Photojournalists bring home the human dimension from the front lines
By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review
Visualize for a moment the defining images of World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War. Photojournalists were there, serving as eyewitnesses to history and bringing home the harsh reality that war is about suffering, destruction and the death of innocents — not simply an abstract political conflict in faraway lands.
Just as WWII belonged to the wire services, Vietnam to Life magazine and the Gulf War to CNN, the placement of news photographers with advanced digital equipment on the front lines of the conflict in Iraq suggest that photojournalists will again play a key role in shaping the public’s understanding of war.
This time around, photographers will be stationed alongside troops, providing viewers an up-close kind of personal photojournalism not seen since the Vietnam War. With advances in digital photo and video equipment, battlefield images will be available for online distribution almost immediately.
“Digital,” in fact, may be the defining word in coverage of the Iraq war. Two editors who are overseeing photojournalists in the Gulf region expect that digital technology will yield a rich payoff to news publications looking to provide a multidimensional form of storytelling.
For starters, both Brian Storm, vice president of news and editorial photography at Corbis, and Tom Kennedy, assistant managing editor of multimedia for washingtonpost.com, say that their photographers are shooting digital exclusively.
“In Afghanistan, our people had to shoot digitally because there was no place to process film,” Storm says by phone from New York. “Today, the quality of digital photography has gotten so good that everybody’s gone digital. It’s fast, economical, and lets you transmit instantly instead of sending your film on a two-week safari to the Saudi desert.”
Storm brings strong credentials to his position at Corbis, which he joined last August after building an impressive platform for visual journalism during his seven years as director of multimedia for MSNBC.com. Corbis is not a news organization — it offers stock video footage and still photography — but it expects to be a key player in covering the war because of its arrangement with about 10 contract photographers in the region.
Storm believes that online audiences will no longer settle for tired storytelling formulas.
“Because everyone is shooting digital, the pace at which we’re expected to turn things around is so great that I think it can hurt our journalism.”
– Brian Storm
“Photojournalism has changed dramatically in the past few years,” he says. “The medium is evolving quickly, and you’re not going to win mindshare by just walking out and making a picture with a two-line caption. There’s a real opportunity to present a compelling linear narrative experience on the Web. I don’t believe the single image will ever lose its impact. What I’m interested in is, once you’ve grabbed someone, where do you take them?”
Storm is a major proponent of multimedia slide shows, which MSNBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other publications have elevated into a new storytelling form by marrying powerful imagery with well-crafted text, background sounds and narration.
As technology evolves, Storm says, it changes how stories are presented and understood. “New media is still going through its growing pains, but as you grapple with the new toolsets, you’ve got to remember to hang onto the principles of journalism.”
One way that digital technology has enhanced journalism is by enabling an unprecedented degree of communication with correspondents in the field. “Today we had a Corbis editor in Paris, a Time magazine editor in New York and a photographer with the 101st Airborne in a satellite conference call to discuss a photo package,” he says. “It seems subtle, but that kind of contact gives everyone greater freedom to shape the evolution of a story.”
That degree of communication, with instant uplinks to satellites, suggests to Storm that military censorship will be far less prevalent than during past conflicts — although journalists in the war zone will still need to abide by the rules set down by the Pentagon.
One drawback of digital technology, however, is that the production process is still fairly cumbersome, both for the photographer in the field and Corbis’ editing teams in New York and Paris. Multimedia programs still frequently require getting under the hood and coding by hand, diverting attention from the narrative aspects of digital storytelling.
“We’re all still hindered by the toolsets that are available,” Storm says. “Once the tools become easier, then the creativity takes over. In the next few years we’ll see a dramatic improvement in the way people can put stories together and package materials.”
At the same time, Storm worries that the ability to transmit photos instantly will lead to a beat-the-clock wire service mentality. “Because everyone is shooting digital, the pace at which we’re expected to turn things around is so great that I think it can hurt our journalism,” he says. “Photographers are spending a lot of time dealing with the transmission process instead of telling stories.”
Storm expects a backlash against rapid-fire surface coverage by television or other media and a demand for in-depth photo essays that stand the test of time. “Great storytelling requires time — time to understand what’s going on, time to spend with your subject, not at the laptop transmitting but really making great pictures. We’re still hindered by the production toolsets that are available. In the next few years we’ll see a dramatic improvement in the way people can put stories together and package materials.”
In the meantime, Corbis has the luxury of working with world-class photographers, on assignment for print magazines, who are charged with focusing on long-form, behind-the-scenes coverage. Chances are you’ll see images shot by one of these free-lancers in the coming weeks: Benjamin Lowy, stationed with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and shooting for Time; Christophe Calais, also with the 101st Airborne in Kuwait; Peter Turnley in Kuwait, who has won World Press and Overseas Press Club awards and is now shooting for the Denver Post; his twin brother David Turnley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work during the last Gulf War, who is working as a video producer for CNN and still photographer for Corbis; Antoine Serra in Baghdad, on assignment for Le Figaro magazine; Patrick Robert, en route to Baghdad and on assignment for Time; Kate Brooks, on assignment for Time in Kurdistan; Lynsey Addario, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine in Kurdistan; and Jason Florio, who recently returned from Iraq. Photographers retain full rights over their work and earn revenue from the syndication arrangement Corbis has with thousands of print and online publications.
