ExperimentalExperience

World Press Photo And The Numbness of Repetition: Stephen Mayes Speaks

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Photography on May 27, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Stephen Mayes, World Press Photo Secretary for six years, gave a widely noted keynote address at this year’s event in Amsterdam. In what can only be described as a strange coincidence, he echoed sentiments I had written about back in the summer of 2008 that photojournalism today has become repetitive and conventional.  To quote from my earlier post:

There is another underlying reason why photojournalism is dying, and that we are still not prepared to confront.  The reason is that most photographers and photojournalists are purveyors of cliches and repetitive, predictable stories.  Mental asylums, prostitutes in third world countries, drug addicts in third world countries, the homeless, street kids, dying HIV/AIDS patients in Africa, polluted cities, Latin American migration pathways, KKK, burqa/taliban/fanatics in Islamic countries, China pollution, China growth, China mingyons, China modern, China rich, India AIDS etc. etc.  One could create a Chinese menu of a couple of pages to represent a belief amongst photojournalists that photojournalism is about pathos and emotions, and that there are some ‘subjects’ that are what it does. We have lost our love of the story.  We are no longer telling interesting stories.  In fact it could be argued that photojournalism today is basically middle class voyuerism.  It carries with it the stifling and infantile morality of a middle brow suburban family and attempts to deliver ‘shock’ stories to titillate them into watching. Or it just reduces to historical and charter-tour cliches stories that could be rich, complex and eye-opening.

In a strikingly similar vein you can hear the far more experienced and articulate Stephen Mayes speaking at the World Press Photo awards this year.  You can hear an audio recording of his talk.

I was particularly struck by his comments that reflected much of my thinking on this issue.  As he says in his talk (as scribed by Jens Haas from the Notes From Nowhere blog) :

The overwhelming impression from the vast volume of images is that photojournalism (as a format for interpreting the world) is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than at World Press Photo where every year the winners stimulate a slew of copyists (in style and content). It’s easy to understand why when we consider that the last twenty years has seen an explosion in the numbers of professional photojournalists and a collapse of the traditional markets. As more photographers compete for less page space, a lot of work ends up in competitions as the only outlet – and as the largest, World Press Photo gets more than its fair share.

Every year, the jury is astonished by the repetition of subjects and the lack of variety in the coverage. From the infinity of human experience the list of subjects covered by the entrants would fill a single page, and (excluding sports as a specialist area) could be reduced even to three lines:

- The disposed and the powerless
– The exotic
– Anywhere but home (the American election would be one of the exceptions to this rule.)…

This is the general view, the blurred impression of 470,214 images and of course there are many exceptions. But meanwhile hospitals and the sick (and especially mental hospitals), the afflicted, the poor, the injured are photographed way in excess of their actual numbers. And I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House. As one juror said this year, “90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.”…

- Over represented: commercial sex, suffering black folk, Muslim women in veils, same sex couples kissing, holding hands
– Under represented: middle class, affluent drug users, real sex, personal sex, black culture and expanded vision of black life outside Africa.

I encourage you to listen to his entire talk.

I recently raised this issue in a workshop I held in Dubai for young photographers just starting out on their careers or thinking about pursuing photojournalism as a career. Too many too quickly confine their ideas about ‘subjects’ and ‘focus’ to the conventional arenas of photojournalism as they know and understand it. Few were able to jump to the realization that photojournalism is also about story telling, and that there are so many stories that are just not being told! And all too often they chose subject based around pathos and emotions. Few could think of ideas that were built around a new set of objectives for example to provoke thought and make an argument. None thought about stories from within their own lives, or their own social spaces in the UAE.

There is a whole new world of photography. Its greatest change is not in the technologies that we are being told will save us – not in multimedia, not audio sound recordings or any such, but in the fact that we can now do our own stories, new stories, and take them out to the world without first having to get the approval of an editor, a curator or a jury. And with this liberty comes the possibility of re-inventing what photojournalism is, and how we go about telling stories, and of course, the stories we tell.

So lets begin.

  1. [...] has been a tendency towards mimicry in classical photojournalism. Stephen Mayes spoke about this recently at a presentation at the World Press Photo awards in Amsterdam. I had said something similar, [...]

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