You see their photos every day in the news. Photojournalists bring us the visual images of a story that back up a writer's words. They are there to cover important events, showcase the faces behind the headlines, and they often force us to feel like we are part of the scene.
What Is photojournalism?
Photojournalism started to take shape when photographers could easily transport cameras into war zones. For the first time, ordinary citizens could see the impact of the fighting right there in their newspaper. It was a pivotal moment in photography and it became more and more real between the Civil War and World War II.
Yet photojournalism is not just about war or photographers working the beat for a local newspaper. It's much more than that. Photojournalism tells a story and it often does so in a single photograph. Think of the Depression Era photos of Dorothea Lange or those famous photos of Mickey Mantle hitting home runs. They evoke a feeling, whether its astonishment, empathy, sadness, or joy.
That is the mark of photojournalism; to capture that single moment in time and give viewers the sense that they're part of it.
The Story in a Single Shot
Put simply, photojournalism is about capturing verbs. This doesn't mean simply taking an action photo. Communicating the verb is much more than that. Stories are captured in slices while photojournalism strives to convey what is happening in one shot.
Although it is great when it happens, photojournalism isn't about the best composition, or the best technical details, or a pretty subject. Photojournalism is about showing the world a story of something that really happened. "Bearing witness" is a phrase that comes to mind in regards to photojournalism.
Photojournalism allows the world to see through the eyes of the photographer for just a moment. When photojournalism is done right, that one moment conveys volumes of time. Conveying the full story is part of environmental portraiture where the setting tells us as much about the subject as the subject themselves.
The emotion is often raw in photojournalism. The photographer is not directing the scene as a portrait or commercial photographer would. Instead, the best of them blend into the background and become a shadow figure (unlike the paparazzi). They are there to observe and capture, not become the story or interrupt it.
It is this attitude, the "I am a mere observer" approach, that allows the journalist's subjects to not react to the camera, but to be themselves. The photojournalist has a different attitude than other photographers and it's necessary to capture those memorable photos. Quite often, that single photo can become a call to action for the millions of people who see it.
Ethics in Photojournalism
Another vitally important part of photojournalism is accuracy. This means that what is in the frame is what happened. The photojournalist is ethically bound not to change the story (though many fall short of this ideal).
Power lines should not be cloned out. More smoke must not be added to a fire scene. What was captured is how it should be. Sadly, the era of digital photography has made it easier than ever to manipulate reality.
The image should be a window into the event. At most, lighten the shadows a touch to see faces or sharpen the image a bit for clarity but do not change the essence of what you capture in the photo. If you do, you change the story.