One difference between this conflict and the last Gulf War, Storm believes, is that people’s media habits have changed. “Tens of millions of office workers get their news every day from CNN.com and MSNBC.com. I suspect people won’t be glued to their televisions as much as they were in the past. They’ll be glued to their computer monitors.”
The Post: Looking for the right rhythms
The Washington Post, which has scored numerous awards for its print and online photography in recent years, has positioned five photographers and videographers in the Gulf region: Andrea Bruce Woodall, Jahi Chikwendiu, Michael Robinson-Chavez and Lucian Perkins from the print side and Travis Fox, a video journalist from the Web team. None are stationed with U.S. troops, Kennedy says, to maintain maximum freedom of movement. “Unilateralists,” as the Pentagon calls journalists not assigned to a specific unit, can move around and report without being pinned down in one location.
Kennedy says that as soon as war breaks out, the print news desk and Web team will go from a 20-hour news cycle to around-the-clock staffing.
“We can do justice to the photographers’ work in a way that’s not always possible in the newspaper.”
– Tom Kennedy
“The biggest thing we’re doing differently is trying to find new rhythms for the delivery of content,” he says. “We’re focusing much more intensively on not only establishing a rhythm as it comes in from the field but also establishing a rhythm of placement and play on the site that lets these pages talk to each other. We’re being more conscious of how photos move from the home page to become the primary focus a few hours later on the Confronting Iraq page to moving into background or archival areas.”
Toward that end, the Web site has named Jessica Doyle, a former business editor, to the role of “video DJ” to direct readers to the best new material each day.
In addition to Fox, who is carrying a Sony PD-150 digital video camera, The Post has two print reporters stationed with U.S. troops carrying lightweight Canon Optura camcorders. “When they spot something significant we’ll be able to tell a video story,” Kennedy says.
The Post has content partnerships with Newsweek and MSNBC, and Kennedy met with editors at MSNBC last week to discuss the logistics of getting the footage out of the war zone with a video satellite phone. Fox made his first appearance on MSNBC-TV on Friday reporting from Kuwait.
As for the print photographers, Kennedy points out that the competition for space is so ruthless than many of their best photos won’t ever see print publication. “Washingtonpost.com is regarded as both a showcase and a safety valve for the display of photography. We can do justice to the photographers’ work in a way that’s not always possible in the newspaper.”
Of the photographers in the field, Kennedy expects to communicate most closely with Travis Fox, whom the Post outfitted with protective gear against chemical and biological weapons. “I made sure Travis ran through the same kind of military training offered to embedded journalists regarding how to handle yourself in a war zone. He and I had many conversations about how to steel yourself for the horrific realities of modern warfare. I’m thinking back to the terrible scenes along the Highway of Death during the ’91 war.”
Showing the graphic face of war
Kennedy predicts that the Web site will provide a fuller depiction of the war’s graphic nature than the print paper. “I’d argue that most of the time newspapers have a lower threshold for showing the gore of war than you have on the Web,” he says. “Online you can let people decide whether they want to view a certain image by applying a warning label on a splash screen.”
During the Kosovo conflict, Kennedy recalls, he had to make a call about running a photo of parents walking through a makeshift morgue to identify the bodies of their slaughtered children. “I felt it was important to convey to the world that this terrible horror was being wreaked on a civilian population. That kind of image needed to be shown, not because it was graphic or sensationalistic, but because people deserved to know the reality of what was taking place.” It ran on the Web but not in print.
Storm, too, has wrestled with the ethical issues of photojournalism during wartime. “It cuts to the heart of the profession and to the role of the photographer and editor,” he says. “The photographer has to make a deeply personal decision about when to put the camera down. Each publication has to decide what’s acceptable for its readership. Corbis distributes to a global audience, so we can’t take on any one set of geographical value systems. I think it’s critical that we see the horror of war. And I think we’ll see it faster and it in more venues than in the past.”
One thing of which Storm is certain is that photojournalism will reaffirm itself during this historic episode. “It’s a profession that’s all about passion and belief in truth and not about making money. The still pictures will stay with us and haunt our memory. Ten, 20 or 30 years from now, people will look at those pictures to try to understand what happened here.”
Will we see a signature image from the war, as we did in Vietnam and with 9/11? “A few images will come out that will rise above the rest,” Storm says. “The very best photographers in the world right now are all lined up on the Kuwait-Iraq border. Any time you have so much talent in one place, somebody’s going to make some great pictures. I just hope we get through this without losing any of those guys.