Archive for the ‘photojournalism’ Category

Final Story Package: Homelessness in Gainesville

Here’s my final story package for Journalists’ Toolkit class, which includes a Soundslides and a map:

Screenshot of Homelessness in Gainesville Package

We had to Make a soundslides about an issue, and put some sort of data, either a Google Map, or a statistical chart made by Fusion Charts, to give some extra information about the subject.

At first I thought I can’t make this package and will lose all my credibility, because the people I initially talked to to help me get in touch with homeless people later didn’t return my calls or emails. I was missing the deadline, while we had about three weeks to work on this story. I started googling keywords related to homelessness and Gainesville, and I found out that there is a clinic in a church called Helping Hands Clinic that offers services to the homeless every Monday at 5pm.

I had 15 minutes to get there. So I drove like crazy to the place. I talked to the people working there and they agreed to let me interview them.

As I moved around the clinic, I started chatting with homeless people there. They were curious why I’m taking photos from the building. I asked them what they think about the clinic. As we were talking, I gradually changed the subject to what they thought about the condition of homeless people in Gainesville, if they have any complaints, and if they have any suggestions on how people like me can help.

People became more interested and talked more. Then I asked some of them if they are willing to help me to make the story. One man, Rick, gave me some good suggestions, but he refused to be interviewed. He said he’s tired of being interviewed by so many papers and students! I said I respect his decision, but gave him my number in case he changed his mind, or he was willing to help me.

I went to downtown plaza after the clinic, where many homeless people spend the night. One woman I met at the clinic said she will be waiting for me to be interviewed in the plaza, and surprisingly she was there. Other homeless people would stop by as I was talking to her, and I chatted with them as well, asked their opinions, and asked them how people like me can help them.

The day after that I went to downtown plaza again, where the Home Van, a mobile service that distributes free food and cloths for the homeless around the town was supposed to be. Surprisingly, I saw Rick there and he said I came to help you, because it’s not safe here and you need someone to show you around.

He later helped me go to the woods and talk to more people. I made friends with some more homeless people. We sat together and ate. I invited Rick for coffee. He knows photography and even gave me some suggestion on setting the ISO of my camera for taking photos at night. He asked me to take my photo at the clinic, and a homeless woman came and sat next to me to be in the photo.

helping hands

I interviewed 12 homeless people and two volunteers working at Helping Hands Clinic, and was left with 3 hours of interview that had to be cut short to two minutes! Well, I spent a lot of time editing the audio, and slept only few hours for three nights to finally come to the present version of the audio.

I wasn’t happy with the lighting of some of the photos, because they were taken at night. As I was reviewing Kobre’s photojournalism book’s chapter on issue stories, I noticed that the majority of photos on that chapter are black and white. I used Real Grain plugin in photoshop (download free trail here) to test how photos turn out in black and white. I realized the photos are much more powerful in black and white.

I am satisfied with the outcome. I think the time I spent was worth it. I owe most of my success to spending time to get to know the homeless people, make friends with them, and LISTEN to them.

So far I have recieved a lot of nice feedback from people who has seen the soundlsides. Now I can’t wait to take my laptop to downtown plaza and show the soundslides to my homeless friends and see what they think about it.


Soundslides: life on UF family housing

My first Soundslides is not a great package, because many of the photos are not very well- exposed or well-composed. But still I’m happy about the final outcome, because I learned a lot and did my best.

After seeing the final outcome, I noticed what additional photos I could take to tell the story better. I also learned a lot about the importance of timing. Due to my lack of time because of a trip, I chose to take photos of my neighbors. This made me a bit shy about knocking at their door constantly to take photos at different settings. I also was struggling with the idea of making the story an aspect of campus life, instead of the profile of a family. In the end I think I could figure out, to some extent, how to overcome that challenge. I asked the subject of my interview lots of questions about her personal life and her life at family housing. I realized that many of the interesting things she said in the interview had to be removed, because they were not really about campus life. Had I included what she said about her personal life not relevant to campus life, then I would end up with a profile story. I tried to include just the parts that were about campus life.

So, here is the first slideshow with audio totally made by me, except for the Flash part which was done thanks to the great platform Soundslides offers us. Click on the image below to see my first work!


Ethics of execution photos

Kobre talks about four elements in photography, that if combined, would produce best examples of photojournalism: informational, graphically appealing, emotional, and intimate (p. 196). He also talks about three different approaches to ethics in photojournalism: Utilitarian (informing people as the highest priority), Absolutist (individual’s rights to privacy as priority), and the Golden Rule (treating the subjects the way you wish to be treated yourself as priority) (p.300).

The four elements he mentions for producing good photojournalism on page 196 completely make sense to me, and many great photos that I have seen in my life had all these four characteristics combined. But I’m not sure if these four elements can always be compatible with ethical approaches to photojournalism, specially the absolutist and the Golden rule ones.

