Can a news photographer have a personal style? Should they? That’s something I’ve thought about throughout my career, and something that definitely floated to the top of my consciousness while driving throughout the region over the past two months covering the coronavirus and this week walking with demonstrators in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
As a photojournalist, I have always believed what I do is not biased. I think I am being objective and I don’t take sides. The 2008 controversy over the Atlantic Monthly cover shoot of Republican presidential nominee, the late Sen. John McCain, by a self-professed “hard-core Dem” photographer immediately comes to mind.
But she was a “celebrity photographer,” so it’s easy to say we’re different. Like most photojournalists, I have always struggled with the notion that our mere presence on the scene can change everything for the people involved. It is not always possible to be just a “fly on the wall.” But, as we have seen in recent years, even people acting embarrassingly, unlawfully —–or even murderously — don’t seem to be affected by the presence of even a street full of citizens recording them live on Facebook. (You’ve seen it. No need for a link here).
I know that every time I push my shutter I have already made a number of choices that are uniquely mine. Everything from which lens I pick, what ISO, shutter speed and f/stop, or whether I use a flash or not, affects the picture I take. For more variables, throw in whether I kneel, stand on a planter, hold my camera high above my head, or get down on my stomach (not that often anymore). Then there is composition, both while taking the picture and in cropping it digitally later on my laptop. You can see if I am right next to four or five other news photographers, how we could easily end up with four or five completely different pictures.
We all bring our own artistic aesthetic to how we photograph. Our education, experiences, and visual vocabulary combine to make each of our images one-of-a-kind.
In fact, it’s one of the things I have always treasured the most about taking pictures. That, and trying to make the visual information I share interesting enough to engage and communicate with my viewers and readers.
I started out at a really small newspaper where the editor wanted as many pictures of “faces of our neighbors,” as I could get. (This was long before the click-bait online photo galleries of every couple attending the prom, or every high school graduate onstage.)
From there I became a wire service “stringer” and learned that part of my job was to get pictures for smaller newspapers in my state that wouldn’t look exactly like those in the huge, state-wide metro dailies they tried to compete with. Especially when I was covering the same event as the big-time photographers were. Later on, covering national news stories as a staff photographer for United Press International, I knew that editors around the world would be making the choice between my pictures and those of photographers from the Associated Press. To get mine noticed, I often conceded the more straight-forward “record shot” to “the opposition” for an image that might standout more.
When photographing a building for a straight-forward real estate story, is waiting for a bicyclist, or a pedestrian with an umbrella or colorful clothing (or a face mask?) evidence of my putting my personal stamp on the photo? Is that my style? Or using a silhouette or reflection to give some graphic pizazz to an otherwise drab scene? Should I have just shot it quickly from the front seat of my car and gone on to lunch?
I don’t always make the overall general view photo first, but look instead for those “moments” that aren’t screaming to be photographed. Is that where a point-of-view or a vision comes in? When anybody with a smartphone can document the size of a crowd or copy a clever slogan on a sign, maybe offering our audience a personal style is what photojournalists need to stay relevant.
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: