalism lies in the one who is in control of their career.
"When you are making a portrait, you must include a little bit of you along with the subject. THIS MAKES THE PERFECT PORTRAIT."-Meg HANDLER ON TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS
Background Photograph by Amy Touchette
A Dying Profession- What do other photojournalists and editors think?
Reading the Pictures requires its participating photojournalists to think more deeply and out loud about the intent, goal or impact of their imagery (Handler). In the process of doing so, they and readers develop a sense of visual literacy. Creating an environment for photojournalists and like-minded readers, fosters the rebirth of a dying industry. According to Pew Research Center, the hardest hit group in the journalism industry is photojournalists (Al Jazeera Media Network). The digital revolution has paved a path for amateur photographers to practice their hobby, and get recognized for significant pieces that capture unfolding events as they occur. Citizen journalists provide an easy means to an unappreciated end for news rooms. For those who value photography as an art, the photo represents the entire story. For journalists, photographs are used to enhance, and add truth to a story. Fabrice Rousselot, editor of Liberation stated, “Photography should really be seen as an entry point to a story. It provides a visual reference; it draws the reader into the story, and it can provide fantastic context to illustrate the story as a whole” (Al Jazeera Media Network). In this context, citizen journalists are the answer for newsrooms that can no longer afford to have a large, diverse staff.
The declining rate of available jobs for professional photojournalists has received mixed opinions as to why, and how this will affect the future for photojournalists. Those who argue that the field will eventually collapse on itself see the digital revolution, and the honesty associated with the profession as its downfalls. In the Future of Photojournalism, photography consultant Jim Colton associates the rapid decline of trust in photojournalists, with the death of Princess Diana; where the public began to look upon all photographers as paparazzi (Colton). Commenting on the digital revolution he says, “The advent of digital photography and the ease of manipulation with post production tools like Photoshop, also made it “easier” to create whatever fantasy you wanted, and post it on the internet immediately without any verification” (Colton). Ed Kashi, a photojournalist who also did a profile on the Future of Photojournalism counters this statement by arguing that new tools born from the digital revolution could benefit photojournalists. He said, “It (photojournalism) will never return to what it was, but in some ways that is refreshing and presents new opportunities to develop the medium artistically, and find a relevant and more vibrant place in the expansive media landscape of the digital age” (Kashi). Reading the Pictures acknowledges that photo manipulation must be taken into consideration when interpreting news, but to claim that photographers cannot compete with the technological revolution is unrealistic.
The unique approach Reading the Pictures takes to capture the vision of the photojournalist, has the ability to revolutionize the way in which one understands the photojournalistic experience. Apart from the in depth analysis of news and original images, Reading the Pictures offers aspiring photojournalists a space to upload original photos or their own analysis to the page. On the submissions page, there is a set of guidelines for viewers to follow when doing a critical assessment, or submitting a photograph. They ask that participants image “speak” first- whether by suggesting a story, begging a question, provoking an emotional response, or being surprising or revealing in some way (Handler). Reading the Picture’s environment cultivates Kashi’s optimistic predictions about the future of photojournalism. Instead of accepting “defeat,” Reading the Pictures celebrates the art of photojournalism and makes it significant by chronicling the path of the photojournalist and their images.
The physical success of Reading the Pictures is meager compared to other news sources. Established photojournalist pages like, the New York Photo Journal, or Vice’s photo specials, provide photojournalist content in addition to their daily news coverage. Emphasis upon the critical analysis of photographs detracts from the purpose of the reporter; which is to chronicle events as they occur and present them to the public in speech, or written word. Photographs alone cannot describe the entire occurrences of an event. As well, reliance on "citizen journalism" still remains a threat for aspiring photojournalists. That being said, the promotion of visual literacy is important.
Reading the Picture’s goal to teach and promote visual literacy, advocates for the mutual relationship between journalists and the public. Journalists have the responsibility to be ethical and remain objective (unless subjectivity is beneficial for a piece), and the public has the responsibility to learn how to critique information that is presented to them. By doing so, trust can be rebuilt between the fourth estate and the public, and photojournalists can continue to publish unapologetic accounts, of the human agenda.
"Not commentary based on a photos circumstances, or the use of an image as illustration simply for stand alone political critique. it is all about the pictures."- Michael Shaw on reading the pictures.
Background Photograph By David Dagner
Bibliography on Next Slide Below
“About.”. Reading the Pictures, Accessed 12th Nov. 2016, http://www.readingthepictures.org.
Colton, Jim. “The Future of Photojournalism.” L’Oeil e la Photographie, 31 Aug. 2015, http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/. Accessed 24th Nov, 2016.
Handler, Meg. Personal interview. 30 Nov 2016.
“Is Photojournalism Dying?”, Aljazeera, Accessed 24th Nov. 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com.
Kashi, Ed. “The Future of Photojournalism.” L’Oeil e la Photographie, 1 Sept. 2015, http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/. Accessed 24th Nov, 2016.
“Photo Editing.” JPROF, Accessed 24th Nov. 2016, http://www.jprof.com/about/.