There is one word that every journalist uses more than any other, and that word is “Why?” It is the starting point of knowledge, the question that begins an inquiry and the beginning of a process of understanding. The same word is just as important to a photographer, or at least it should be. This may seem obvious to any photographer working on news or documentary stories, but I would argue that a photographer is a journalist whatever they photograph, from food to fashion, from sports to interiors and everything in-between.
If we don’t know why we are photographing something, someone or somewhere how will we know how we should make the photograph? All of our choices should be based upon the ‘Why?’ Decisions on approach, aesthetic, technique, equipment, lighting, post-production and implementation are all informed by the ‘Why?’
And yet there seems to be a preoccupation in the learning of photography with how. The how is important but it is the second consideration, not the first.
If we accept that photography is just a word to describe documenting your passions with a camera and that without the passions it has no meaning. Then the ‘why’ is the passion, and as a result the beginning of the story. Just as a journalist needs a story so does a photographer.
The journalist researches a story both before undertaking it and during the process of investigation and reporting. The resulting story may be shared episodically, consist of a one-shot telling or culminate in a summary of episodic moments. It’s publishing becomes the dissemination of the story, the exhibiting of the work.
This process and practice can be directly aligned with that of the photographer. The essential skillset of the journalist is intrinsic to the photographer. The research prior to commencement, the episodic nature of the storytelling, the creation of narrative from these episodes and finally the sharing and exhibiting of the work to inform, entertain and engage with an audience.
The photographer needs to understand and implement the fundamental requirements of traditional storytelling based upon facts, but they need to go further than the journalist because they also need to this an understanding of visual language and visual narratives. Considerations the journalist does not need to address.
My point is not to underplay the importance of journalism to the journalist, but to understand that the photographer needs to take the fundamentals of good journalism and apply them to photography to ensure the images created transcend their ethereal surface nature and provide context and narrative information.
The Norwegian playwright and theatre director Henrik Ibsen said “A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.” A statement that has been corrupted overtime into the over used and tired adage that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote that a poet would be “overcome by sleep and hunger before [being able to] describe with words what a painter is able to [depict] in an instant.” The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1861, “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.” There is no shortage of comment on the power of the image and its relationship to the written word.
The journalist looks for evidence to support their findings, their beliefs and inevitably their story. The photograph creates that evidence the moment they press the shutter, but without an understanding of the ‘why’ they will not know where, when and how to develop their understanding of the story into a photograph.
There is a Chinese expression that suggests that “Hearing something a hundred times isn’t better than seeing it once.” However, as any photographer knows seeing is only the beginning of the process, the capture and editing process that follows is where the narrative is created. It is in that process that the photographer’s understanding of the ‘why’ is tested.
Every photographer is a journalist but not every journalist is a photographer but both understand the importance of ‘why’.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.