How photojournalists frame issues, for better or worse

I recently read an article by Steve Raymer, a former National Geographic photographer who now teaches at Indiana University. He was discussing how photojournalists “frame” issues. He was not talking about the literal framing of images or the composition, but rather how concepts and ideas are organized and presented by photojournalists. That got me thinking about my own work and how I had “framed” different issues that I had explored over the years. I also started to wonder if the way I framed things had helped or hurt my career.

To quote Raymer:

“Since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, media scholars have been taking a closer look at how we journalists use a central organizing idea, called a “frame” in academic-speak, to make sense of everything from terrorism and to ethnic cleansing.”

His basic point, which I largely agree with, is the way that most photojournalists “frame” issues is:

“…we frame stories about Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Darfur, and the so-called war on terrorism in terms of empathy and suffering. That is, we often take a compassionate or intimate look at combatants, innocents caught in the crossfire, or beleaguered aid workers – a micro view of the news that we assume, often erroneously, will illuminate a larger, more newsworthy issue.”

He then goes on to note how it has become the norm for politically difficult topics to be explored through imagery of trauma and human suffering. Though such framing makes great images, it often misses the mark in terms of telling the larger story.

My own perspective is that most photojournalists (and by extension our readers,) face a related challenge in the framing and understanding of important issues, because of something academics call the “identifiable victim effect.” That effect derives from the fact that people are willing to expend greater resources to save the lives of identified victims than what they would expend to save equal numbers of unidentified or statistical victims.

Raymer goes on to point out how the international photojournalism competitions tend to perpetuate rather than challenge this situation. He then writes:

“And this includes pictures that win contests. In fact, in simplifying, prioritizing, and organizing a story, which is what framing is all about, the iconic image that looks into someone’s eyes – preferably someone in agony – has become a key piece of journalistic shorthand.”

and

“More than a half dozen new scholarly books suggest this ‘close-up, concerned photographer’ view of the world often does a disservice to our audience…

…The way we report everything from wars and acts of terrorism to major cultural changes closer to home often fails to illustrate a larger problem that is truly newsworthy….

These are questions that can only be explained with longer, more contextualized narratives – words and images working together to answer questions about “why,” “how,” and “what does this mean?”

You can read the full article at:
http://journalism.indiana.edu/uncategorized/ethics-frames-terrorism/

The connection to my own experience happened at two different points in my career.

The first came when I was starting out as a photojournalist and I worked at various small, medium and large newspapers. At that point in time, newspapers were the ones who largely “framed” the coverage of a given event, with TV and radio following their lead. The newspaper staff jobs I had back then were great ways to learn the ground rules of journalism, learning what we now might call the “framing strategies.” The problem I ran into was that after I learned the ground rules, the “frames,” I immediately saw their limitations. The stories I wanted to tell did not fit into the tightly defined “frames” that tend to dominate newspapers in general.

Keep in mind that as a young photojournalist, I had no idea what “framing” was in academic sense I am now discussing. I knew only that what I was doing was not professionally satisfying nor was it philosophically satisfying. With the benefit of hindsight, I now understand what was happening when I could not seem to find a meaningful place to fit into within the world of newspaper photojournalism.

So, I tried to move up the photo-journalistic “food chain” to magazines, where I thought the framing they used was more expansive and open to multiple perspectives. As I have written in previous blog entries, I learned that magazines do indeed use different frames than newspapers, but for many (but not all) those frames were still largely controlled by editors, who are usually text driven story tellers not visually driven story tellers.

I was very fortunate to work for a few magazines that encouraged me to explore the stories I wanted to tell through a different, non-mainstream frame. A lot of credit should go to my editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. Sadly, that magazine no longer is being published so that channel for differently framed stories is now gone.

During the time I was freelancing regularly for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, I produced sixteen photo-essays that were published over ten years. Now, I understand how two of those projects exemplify the problem I encountered when I framed my stories outside the accepted perspectives. To see some of the essays watch: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/03/25/the-early-photo-essays/ Pay particular attention to my essays on the pesticide poisoning of farm-workers in California and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the pesticide-poisoning project, I framed the topic in order to say that the people most responsible for pesticide use are the consumers who demand perfect produce, year round with low prices, which is only possible with pesticides. I did explore the suffering of the victims of the pesticide poisoning, including farm workers and especially their children. But in the end the story was not framed “good” farm worker vs. bad “grower.” Both parties are impacted by an market that responds to the needs of the ultimately responsible party consumers.

Here are a few images from that project

Because the story was not framed with the stereotypical “good” farm worker vs. bad “grower” perspective, it was not well received in the photojournalism community. The readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine were moved by the piece and told us so in dozens of letters they sent to the magazine. The editors at the Inquirer Sunday Magazine were so excited about the project that they submitted it for a Pulitzer Prize. Because the editors and the readers “got it,” I knew I had done the right thing. Though, I was mystified for years afterwards as to why so few people in my field appreciated the work.

With my next large project, on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, which was also not well received in the photojournalism community, I came to better understand why the pesticide-poisoning project was similarly not appreciated.

The work I did in the Middle East was not framed in the typical way, which can be simplified down to Palestinian “victim” vs Israeli “oppressor.” The time I had spent in the Middle East before doing that project taught me that using such a framework would be dishonest to myself and unfaithful to the reality I was encountering. So I portrayed the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians as spectrum of encounters, varying from conflict, through coexistence and ending on cooperation. I produced the work before the 1993 Oslo piece accords so history in a way validated the frame that I had chose to use. Letters from readers of the Inquirer Sunday Magazine, where the work was first published, supported this. The fact that the work was funded by a grant from the MacArthur foundation, which was traditionally given to academics focused on the Middle East, also endorsed the perspective I had used. The final vote of confidence in my framing came from the numerous Middle East studies professors who chose to have the work exhibited at their universities.

Here are a few images from that project


The one place it was not well received was in the international photojournalism competitions that did in fact give awards to individual images but not to the whole body of work. In fact, the individual images from the project that won the most awards are the most stereotypically framed, focusing on the most violent aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

So now that I understand the idea of framing and I can appreciate how it impacted my career both positively and negatively, what do I expect? I certainly do not expect the photojournalism “crowd” to ask me to come “back.” They have enough on their plates right now, like a dying industry. I am not sure better framing would have saved them but I do know that the narrow framing that drives much of contemporary photojournalism certainly cannot help.

One response to “How photojournalists frame issues, for better or worse”

  1. Your point is basically the reason I dropped out of Journalism. I seems to me that, most of the times, it works kinda of like the Afro-Brazilian religions where, in order for the spiritual entity to manifest, there is gotta be someone to embody it, a medium… Most journalists I worked with pretty much do the same… look for someone to “embody” the words they wanna print, hiding behind a so-called impartiality… Honestly, the gigs I do for magazines and ad agencies do look much alike. Between one and the other, I’d rather shoot Afro-Brazilian rituals. They look more authentic to me, anyway.

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