Few months ago, Iranian news agencies published a lot of photos of public execution of “thugs, rapists, and thieves” in Tehran and some other big cities of Iran. I was appalled by seeing the pictures everywhere on the net. I was heart-broken to see people are posting the pictures in their blogs, as a chance to show their dissatisfaction with their government, without thinking about the right to privacy of the alleged convicts. On the other hand, as a person who is against any form of capital punishment, I thought it would be useful to have the photos of so many people hanged up in the air, because this might show the brutality of capital punishment, and might have some impact on people who do not necessarily find capital punishment wrong. Also, I thought the public has the right to know that their government mass execute people, without holding fair public trials for them (which is against Iran’s constitution).

But what concerns me the most and I hope you can help me digest, is what I call the artistic touch, or in Kobre’s word the “graphical appeal” some of these photos have. You can even see some novel angles in the photos. If the dead people were alive, some of the photos could have been really called appealing. I kept wondering (and I was confused) that how ethical it is to take eye-catching photos of an event so inhumane and brutal. If I were a photojournalist, I would try not to be sent on an assignment to take such photos to begin with, but I understand that there is merit in documenting these executions (not to mention that these photographers have been sent out on assignments to take these photos, and couldn’t perhaps reject taking the photos). But how far should we go? Should we always try to be artistic and have graphical appeal in every photo we take? Couldn’t simple shots of an event such as execution enough for informing the public?

You can see some of the photos I’m talking about in the following albums: 2007-07-17-Execution, 2007-08-01-Execution, 2007-09-02-Public Execution, 2007-09-11-Fortuneteller Executed in Qom.

The photos I’m specifically talking about are these: onetwothreefourfivesix.

(The owner of the above photoblog has not originally taken the photos. He’s copied and republished the photos from various Iranian news agencies.)

Sights and Sounds

As I move on in my Journalists’ Toolkit class and take more and more photos, I become more and more sensitive about things I’d never paid much attention to. One of them is angles and compositions of each frame in the films and TV programs I watch. Sometimes I, unconsciously, look at a video frame as a still photo. In the frames I like, I examine, very quickly, were the main subject of that frame is situated. I’m amazed to see that most often the rule of thirds applies to these video frames. The frames I like usually have a novel angle or composition. On some of the frames, I wish that for example part of the shot was not in the frame (was cropped?). I have also realized that there is some merit to TV programs that I don’t like at all, at least in terms of visuals and the composition of video frames. For example I never liked CSI Miami because of its unrealistic and sometimes childish stories. But I have recently become interested in the program, just because I like the composition of each frame in this program. Sometimes I think each frame of this program can make a beautiful photo!

The other issue that I have become sensitive about is the sounds in soundslides, films, radio, and TV programs. We had a good practice for the class two weeks ago to listen to and examine the use of sounds in two packages. One of the packages was “The Art of Listening,” a small soundslide that contained some recordings of Jesse Seay, one of the founder of “Your Favorite Chicago Sounds” audio archive. The soundslide has few photos. But what makes it interesting and in fact makes the title of the package relevant in my idea, is that the sounds come before the photos. You first hear the sound of a wolf, then you see photos of the wolfs in a zoo. You first hear the sounds of dolphins in an aquarium, then you see their photos. Each set of sounds put you on that location, without even seeing the photos of the location. This was an important lesson for me to learn how much a good and sharp nat sot can make a story more effective. I didn’t even need to see the photos to get a feeling about the zoo or the aquarium. Some of the frames of the slideshow are simply black, so you can even close your eyes and still feel the environment.

The other package that I had to listen to, which was an NPR program on Studying a Koala Mystery in Eastern Australia had the same effect on me. As Sonia has also mentioned, I had a feeling as if I am there in the jungles of Australia searching for Koalas! There was the sound of birds singing and the echo of their singing, mosquitoes, people walking on the grass (or bushes and leaves?), and even people’s voices with different pitches on the expedition. And the climax of the story for me was the end of it, were we could actually hear the sound of a Koala!

Now after these practices, I sometimes listen to the noises and sounds in my environment, wondering if what I hear can be a good nat sat for a story!

My first photo assignment (part 2): Composition and light

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first photo assignment turned out to be indoors and at dinner time. The subject was a family having dinner. I knew the photos do not necessarily have a story element on their own, and I should later add more photos taken in different environment. So, I just concentrated on composition, and tried to shoot as many photos as possible, hoping that something interesting would come up.

