Monday, July 12, 2010

Why photojournalism still matters

From the Newsroom: Why photojournalism still matters

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Published: July 11, 2010

Imagine looking at your favorite newspaper, magazine, television program, or Internet site without the benefit of visuals.

Ever since Mathew Brady lugged around his entire photographic stu dio to document Civil War events, photojournalism has played an increasingly important role in our daily lives. Digital cameras and smartphones that capture still and video images have added to that importance.

Photography is beauty. Some regard it as art, while others think of it as nothing more than a trade or craft. It comes in various forms -- from the artistry of a colorful sunset, to the graphic depiction of the best and worst of human life, to the revealing features of a well-lit portrait. It's still photos, video, and a combination of the two. Somehow the world would not be the same without it.

Somewhere in the middle is photojournalism, a profession I chose because it combines all of the above. But is photojournalism an endangered profession, and why does it even matter?

In the past five years alone, there has been an explosion of media-sharing sites on the Internet that offer video, inexpensive stock imagery, and the opportunity for anyone with a camera to manipulate content to their advantage.

What you cannot count on is the integrity that goes with every photo.

Photography has the power to shape opinions, expose flaws, and highlight beauty. It also connects us -- to each other and everything else on the planet.

On a daily basis, I am reminded of how it connects a community like ours. As I look over photographs submitted by the

Richmond Times-Dispatch staff or scan the photos distributed by The Associated Press, I see images that capture the humor of everyday life and depict the tragedy as well.

Photographs are not only important for today's paper and website, but they are a connection to our past and the present. They shine light on past decisions and leave a record for those who will follow.

The reality of life is that we don't get to live forever. What remains is our legacy and contribution to future generations. For a photojournalist, that legacy is his or her photographs. I firmly believe my (our) photographs serve a purpose. They connect us to those with whom we have a relationship, no matter how brief, and remind us of the blessings and responsibilities that come with life.

While complementing our print coverage with videos online, we are increasingly using slideshows and galleries to enhance our online presence. The simplicity of a single photograph combined with others offers insight into a subject that can't be accomplished with the moving picture, especially when we include audio with people telling their stories in their own words.

The galleries allow viewers to linger and explore details that can be missed in a video that captures 24 frames-per-second. With a single photograph, the photographer must communicate the same action and emotion in the fraction of a second it takes the shutter to open and close.

There is no modern photojournalism without people. We photograph people because we want to capture the essence of a person in that particular, ever-so-fleeting moment, and share that observation with others. We observe connections between people and share how they play out in life, with the hope that somehow they will make a difference.

That has been evident in some of our key stories. Jimmy Dean's funeral was both a private and public event because of his celebrity. Thanks to a relationship we had with his widow, we were invited to photograph the funeral and interment at his home in Varina. Photojournalist Eva Russo captured the touching moments in a way that I hope brought insight and compassion to the family.

Bob Brown, who has been working at his craft for more than 35 years at The Times-Dispatch, has embarked on a Back Roads adventure with columnist Bill Lohmann to connect readers to people and places around Virginia.

His photos of a Floyd County country store that converts to a music venue at night were so nostalgic in nature, readers responded by calling to let us know they were planning trips around a visit to the store.

Finally, Russo has been photographing the Richmond City Jail off and on since 2006. The stories by reporter David Ress were compelling in themselves, but it was Russo's photos that put a face on what many consider inhumane conditions in the jail. It was shortly after the second part of their series appeared in the newspaper in 2007 that the Richmond City Council voted to approve a new jail.

But proposals for the jail are just now coming in. Russo was back at the jail last week after reports that an inmate had died of heat-related causes. Now the ACLU has asked the Justice Department to investigate conditions at the jail.

Our photojournalists' job is to tell a story with pictures. But perhaps more important, their goal is to convey the truth through the images they capture with the camera. Skilled photojournalists don't just show up at an event and snap a few pictures. Rather, their objective is to highlight important issues. Often, they do so with a single photograph.

As a result, you get dependable, knowledgeable information you can trust. That's why it matters.

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