Friday, February 1, 2008


The meaning of the written word is transmitted to the reader through learned visual symbols that are used to represent spoken language. The narrative in a photograph is transmitted to the viewer through a slightly more complex set of symbols, not as learned symbols but rather as visual shared experience. The visual symbols are generally more complex than the written symbol because the potential message in a photograph is less subject to a strict set of coded meanings.The visual dialogue in the interpretation of a photograph is subject to the personal point of view brought to that dialogue based on the past experience of the viewer of that photograph. This personal bias that the viewer brings to the reading of a photograph creates an editorial filter between viewer and photographer. Consequently photographs do not always relay the exact message to the viewer that was intended by the photographer. Different viewers can come away from the reading of a photograph with different interpretations of the content of that photograph. Despite this difference, writing and photography have much more in common than most journalists would fact they both utilize a similar set of skills and strategies.

Both writer and photographer approach their subject matter from the perspective of the outsider looking in. This observational distance enables the reporter/photographer to maintain a cultural-emotional detachment that will hopefully result in a reportage that has a more encompassing perspective than the one of those being observed. This kind of reporting detachment is known among professionals as a "fly on the wall" approach to reporting a story.This analogy is convenient and appropriate. Like the fly on the wall the reporter and the photographer prefer to observe and record unnoticed or at the very least without making any noticeable intrusion on the evolving narrative as it unfolds before them. Distilling these observations is, for the writer, a matter of referring to notes and memory while writing the story. The photographer however has to capture fractions of a second from the real time flow of this narrative and in the process hopefully record the essence and meaning of those observations in single slices of time. There is seldom opportunity for a second chance. The photographer's notes are the contact sheets produced from the rolls of film shot during that period of observation. Both the writer and the photographer look for the journalistic `hook' that can turn the mundane into the interesting. Creating this hook involves the tactic of exclusion. To include all the elements of a story in a final narrative would likely result in a reportage as chaotic as reality itself, and therefore probably unreadable. Writing is, by it's very nature, a process of elimination from the whole. Writing involves focusing on simple narrative within a larger more complex whole. In photography the act of making a photograph also involves the act of exclusion. Part of this process comes naturally due to the unique properties of the camera's chemical-optical-mechanical process. The physical laws of optics enable the camera's lens to cut through the visual chaos of everyday life. The photographer furthers this selection process through focusing and framing those areas of a visual narrative important to the story. Both acts of exclusion are generally the end result of conscious decisions made by the writer or the photographer.

Writing and photography utilize similar strategies of story telling and reporting through common narrative tools. Juxtaposition of story elements within a paragraph or single photo frame is one common tactic. The use of juxtaposition in a story or visual construction can involve such narrative designs as contrast or comparison of story elements. These may utilize ironic or humorous juxtaposition of individual parts within a story or within the frame of a single photograph.
For example: Garbage man John Doe emerged from
his chauffeur drive Mercedes Benz
and told the assembled group of
reporters in front of City Hall,
"I'm just a regular guy who lives
like everybody else".

