The Failure of Modern Documentary Photography and Photojournalism

For generations, what photographers have tried to do to get society to change its minds about social and political issues is showing exactly what happens. We, as in most of society, are behind a safety of sorts: there are screens, editors, warnings etc that the most graphic photojournalism and documentary stories that can really change a person’s mind about an issue. These censors have made the public immune to so many things–so much so that we continue on to other stories like those of some kid blaming Pokemon Go for them walking into traffic.

Why? We, as a society, like being entertained pretty much to death,

Society and Gatekeepers

The most important things to many of us involve looking at cute animals, food, and telling everyone about just how much of an idiot Donald Trump is. For us, sharing this type of content is a form of self expression. We do the same for issues that we care about: the sterotypical Vegan for example will share some stories about the way that factory farming destroys the environment and inhumanely treats animals. A lot of these stories are very raw; but we have the option of closing the web page and going to something else.

The problems here are often with the middle people: like Photo Editors who have to abide by specific standards for their news company. This is part of what’s called “framing” and you learn about it in photojournalism school. You can tell a story with elements but not the most raw types.

Now, hold on a second: why not? Why can’t you show the people the images of those child’s legs blown off by that IED?

Generally, what many editors and community managers will tell you is because it’s too graphic for them and people complain. This however, is evidence that good photography still affects people. In fact, photographers have always been documenting these very harsh realities but it’s the gatekeepers who have sometimes made the stories look different in a way that digestible to their audience.

This isn’t totally a bad thing per se: sure, it’s sometimes in the name of profits but if they don’t make a profit then they can’t afford to pay the editors or the reporters. The news industry is a business afterall.

The Effects

All of this has resulted in the failure of modern photojournalism and documentary photography to convince people about issues that demand attention: the work is probably very gripping, raw, in your face and very worthy of making you want to make a difference in your community–but the problem is that we’re not being shown all of the most raw stories on an issue.

Basically, we’ve grown immune to it in its current stage. When something gets too “graphic” or “isn’t family friendly” then it’s reported to a community head and taken out of our sight.

So what’s the solution? To get these stories really across, photographers need to start reaching out to more alternative publications or finding platforms where they can show these images. They need to find those gatekeepers with an audience and show those people their point of view.

Some photographers have been using Viewfind to do this, while others look for grants or alternative agencies like Magnum. Still others also reach out to other publications that would be interested in their work. Once these publications start to show off what’s being presented, the bigger players may just also start showing the world exactly what’s going on too.

Ideas

In the meantime though, I want to show you the images of photographers who have tried hard to bring attention to the issues they care about by finding a way to circumnavigate these limitations put on them by using art:

Shaving Jens head at the hospital

Angelo Merendino chose to document an extremely tough story to tell: the story of his wife’s struggle with breast cancer. With Angelo’s deeply personal set of images we are taken through the full spectrum of emotion from: joy, strength and incredible courage, to sadness, frailty and the anguish of death. This is a prime example of an effective story, and one that hits you right in the heart and doesn’t let go.

You should see the full story here.

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Bob Carey and the Tutu Project

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When Ben Nunery and his wife Ali married in 2009, they decided to have their wedding photos taken in the home that they had just purchased to document the beginning of their new life together. Sadly, their time together as a family was cut short when Ali succumbed to lung cancer in 2011, a year after their daughter Olivia was born.

You should see our interview here. All images shot by and used with permission from Melanie Pace.

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This series by Jaroslav Wieczorkiewicz is one where he gives an ode to those who have recently left this world and were important to him. Many of these people died to isuses that continue to hurt society.

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Photographer Jennifer Judkins lost her father to a number of things. He was one of the people who helped to clear away the 9/11 site. For those of us who have been hearing about how we should be doing more to help all the first responders and those who helped afterward, this series will touch you.