The family were sitting next to each other at a round table. I took photos from different angles, keeping “the rule of thirds” in mind. The child was a bit sick and was not eating very well. At one moment, they said something in Turkish and pointed at me, I guess to encourage her to eat! She looked at the camera while her father was pointing at me. While I knew the girl was looking at the camera and her father was pointing at me, I thought it was still interesting to shoot. You can feel my presence in the photo, but I didn’t ask for it.

little girl pointing at camera

I like the photo, because it’s so ordinary, and shows a nice family moment. The girl’s face and hand are in focus, and her parents are blurry. The dinner table is also well-exposed. I don’t know if this is considered a good photo in terms of composition or not. I think it is, because the main subjects of the story are all on one of the lines of the rule of thirds, so the rule of thirds is observed.

I like the following photo as well. I tried to take the photo in a way that her face is fully visible, but I didn’t have much room to move, because of the dining table. I sat on the ground and took this photo. While her face is half covered, I thought it is somehow interesting! What do you think about this photo? Did you wish to see her full face?

woman slicing pizza

After I saw the photos on my computer I realized that my main problem was the light. My camera is a Canon Powershot A80. It doesn’t have many settings, and I don’t have much control over the light. I took a few shots with flash, but they look so unnatural and the lighting looks even worse on them. Many of my photos that involved movement of the subjects turned out blurry. When the light is low, the shutters stays open more, and the chances that the camera vibrates gets higher. So I somehow felt that no matter how careful I’ll be with composition and the settings of my camera, there are things that my camera can’t handle very well. Also, almost all of my pictures look gray, which is a bit frustrating.
Now I’m thinking seriously about buying an SLR camera that gives me more control of the light. The Nikon D40 seems like a basic and affordable digital SLR (comparing to other digital SLRs), suitable for people who want to upgrade from point and shoots to SLRs. I’m going to test Curt’s camera soon too see whether I can handle working with an SLR, or I should still practice with point and shoots. These photo exercises and my classmates’ experiences are making me much more interested about photography!

My first photo assignment (part 1): Preparation is a key

I was in Colorado for a family matter from Friday, September 21 to Tuesday, September 25. So , practically, I had only Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, to take at least 200 photos for my first photo assignment in journalist’s toolkit class, which was due that Thursday. I wanted to take photos of Muslim women at UF. Before I leave, I emailed Islam on Campus and also a friend who knew people from that group, hoping that they would put me in touch with some women from their group. I thought I would get some of the women’s emails or phone numbers, could contact them while I was in Colorado, and set an appointment for taking photos on Wednesday. It turned out that I never received any replies. Later I read Paul Bradshaw’s advice to journalism students on how not to rely just on emails, and instead, try to talk to people on the phone. I should’ve found members of Islam on campus phone numbers and talk to them directly before leaving. Although we leave in the information age, emails do not necessarily work!

My flight had a big delay and I got stuck at Orlando airport’s parking for an hour. So I arrived in Gainesville around 11 pm on Tuesday. I had no time for taking any photos or talking to anyone that day. I had to think about a new story. So the next day I decided to take photos of my neighbors, to tell the story of grad students who live at UF family housing. I chose a Turkish family who have a beautiful little girl. The women said she should ask her husband’s permission for letting me take photos from them. And her husband would come home at 7pm, when the light was not good for outdoor photos.

I was losing time and I was not sure if her husband would let me take the photos. So, I contacted an Iranian couple I knew leaving in UF family housing and they let me take photos. I just took random photos from them. I had no clue what my story would be. They don’t have children, and the wife lives in Miami and comes to Gainesville every now and then. So, practically, only the husband lives on campus. I didn’t know how engaging my story could be, taking photos of a student who is most of the time on main campus and usually spends time at home for sleeping or studying. And I knew I couldn’t ask him to DO anything special in family housing to add to the story. I was so nervous for not having a story. To add to all that, most of my photos turned out to be blurry and I realized my camera setting was not on auto.

While I was thinking of calling them and asking them to take more photos, the Turkish couple knocked on my door and kindly let me take photos from them!

I was somehow relived. They were going to have dinner, so I went there to take photos of their dinner, kitchen, and feeding of their little daughter.

They had a Turkish pizza for dinner and they offered me a slice of the pizza. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if it was ethically right to eat wit them. I was told in my reporting class that we should not accept food or anything else when we are working on a story. But then I thought this is not a publicity thing for them, and they are just being kind. Also, I thought it might be rude to refuse the food. So, I took the pizza home with me, and ate it later. I should confess that the pizza was really delicious! I hope I haven’t crossed any ethical lines with having that pizza!

Turkish woman slicing pizza

When I went home and looked at my photos, I realized all my photos are similar to each other. They were all about a family having dinner. While eating and the nice renovated kitchens of family housing are part of life on that part of campus, it doesn’t tell a substantive story on its own. So I realized that I need to take more photos from them, in different parts of the area, to tell a better story.

Fortunately, we still have more time to take more photos for our first Soundslide package. But I realized that in real world journalism we do not always have that luxury of time. Preparation well ahead of time is part of journalism, and that’s something I should take much more seriously in the future, along with learning to work with the tools.

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.)