Panel Discussion: Photojournalism: new era, new forms, new ethics?
An audio recording and Q&A transcript of the Panel Discussion: “Photojournalism: new era, new forms, new ethics?” held on Friday, January 29th 2016 at National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre. The panellists include Sim Chi Yin, Sarker Protick, and Pete Muller. Moderated by Desmond Lim. Presented by The Straits Times and World Press Photo.
Transcript of the Q&A highlights below by Sebastian Song.
Hi, I noticed that all three of you referred to making pictures instead of taking pictures. I would like to know when and how do you think documentation in photojournalism went from taking pictures to making them and why do you refer to it as making pictures.
Pete: This is an interesting terminology question. Making images sound a little self-important. (Audience laughts) Sometimes, it sounds better to say when I take a few snaps. Fundamentally there is an importance in the kind of work we all do. Those pictures are made through a process, the snapping of the shutter is the last thing that happens in a very long sequence of events. Planning, thinking and researching. What am I doing in this place? Getting on a plane, making your way logistically to this place where you think these things are going to transpire, making sure you are giving due consideration to all the elements that are fair and accurate and addressing things in a comprehensive way. Then the click is just like… it’s the process that is much more involved than the final click. So you are making something.
Chi Yin: I don’t have much to add. To Pete’s point, it’s about authorship. You are making a photograph and not just there to click a button.
A Letter to President Xi
This is a question for Chi Yin. I know you work in China a lot and you work with the under privilege people. But China is a place where the government has very heavy hand especially when it comes to censorship and human rights. If you undertake a project and you know the project might land the subject(s) into trouble with the authorities, would you do it?
Chi Yin: That is a good question and I think about it a lot. I think quite often for foreign correspondents in closed societies, like China, you can be careless about the consequences for locals, whether they are your local colleagues or subjects.
I’m pretty careful. With newspaper work, I have a little less say in what happens because there are other people involved. There are reporters and editors. But for my personal work, I try not to do things that will harm other people. In this case with Mr. He, I went back and fro to his village over four years. I was always very low profile. I took the local bus. I never went to the town to spend very much time. I didn’t want the authorities to know that they have a foreign journalist staying with them for days and weeks on end and making a story that will necessarily shame the local government. Of course, I discussed with Mr. He and his family on the possible consequences. He knew full well what the consequences were. We didn’t time to look at the video. This video is a five-minute straight forward of him. A letter to the China President Xi JinPing. He tells his own story and he speaks very poignantly in a Shanxi dialect as one Shanxi man to another because the President is also from the same province. We could not get this video uploaded in China because how dare you petition the President directly. This will not wash at all in any of the Chinese web sites. We tried repeatedly uploading it on different video platforms in China. It was taken down within minutes every time.
And before it was published in Asian Society, I double checked with him. “You know this is going out and you know there will be consequences.” For a dying man, it’s like, sure, what do I care. I’m going to die anyway. I want this to go out, I want you to deliver this message to the President. I was basically fulfilling his wish.
It’s strange. The consequence for dissent is very severe in China but yet it’s in such a place that I’ve met some of the bravest people. Be they activists or ordinary people.
Video ethics and photo ethics are different but you’re getting photographers dabbling in vide and you’re getting smaller budgets from magazines. Things are converging and how are we supposed to teach this in school? Are you supposed to wear a different hat as it can be confusing?
Chi Yin: It is very confusing. The short answer is yes based on what you are doing.
I think you have to be clear about what you are doing today and what you are doing tomorrow. For example, it’s not only video versus stills. It’s also “am I shooting for a commercial client today?” or “am I shooting for a newspaper or magazine?” That’s different, you know.
I get jobs where commercial clients say they want documentary-styled day in the life of a woman living luxuriously in Shanghai. I understand documentary but commercial clients’ understanding of documentary is very different. You can set up. They just want really beautiful pictures. Today if I am shooting a commercial job in documentary style, I understand what that mean.
Tomorrow if I’m shooting for the New York Times then a different set ethics apply. Yes, I think we are living in very confusing times when we are doing different things. But we have to clear in our own heads what we are doing each day and who we are doing it for.
To what extent is ethics an influencer in the present state of industry?
Pete: There has been all these recent controversies around World Press Photo and the discovery of manipulation. The organization puts in place RAW files are submitted so that forensics are performed to detect whether there have been digital alterations. So we see this protection mechanism to detect this stuff that we see a spike in the numbers? But you kinda wonder have people always been doing this and nobody caught on? Is this a new crisis? Or something that has been identified because systems are put in place to identify it.
The industry has been in crisis for sometime now. People have been playing fast and loose with the rules for a long time also. Now we are really institutionally and meticulously paying attention. So a lot might have been caught now.
Working within the ecosystem, writers, editors and so forth, there have been times where the story is a misrepresentation. It’s not my photography but the whole story. I have to call people and kind of apologise. I’m wondering if any of you have stories of industry manipulating things.
Chi Yin: Well, I work for nine years for the State media here and I think it sorts of answers…
Desmond: Who happens to be the kind presenter and supporter. (Audience laughs)
Chi Yin: But I think the broader question is of representation and Protick has talked about that. I think his example of Bangladesh is a very good one for us to think about. I think that kind of manipulation happens a fair bit.
Pete: I think it happens a lot. We photographers are out there trying to make visual representations much more nuance to things. We are the faces that people are interacting with in the field. And you put in the hands of the editors who feel they can make it snazzier. You want it to be illustrative of the issue but not necessarily steeped in the sensational dimensions. Sometimes it’s out of your control. In the freelance world, a lot depends on your relationships. Your principles and narratives are important but also your relationships with clients, patrons and platforms are important too. I think it’s one of the tricky things about being a freelancer is trying to navigate those kind of dilemmas. You don’t want to be hard to deal with but you want to be true to the story you told.
The Evolution of a Photographer
I’m interested in the evolution of a photographer in their career but more when out on assignment. Could you speak a bit about that?
Pete: It’s always a great challenge. We as people who are regionally focused, we tend to have a much nuance of the dynamics that are at play. That understanding is at a baseline level but when we get into specific context, there’s all this dynamics that surrounds the story. It’s one of the inherent challenges and pitfalls in the fundamentals of pitching. We have to be there in order to know what we are going to do. The diplomacy of trying to compose an original enough brief to allow the assignment to move forward but still loose enough to allow some metamorphosis which is inevitably going to happen.
What we actually interested in are the quieter aspects of everything. The big sensational headlines but really what is more interesting is the quiet dynamics. But articulating that and knowing how to sell that, I think is a really important part of how we work and operate.
Chi Yin: I think we have worked with a fair share of editors who sit in New York and London or Singapore who imagine they know the ground better than we do. We are the ones working out there, from the ground up, from the grassroots. They have the last say and often the views are very stereotypical of the country. I’m in China and there are a lot stereotypical stories on China. Likewise, of Bangladesh. When you evolve as a photographer or documentarian, you get to a point where you get less interested in taking briefs from other people. You want to do personal work which is about your own understanding of what’s happening and your vision on how to tell that story.
So if there is one thing that I would say to young photographers in this audience. I often get emails from young photographers on how to make it in the industry and how to stand out and what is the path. Quite often, they’re dying for an assignment and an internship at the newspaper. In this day and age what would make you stand out is if you really care about something and you make it a personal project. And you photograph it in your own way, in your own visual language. Self directed rather than taking a brief. I think that is the evolution of the photographer. Taking that one step. Taking that next step. Setting your own brief.