Over the last two days, Kiev, Ukraine has seen its worst violence since the Soviet era, with the death toll now at 75. Fighting between police and protesters escalated when protesters used Molotov cocktails and lit several fires in the city square. This video - shot on a drone - shows the epic devastation from above, and I believe this may mark a very significant turning point in photojournalism. Has the public's desire for the theatrical become too large a part of journalism?
Let's begin with the 2013 World Press Photo Contest. It's pretty hard to ignore the trends in photojournalism being pushed in the direction of more cinematic imagery and enhanced with post production (even if only through color grading). After the controversy that surrounded the winner last year (a heavy scrutiny found that the winning photo fell within the confines of the rules despite being processed onto itself multiple times), the rules this year were much stricter regarding post processing, and the winners this year are definitely different. What does this have to do with a video? I believe this speaks to journalists following suit with greater trends that are evolving the visual medium.
Paul Hansen - World Press Photo Contest 2013 Winner
John Stanmeyer - World Press Photo Contest 2014 Winner
Let's take football, for example. Years ago, football was mostly broadcast a couple of different ways and from a couple of different types of shots. We had wide shots, and we had tight shots. There were cameras mounted and locked from above and cameras on the ground. Eventually, though, video games became powerful enough that they were producing more visually interesting ways to present the experience of football. Broadcasting companies followed suit, and soon enough, cable systems were installed that allowed for cameras to fly over the field.
In the Olympics this year, drones are commonplace for many news outlets, with The Atlantic calling drones, "the future of sports photography." Drones are seemingly less and less a novelty item, not to mention the prices aren't that far fetched for something that produces decent results. A couple hundred dollars gets one's foot in the door, and at about $1000-$1500, you're able to produce some pretty amazing arial shots with GPS, wifi and camera stabilization. According to several news outlets, these types of drones will be commonplace at sports stadiums in the very near future. Pretty neat, huh?
And then there was Kiev.
The Ruptly video agency posted the above video to Youtube, and I was immediately struck with how much it reminded me of a movie. And then I wondered if that was good or bad. Honestly, I don't really know. To be fair, most of the images I've seen of the situation strike me this way, so I'm not ruling out that the content may play a large role.
Is something like this positive to news gathering? One could easily argue yes and especially on this incident in particular. An aerial camera allows people to see the story from an angle that gives it scope, thus adding to the depth and dynamic of the narrative. As photographers, we are inherent storytellers and photojournalists are often times more so than most - ideally with a flair for the dramatic. That flare can occur in multiple ways- either through color, light, timing or framing (or all of the above)- the very elements that define a photographer and the makings of a great photograph. But at what point does the flare overtake the story itself - putting more emphasis on the storytelling or even the storyteller? Should the way the narrative is told be what grabs our attention before the actual narrative does?
It can also be said that science and art have always driven each other. It's a symbiotic relationship that goes all the way back to Eadweard Muybridge and Ottomar Anschutz and their impact on photography, driven by their need to freeze motion.
Movies have often adopted a documentary feel to make things seem "more realistic" which, in turn, may have inadvertently made documentary work more like movies. Art imitating life. Robert Capa's famous images of the D-Day invasion were the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's version.
Robert Capa - D Day, 1944
Steven Spielberg - Saving Private Ryan, 1998
How are the photographers themselves injected into this equation? Should they be expected to present the news in a more dynamic way because that is what people now want or even expect? Are they doing it because they are continually expected to innovate? Or are they taking initiative and doing it on their own because they feel they are progressing their art (I have seen many Olympic images that are definitely art)? If that is the case, how large a part should artistic intentions be in certain types of photojournalism? What is the grey area? Where is the line in the sand?
There is no denying the trend toward a more cinematic approach with photojournalism, and just because the rules are constantly readjusted, it doesn't mean new avenues won't be developed to skirt around them. That being said, I don't want the crux of this argument to be interpreted as the writer's curmudgeon-esque mentality of 'why-can't-things-stay-the-same.' Obviously, innovation is a good thing, but perhaps we should evaluate the direction that the innovation is being applied. Maybe it's too early to tell, or maybe we're too close to the issue. I think the truth lies somewhere in the "we'll see" spectrum, and it's not something we may definitively be able to conclude for many years to come. I also think this year marks a very big turning point in how news will be covered, and it's certainly something to pay attention to. Oscar Wilde once said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life," but in the case of photojournalism, is that influence a necessarily a positive one?
What are your thoughts? Do you think this is innovation or does it speak to a wider issue on the culture and our want of theatricality in our presentation of the news?
Original video via Spoid
Exceptional piece, Chris. It'll really be interesting to see where this industry stands in the next few years.
Over the months I've been pulled in by your thoughtful writing; you consistently explore deeper matters than sensor sensitivity, competition amongst lens makers and how to make skin look naturally smooth (though there is a respectful place for those as well).
Thank you Sean
outstanding article, brilliant food for thought.
I have to say, that is a good question (and one that has always been with us): Where does reporting stop and editorializing begin in photojournalism?
