fly on the wall

Observational, interactional and ‘dictational’ photojournalism

If you believe the old saying, “there is more than one way to skin a cat” and if you want to carry that thought over into photographic journalism there is definitely more than one way to shoot a story. If you listen to some debates about photojournalism you would find that hard to believe but regular readers of my opinion pieces about photography will know that I am a big fan of the ‘black to white, left to right theory of just about everything’.

©Neil Turner. Bournemouth, Dorset. 11 minutes past 11 on the 11th of the 11th 2011

The idea goes like this: imagine a line from one side of a page to the other and that one extreme of something is placed at the left hand end of that line. Now imagine that the opposite extreme is placed at the right hand end of that line. For illustrative purposes, let’s make those two extremes black on the left and whit on the right. What have you got in between? Every tone of grey that you could imagine. You can have one smooth gradient or you can have it in steps – it really doesn’t matter but what you will have is a smooth transition from one extreme to the other. Salt to sweet. Short to tall. Narrow to wide. It really doesn’t matter.

So how does this translate to different ways of shooting photographs? We are talking about photojournalism here and so I’d like to place “observational” at the left hand end of our imaginary line and “interactional” in the middle with dictational at the other end. That’s the easy bit. What exactly are these three approaches and what else sits along our line?

Observational photography can be defined as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach where the photographer is an almost ghost like figure who tries to have little or no impact on the situation and their subject matter. Some types of street photography where the photographer tries their best to remain unseen and unnoticed are classic examples of observational photography. Some would argue that a lot of sports photography fits these criteria too – after all, the cameras are there but nobody is changing their behaviour for them for 90% of the event. By definition observational photojournalists don’t seek any meaningful contact with their subjects whilst they are shooting and most would eschew contact once they have finished taking the pictures either.

Good photojournalism is nearly always accompanied by good and accurate captioning – which is easy if you are photographing a Manchester United game or the Olympic 100 metres final because the participants have names and/or numbers on their kit and they are all famous athletes. If you are taking pictures of people running from an approaching storm then you would like to know who they are and where they are heading but the only way to find that out is to ask. I can remember a number of occasions where I’ve shot lovely street photos whose value as works of curiosity is pretty high but whose value as a piece of photojournalism is a lot lower because I didn’t have the details of the people in the pictures. When I was young and keen I regularly followed people and plucked up the courage to get their name. These days I tend not to shoot the picture if having no details for the caption devalues the image.

So that’s observational photojournalism dealt with. What about it’s interactional cousin? This is where I’m happiest. Shooting pictures with the full knowledge and either permission or acquiesence of my subjects in ways that allow me to interact with them whilst maintaining the integrity of the pictures is, for me, the gold standard. You can tell stories, relay passions and miseries and generally get under the skin of people. Interesting people. By interacting with your subject the nature of your pictures changes and they will have a lot more of you and a lot more of your subjects soul in them.

Back to that pesky scale… you have observation at one end and interaction in the middle and dozens of shades of whatever you would call it in between. Then there’s the final form of getting the pictures: dictational – where you tell your subjects what you want them to do and then shoot it but I’d find it hard to label that as photojournalism at all. I’ve put it there on our scale miles away from observation and a fair distance from interaction too.

Let’s say that observation is the black on our scale and ‘dictatorial’ is white. What colour is interaction? 18% grey of course! (photographer joke – if you don’t get it, I apologise)

Merger talks – the “contact sheet”

Until now all of the ‘contact sheets’ that I have blogged have been from portrait assignments. Whilst looking back through some old pictures that haven’t seen the light of day in many years I came across this set of images. I was commissioned to do a sort of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ coverage of a Board meeting of the combined Westminster and Kingsway College governors.

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2000, London.

The idea was that two medium sized central London colleges were to merge and become a single large institution on multiple sites and a series of meetings like this one were taking place to make important decisions about almost every aspect of the way that the new Westminster Kingsway College would function. This particular meeting was about the logo. My task was to get a whole series of black and white images (even if they were shot on a digital camera in colour) that could be used through a multiple page article about the merger once it was complete.

Moving around the room as quietly as possible, using no flash and getting a set of pictures that represented the meeting was my goal and it was actually a fairly tense meeting, which made my job all the more difficult. In the end I left the meeting before I was asked to. It was only a matter of time before I got the “tap on the shoulder” anyway and I thought that I wasn’t going to get anything very different and a voluntary departure would be a good move.

The magazine actually ran nine pictures across three pages in the end and I was very keen to repeat the exercise. Sadly, it didn’t really happen in the same way again for many years.

Techie stuff: Kodak/Canon DCS520 cameras with Canon 17-35 f2.8, 28-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8L lenses at 640 ISO and colour converted to black and white using the Kodak DCS Acquire software.