Taking versus Making

As we come to the end of 2011 we are being hit with all the year in review stuff. Lists of best (or worst) movies, books, tv shows, fashion, you name it are being foisted on us. Photography is no exception.

I get frustrated with all of the “best of photo” lists, however. I have yet to see a list that isn’t entirely photo-journalistic. And these lists evoke comments from photographers like “This is why we do what we do!”

Most of the photographers who post comments like that are being at best disingenuous. Most of those photographers are not in photography to expose the injustices of a tyrannical regime or the sufferings of the starving. Nope. Most photographers wouldn’t have the courage to drop everything (except their camera) and run into the riots, the wars, the pestilence that the best, gutsiest photo-journalists actively seek out every day. And they shouldn’t pretend like they are because, and I know I’m going to piss off some folks but I’ll say it anyway, photo-journalists are no better than other photographers.

I’m not saying they are worse, mind you, but they are not better. PJ/non-PJ are simply alternate universes in imagery.

Photo-journalism is subject-driven. Of course there is good and bad imagery created by photo-journalists, but if you “get the shot” when the world is crumbling around you, no matter how well or poorly, it is a creation to the scene. That is, a photo-journalist (an ethical one, I mean) does not create the subject of his image (and forgive me, I am not going to his/her, s/he this piece although of course both genders do this work)–he, essentially, takes the photo. The great ones bring something more than just focus or framing to that, of course, but at its base, photo-journalism is a sort of reaction photography.

Other photographers make their photos from scratch. They create the scene, the subject, the environment… all or in part. Their starting point is not to tell the very real story of _______; it is not about capturing, about reacting to the world presented. It is about creating the image, creating that world. From shooting a CEO in his office for a sales brochure (to engender trust and show humanity in the boss, say) to full-on set building/costumed/post-production whizbangery, the only reality is what the photographer makes. This kind of photography also has its good and bad practitioners, but whatever these people do, it is production photography.

I get frustrated with photo-journalism being lauded as something better. The photographers who make images, who create their own visual reality (that includes visual reality for their clients) are not beneath those who capture the real world.

Again, I’m not maligning photo-journalists. Not at all. There are some amazing artists in that realm. But there are also some images that make these Best of lists because the photographer “got lucky” and that’s it. The subject is so profound that, as long as the image shows that subject in focus/in frame, we are moved.

But still we don’t see images created for, say, marketing on those same Best of lists. We are still moved by these images… arguably even more so because we take action. In terms of economics, the non-PJ photographers have a much greater impact in the world. They create the images that sell the products and services driving our economies. And yet those images don’t get the same glory. Seems unfair.

Why don’t we see lists of the non-PJ images that made the biggest impact in 2011? I dunno, but can you think of one such list? I can’t think of any. So I’d like to start one. What do you think? What images in advertising or marketing have you seen this year that you think particularly stand out?

4 Replies to “Taking versus Making”

  1. Good article. Sorry I cannot add to your list. I just need to add my bit. When I was at college 20years ago there where a couple of students that fellow students thought where really cool. They had photographed a minor riot in London with mediocre results but everyone seemed to think it was great photography. I was amazed as it was all down to luck. For their final major projects they was talk of them going off to Bosnia to photograph the conflict. I thought ‘ My God is this what photography is all about, I am in the wrong career, I don’t want to photograph war zones, this is scary”.Needless to say they did not go, all hot air. I love finley crafted photography, not sensational photography.

  2. You’re right. It’s not fair.

    It’s not fair that these people who help others sell their products get all the money when a photojournalist is threatened with arrest, beaten and endures hardship. It’s not fair that Kevin Carter was so distraught over his Pulitzer-Prize winning image and the criticism he endured that he killed himself. It’s not fair that advertising photographers get to travel the globe and take a week to do what a photojournalist gets to do in only a matter of minutes.

    It’s not fair that art directors and other creatives hand a concept off to a photographer who brings the ideas to life when the photojournalist is thrown to the wolves on a daily basis and has to compete with CindyLou on the street corner with the camera in her cell phone.

    You may think that a photojournalist is simply “lucky.” A skilled one isn’t. S/he is very good at telling stories with their camera. Their style of photography is more about the people than anything else. An accomplished PJ is someone who is in tune with people and has the ability to anticipate and wait for things to happen. Photojournalism is story telling. It’s not reactive, snapshot photography. Photojournalist create their “Luck.”

    If simply being in focus was all that it took, autofocus/autoexposure cameras would have made everyone a true photojournalist.

    A photojournalist is someone who runs into dangerous situations with multiple camera bodies and three times as many lenses. While fighting with the police, who want them to go away, a photojournalist will also be listening and watching what’s going on around him while making pictures. He needs to provide for his own safety. A photojournalist operates under a code of ethics that a priest would have a hard time dealing with. And on the lighter side: A photojournalist is someone who can read a map, eat lunch and talk to his editor on the phone while driving at high speeds, steering with his knee.

    Last week while providing photographic coverage of Occupy events and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, I was pepper sprayed twice, accosted by “friendly” people and threatened with arrest while taking pictures and gathering names of people I photographed. Yep, I made some great images, but the paycheck for those images probably won’t feed my family for more than a couple of days. Meanwhile, my commercial counterpart had his assistant move the light and schlep his gear. Maybe he’ll dish the shoot off to someone else for post production. Their work is beautiful. In the end, he’ll be handsomely rewarded.

    No, the photojournalist isn’t better. On the contrary. The photojournalist is at the bottom of the photographic food system. I think it’s only fair that a dedicated PJ be allowed to tell a story and win an occasional award without getting criticized for a job well done.

    1. Tony: You missed my point. I was not putting down PJs. I was saying that they are no better than non-PJs and that the work of non-PJs does not get the recognition it deserves. Not taking away from PJs, just building up non-PJs.

      I’d like to see lists of great PJ work at the end of the year. I’d also like to see lists of great adv/mktg photos.
      -Leslie

  3. Back in 2007 at Alec Soth’s old weblog, the street photographer and teacher Tod Papageorge described one of the common failures of photographers who ‘make instead of take’. Papageorge said “my argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the imagination of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis.”
    Nevertheless, there’s much for me to learn from looking at great advertising photographs.

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