Another narrative tactic that also works in writing and photography is ambiguity of meaning or intention. In writing this may emerge through the use of words designed to cloud or confuse the context of their usage. This kind of written ambiguity is commonly referred to as "double speak" by those familiar with George Orwell's book 1984. For those who record American history the most obvious example of this kind of ambiguity occurs daily in our own government. One major example occurred in 1947 when the U.S. War Department was renamed the Department of Defense. The U.S. government had decided that the United States only defended itself from foreign aggression and did not make war on anybody else. Since 1947 U.S. troops have~`defended'the United States against foreign aggression in Korea, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, and Kuwait. During the recent Gulf War the U.S. military used euphemisms like "delivering their ordnance" (instead of dropping bombs) to minimize "collateral damage" (kill innocent civilians). Soldiers killed in action were "casualties" instead of dead. Iraq's Saddam Hussein referred to the foreign hostages he took early in the confrontation as "guests"(hostages) who were "housed"(detained) at certain of his military facilities "to prevent U.S. aggression" (as human shields) against his country. In these examples language was used as a means of depersonalization of human tragedy or a way to try and divert world opinion. Certain words invoke predictable responses from the reader. If used out of context the meaning of
adjacent words can also be altered. Consider a full page ad for a color television system. On the screen of the television set in the picture is a crisply beautiful color image that appears much sharper and of better color quality than the humble set in your living room. However, underneath the photographed television set is a single sentence that reads, "actual closed circuit picture". The advertising code of ethics demands truthfulness in advertising...indeed it is. However, that closed circuit image was generated from a few feet away instead of the miles the signal to your home tv travels, so a closed circuit image is usually of superior quality to the one you get on your set at home. Most readers do not take the time to consider the meaning of that sentence. By starting the claim with the word`actual'the advertiser is confusing the real implication of the term` closed circuit'. People generally assume that anything they read inside the space of an advertisement is there to promote the product. Tobacco packagers figured that out when they chose to displayed the government health warning like part of the product design on cigarette packs.
Photographs are not immune to ambiguity of content. Scholars of photography have long suspected and generally admitted that the photographic process lent
itself to ambiguity. In part this was seen as a natural element of the chemical-mechanical, two-dimensional optics of the medium.
Ambiguity in photography is also a matter of confusion over context of elements within the photograph's four walls. As with written ambiguity, this tactic is intended to confront the reader's intellect rather than simply attempt to record some facts. Ambiguity may be utilized to convey the confusion generated by the narrative itself. Both writing and photography also utilize analogy and metaphor to tell a good story or report some facts. One famous photographer once used analogy to explain the creative process of his medium by pointing out that good photography was analogous to good poker playing. Both crafts required a knowledge of the technique, insight into the other players, and a little luck. He could have just as well used the same analogy to explain the process of reporting. Simply put, both utilize the same native narrative elements. The difference, of course, falls within the tools these journalists use to record these facts.
Recognizing these strategies while reporting a story involves sensitivity to similar visual and narrative inputs for both the writer and the photographer.
Organizing this information, for the photographer, at the moment of execution of the photograph or in the case of the writer, during the translation of thoughts and impressions into words, often comes from that well of unconscious creativity known as intuition. Recognizing this aspect of the creative process is generally not included in classes on basic reporting and writing. Probably sounds too much like intellectual voodoo in some scholarly journalism circles.
Years ago a reporter colleague of mine once described his writing technique as sitting down in front of his word processor and the words flowed out like water from a faucet. He didn't know where those ideas came from but he was thankful that they did. Another analogy to describe the undescribable!
Clearing the mind and accepting this generally misunderstood source of creative help is an important part of growth for both writer and photographer.
Through acceptance or at least understanding,intuition can hopefully be harnessed and utilized as part of the reporting process.
Interesting. Smacks of art and literature. Worse yet I've begun to suggest that subjectivity rather than objectivity may play a large role in all this reporting and photojournalism stuff.
Lets face it. If you leave stuff out during the editing process then the notion that your resulting observations are totally objective is nonsense.
Writers began to take notice of the camera's attention to detail almost as soon as the medium appeared in the late 1830's. American novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James utilized the vision of the camera lens in their writing and Hawthorne even introduced a photographer as a major character in his book House of the Seven Gables. According to author Carol Shloss, Henry James used camera language in explaining the dynamics of narrative; metaphors of lenses, frames and at the same time saw photography as having the capability of subjectivity rather than as a totally neutral medium of observation. Shloss also notes that Henry James compared the writers gathering of details of a scene with the vision of the camera.
Fifty years later writer John Dos Passos utilized a narrative device in his essay The 42nd Parallel with he called the CAMERA EYE. These were bursts of stream of consciousness writing within the more traditional framework of his narrative. Dos Passos recognized the effect of the camera's eye on the writer`s field of vision. Writers like Dos Passos recognized that photographic vision was not a passive activity ruled by the actions of the thing being recorded but rather the result of conscious selection on the part of the person operating the camera. Like the writer who filters and edits the material to be included in the written narrative, the photographer also edited reality through cropping in the viewfinder and the moment the shutter was snapped. Writers also viewed narrative time as a continuous flow while they saw photographic time as `stopped time'. Writers used this photographic time as a narrative device when they wished to stop the time in their narratives, hence Dos Passos' CAMERA EYE.
In his book TIME PIECES, Writer/photographer Wright Morris observed that through his attempts to create visual narrative he became a photographer and through his experience as a photographer he became more of a writer. Morris found that most of his written impression were"little more than sketches, verbal pictures of places, of time-stopped moments. As I gathered these impressions it became apparent that I was making images with the characteristics of photographs."
Strategy plays an important part in the editing of photographs, both in the viewfinder while composing the elements within a visual narrative as it falls together or on the page during layout of pictures that hopefully `read' together. One common strategy in photography is the use of juxtaposition of elements within a single frame or across the page. Contrast and contradiction between narrative elements can provide irony or humor when seen as a whole.
Writer John McPhee noted that "structure is the juxtaposition of parts, the way in which two parts of a piece of writing, merely by lying side-by-side, can comment on each other without a word spoken." Common strategies indeed. The literary journalists, which McPhee is a founding member of, believe that the voice of the writer shows through in written narrative but at the same time this writer voice should provide journalistic accuracy. Unlike the straight news story's inverted pyramid style, the writing of the literary journalist introduces a narrative structure that allows for complexity, contradiction, and as McPhee pointed out juxtaposition of parts. Indeed, those narrative elements, both visual and written, that provide a kind of `stress' to the final result are what make for good writing and photography.

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