In written or spoken journalism we have standard agreement on where those lines are. Generally, emotionally loaded words are not to be used unless you are editorializing, but all imagery appeals to the viewer's emotional self in some way.
I agree. What's the difference really? It's our own fault for ever thinking that a photographer's choice of pov and lens was ever an objective reporting of events. If, in this day and age we still believe what we see in a photo as TRUTH, the problem lies with us and not the photographer or even the news outlet.
Visual theory refers to this as the difference between index and symbol. It really is our own fault, especially in the digital age.
Disclaimer: I am a HUGE fan of Capa. His mentality of getting closer has had a large impact on the way that I shoot and we need people on the ground to tell that story. That being said having a
"god's eye" view has enormous value to our understanding of an event. We should never forget that the narrative is the central focus of photojournalism not the technique. I'm sure that if photojournalist could grow wings and fly they would be hovering over Kiev right now.
Never heard it called "god's eye' before. Good article, I've been thinking about this as well and I don't really know where I stand either. Ever since I saw some cinematic style DSLR footage from the Afghan war.
A photojournalist shooting from ground level usually isolates action, even when shooting with a wide angle lens. That provides drama as well as insight, but often it lacks context. The sweeping overview of low oblique aerials provide viewers with invaluable context. The images are dramatic because the events are dramatic. This is not theatricality. It's reporting. And, an advance in photojournalism.
I agree with you on this - for this particular story, but I do believe the next step is going to be a usage of this style not when it adds context, but when it adds style. Is that still an advance? It seems to me like a lateral move at best, and maybe a big step backward. This is the catalyst, not an isolated incident.
The image composition and vantage point always adds a certain style to an image. It always reflects the decisions of the photographer, what he decides to show and what to leave out of the picture. There is no such thing a completely neutral and objective image.
These drones just add another possible vantage point/viewing angle to the repository, for good or worse, that's all.
Exactly...both you and jrconner are correct. There is no reason that a photojournalist can't have a style associated with their shot or work. As long as they are not modifying it heavily after the fact in post(this is another debate) I think it should generally stand as photojournalism.
THANKYOU. This is exactly what my comment was going to focus on. This aerial point of view will not change photojournalism, it will just improve it.
As everything goes digital - will we see a future with more photos replaced with gifs?
First "content driven" post in a long time here... Good work!
As a multimedia journalist, it is exciting for me to live in
an era where tools like this are affordable and easy to use. I don’t think the
use of drones adds theatricality to reporting. TV stations have used helicopters
for years, getting shots very similar to this one. The only difference now is
that we can get those images with a thousand dollars investment, and not a
quarter of a million (or more), a certified pilot and licenses. Outstanding
Interesting article and the video certainly has impact. But one thing you didn't mention is the legality of using drones in many locations. A while back the BBC shot a piece on their new drone but mentioned a number of legal barriers to where or how it could be used. I believe the same is true in the US, where there are restrictions on how drones can be used commercially. The BBC piece said they can't:
fly within 50m of a road or building unless it's under our control
fly over crowds
fly 500m horizontally or 120m vertically from the pilot
I'm atypical in many ways, and maybe this is one of them: if I click to a news web page and there's only a video and no story, I'll close the tab (or hit the 'back' button, whichever is more appropriate). I absolutely *hate* sitting through four minutes of talking heads when I could have read the same content in 30 seconds or less (or skimmed the article and decided against it).
As for photo- and video-journalism appearing more "cinematic", to me this is just a phase we're going through. Photojournalism throughout the decades has had its fads, its "looks", to which many people of each time period subscribe. It'll look different again in 10 or 20 years.
And each time, someone wonders if the camera's in the way of the story.
The use of drones when allowed is certainly something I believe will be used more and more by film crews rather than individuals, unless perhaps as a specialism. Cost and reliability will drop and improve.
The problem I have though is the feeling of disconnect the footage from a drone gives. Quite unlike helicopter footage that has a certain 'distance' and a feeling of someone immediately controlling the camera (still or film) rather than at some distance via a joystick. A thought here of those 'pilots' controlling military drones and targeting to kill; do they have more of a disconnect than if they were in a jet.
I'm seeing drones increasingly being used in tv dramas etc. and after an initial mild wow ! I start to think again of that disconnected artificial pov. A cold inhuman surveillance quality.
Of course those younger than myself who have spent time playing video games might well and probably do have a different perspective. Is that good or bad ?
It's a good discussion and I think that as long as the content is not modified it can stand as a type of true journalism.
Sports on the other hand are entertainment...I would not hold the NFL to the same standards as someone documenting an uprising in Kiev who is a photojournalist.
I don't think it adds to drama. It actually adds to reality. When the camera pans back/out we see the whole scene. Think about when the local news, on the scene reporter is caught in that close crop frame to add drama only to have a drone pan out to see that the bigger picture isn't quite as bad. In the video above you can see people walking around, not in a panic. Not trying to take away from the situation. A close composed shot of someone screaming, standing in front of one of the fires would paint a different situation. The drone footage takes that option away. I like the idea. Puts realism back in photojournalism.