Understanding photojournalism: beyond knowing how to use a camera (Part One)

Before Journalists’ Toolkit class, my only encounter with photography, or let’s say photojournalism, was my online conversations with Arash Ashourinia, one of my best friends who is a freelance photojournalist living in Iran. Arash runs a photoblog and has taken shots from various protests and unrests in Tehran, where no other photographer, including photographers working for international news agencies in Tehran, were present. Often, these photos, along with narratives in Persian blogs, become the only evidence of activists’ protests and police brutality in Tehran. BBC Persian website has republished his photos a couple of times, and one of his photos was published in both online and paper editions of Washington Post.

After a protest happens in Tehran, I usually find Arash online on my Yahoo! Messenger to see his photos, help him choose the best shots, and translate the captions of his photos to English. I comment on his photos from an amateur’s point of view though. I look for the shots that tell me the story better, show the conflict more vividly, and are eye-catching.

Last week, I read parts of Kenneth Kobre’s book Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, and as part of my class assignment I took various shots from a classmate. This whole experience helped me realize that there is much more to photojournalism than knowing the technical issues related to using cameras professionally. Of course it is important to master photography as a technique to become a professional photojournalist, but there are so many other elements involved in producing good photojournalism.

The first thing I learned from Kobre’s book and practiced as part of my class assignment was “assuring visual variety” through taking three forms of shots:

1- Overall shot:

This form is a panoramic shot that gives an idea of the whole scene where an event is taking place, and as Kobre says “allows viewers to orient themselves to the scene,” “defines the relative position of the participants,” and allows “to evaluate the magnitude of the event.” (P. 13)

My assignment was about taking photos of my classmate while she was taking photos of a crowd of bicycles parked somewhere on campus. I stood on top of something far from her (as advised by Kobre to elevate ourselves for taking overall shots, p.14) and took some photos that included her, most of the bikes, and part of the campus. I thought I did a good job of capturing an overall picture of the scene, but my overall shots turned out to be useless! They were too far from my main subject, which was my classmate, and she was almost lost in the crowd of bikes and the trees behind her. I realized that just capturing the magnitude is not enough all the time, and I should not forget the main subject of the shot.

2- Medium shot:

This shot captures part of the scene, as well as the participants. As Kobre says, medium shot should “tell the story,” is “close enough” to show “the participants’ action” but at the same time “far enough away to show their relationship to one another and to their environment.” (p.14)

I ended up with one acceptable medium shot of my classmate, where she is on her knees while taking pictures in the middle of two bikes. The photo tells the story by showing the participant’s action, i.e. taking photos from the bikes, and shows the relationship between the photographer and her environment, i.e. the bikes and the green grass. I think this photo turned out to be good because it was taken at the right distance; close enough, yet far enough. So I learned that the right distance matters a lot.

3- Close-up:

A close-up shot, as its name suggests, shows us a closely-taken picture of something or someone. As Kobre says, a close-up should “isolate and emphasize one element.” It “adds drama” by putting the viewer into “eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the subject.”

Two of my close-up shots turned out to be acceptable. They were good shots because they had proper focus on one element; one of them being the hands of my classmate holding the camera, and the other one being a close figure of her arms, head, and camera, which all created a circle. Both of these pictures could convey one message and isolate and emphasize one elemnt: “photography.” And that was actually my aim, because the subject of my shots was “photography” itself.


Back to my photographer friend Arash, I now appreciate his work of taking photos of a women’s rally in Tehran on June 12, 2006 more. He knew police wouldn’t allow people to take photos of the event and would arrest photographers. His friends who worked for Iranian and international news agencies told him that they were advised by their agencies not to go to the scene. He prepared himself and went on the roof of a friend’s office at the scene, both to be in a safe place and to be in a good angle for taking overall shots. He also had the right gear, including the necessary lenses that helped him with taking “close enough, yet far enough” medium shots from the top of the building. Of course he couldn’t take many close-ups, but his medium shots were enough to tell the drama. (I later made a slide-show of his photos with his own narration for my advanced online media class last spring.)


2 comments so far

  1. Mindy McAdams on

    This post is a little long, yes, but it is good in spite of the length because you are analyzing what you learned. I think this kind of analysis helps us internalize the lessons. In the end, we learn more — and more quickly — because we have done this kind of analysis.

  2. […] tell what the newspapers won’t tell to keep from upsetting their readership?  Kind of like Sanam’s friend, Arash, who gets images out there that would otherwise be lost to the […]

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