I’ve called myself a photojournalist for a few years now. The title is inscribed on my business cards and included in the signature of my emails, yet, what we do defines us more than how we label ourselves.
Halfway through my graduate coursework as a photojournalism student at the Missouri School of Journalism, I realized I was more photographer than photojournalist.
I conformed to the cornerstones of photojournalism — asking unknown individuals bits of their private lives for caption information, avoiding consciously manipulating scenes or the individuals in them, and always striving to include people in my images, but I found out that my definition of photojournalism lacked an important element.
“A lot of your work looks like stock photography,” The Missourian‘s Director of Photography, Brian Kratzer, told me earlier this month.
Sadly, it was true.
I’d been so focused on composition, separation, and light, that I let the narrative quality of my images slide.
Take the image at the top of this post, for example. I shot it on a feature hunt my first week at The Missourian. What details does the image reveal?
Without a caption (a potential crutch on which photographers can over-rely), aspiring photojournalists need to ask themselves “does the image tell a story, reveal adequate context, and inform the viewer about the person depicted and what is important to them?”
In the image above, the casual observer likely won’t know that Townsend Hall houses part of the University of Missouri’s College of Education or even that it was shot on the Mizzou campus.
What does the woman pictured do? Is she a student? A teacher? What motivates her? She is more of an abstract art element than a functional character in this image. The image is essentially “stock” and could be taken by any passerby.
Proper photojournalism, I think, focuses more on action rather than reaction.
Attending a rodeo queen competition and focusing on the contestants reciting their prepared speeches is reaction. Any attendee can take that image without much thought or effort.
Action, in contrast, puts the photographer in charge of the scene and intentionally employs framing and layering to tell a story.
When acting rather than reacting, the photographer recognizes the elements that are important to telling a story and consciously includes them for narrative effect.