The Great Deluge

Four days of Southern California rain.

Haiti is in big trouble. It was in trouble before the quake and now it is in critical trouble.

We all know this now, and we knew it very soon after the deadly quake hit this small Caribbean island.

But after visiting one of the global news sites, and seeing that they had 33 different stories and 23 different films, all about Haiti, all located on the homepage, I was confronted with a question I couldn’t answer.

Is this too much coverage? Is this beneficial, or like my tiny piece of California soil, has it reached the saturation point?

We now have the ability to cover world events in real time, which initially, and in most cases, is still viewed as a great thing. I agree, in some ways.

One part of me says, “The more the better.” “Haiti is in big trouble the the more attention we give this story the more benefit, the more aid will pour in, and it will be impossible for the world to ignore the situation.”

But I’m not sure this system is working.

When I hit the news site that had all these stories, you know what link I clicked on? Guess. Come on, guess.

I clicked on the Golden Globe winners. I did. And frankly, I’m not interested in the Golden Globes, the Oscars, any of that stuff. Nothing wrong with it, but I just don’t follow it. So I was really surprised when I found myself staring at a complete list of winners.

What happened to me was total overload of the Haitian news story. And I AM interested in Haiti. I AM interested in the region. I AM interested in following the story. I AM interested in the photography emerging from the story.

But it was too much. It was short attention span news.

I turned on the television, the first night the networks landed, en mass. Here were lines of reporters on the ground with very little to say. They would pass the mic back and forth and basically explain what they saw, but in most cases they really had little to nothing to add. I just wondered why all of them were there, and how much of the annual news budget were they spending on this one story.(And then two days later some of these same people are hosting cooking segments on the morning shows.)

Wouldn’t it be better to slow down, get the story, secure a few facts, do some EDITING and then present what you know in ONE clear, concise report?

Instead I got a Twitter-feed-like shotgun pattern of reporting. It had little to no effect. Again, I KNOW this situation is horrific, so I don’t need the play by play. I need the facts.

Day One: 100,000 dead
Day Two: 50,000 dead
Day Three: 200,000 dead

All over the map. But I wonder why report this in the first place. We know there are many dead, so why throw around numbers when you have no real idea what you are talking about, and these numbers are impossible to verify.

Look, I don’t have an answer here, I’m just wondering if I’m alone in this. I keep thinking to myself, “No, this coverage brings attention.” But again, I’m not sure it is working like we think it works. Do other people turn off to this?

And as for the photography, the same applies.

Day one, we were flooded with cell phone imagery. Its horrible quality, but at that point it’s not about quality, it’s simply information.

A day later, the “real” photographers arrive, and the imagery looks much the same but the quality level of the imagery, the resolution, the sharpness, etc, gets better.

Day three and on, the photographers land in platoon strength and now all bets are off. Every single day we are blanketed by hundreds, thousands, if not tens of thousands of images from every possible angle. Again, much of this imagery looks alike.

And here is where the pendulum shifts.

By now there are people on the scene with the ability to give us more in depth reportage. Perhaps they are photographers, journalists, with a history in Haiti, and IF GIVEN THE TIME, MIGHT have the ability to tell us what is really going on. But based on the modern news cycle, they too are rushed, and contribute little more than similar photos, stories, that we have already seen.

For me, I would love to say to this small group of people, “Please, take your time, get the story, get what you need, take the time to edit, find the best way to present it and then bring it to me(as in publish it).” “I will stop what I’m doing and give you one hundred percent of my attention.”

But again, this doesn’t happen. What does happen is dozens, if not hundreds of more carbon copy news stories land in the multitude of information channels.

It’s a very strange situation because in some ways what I’m asking for is more thoughtful, perhaps more beautiful work to be created from a horrible situation, but in the end, I think this is what will deliver the most impact, far more impact that the current style of heavy rain.

I’ll give you an example, and I’m pulling this out of my butt, so hang with me.

Back in the early 1980’s, part of the Sahel, or perhaps all of the Sahel was in the grips of a major famine. A photographer named Sebastiao Salgado decided to go and see for himself what was happening. He went on his own, at least I think he did, bulk rolling his own film, living a tough existence.

Now I’m guessing here, but I would imagine he was on the scene for at least a month, perhaps more, shooting, traveling, compiling images. And if I had to guess, when he returned to Paris or New York or wherever he was living, it took another few weeks, months, to collect the work and then…..release it.

Now this photographer is not a spot-news photographer, a front line war photographer, but that is partly what I’m getting at.

Maybe there were other photographers on the scene, wire service people putting out images in rapid fire, but the work that had the REAL IMPACT was the black and white work of Salgado. It is the ONLY work I can remember from that story. I remember seeing it for the first time and freezing because it was so powerful I could not look away. It was thoughtful and presented well.

I would imagine he didn’t send, transmit or publish anything during the time he was there, so you could say, “Well, if he had then perhaps the world would have known about the situation earlier and perhaps fewer people would have died.” That’s a good angle, but I would imagine there WERE photographers doing this….so where was the impact?

There is another layer to this.

So now Haiti is flooded with media personal, and I mean flooded. I would imagine a HUGE percentage of annual budgets are being spent on this story, and maybe that is a good thing. I asked another photographer who had been there why this was happening, why this story was being attacked in such mass and the answer was, “Because they think they can win a Pulitzer.” I’m not gonna touch that one, but it is something you have to consider.

But the real problem with this is when people blow their stack and attack a story like this, it typically doesn’t last long. You hear tales of “image fatigue,” and Haiti is about to experience this.

Then, when the time comes to really solve the situation the world is completely burned out on the story, and the media outlets don’t have the budget remaining to keep covering the story at the depth it needs to be covered.

So you have the NGO organizations suddenly becoming the only way for journalists, photographers, etc to gain access and make work. Most of these folks are working for free, or working for wages that are below poverty level, which contributes to the limitations placed on them. And you see the cycle we have created.

The photographer Sara Terry created her Aftermath Project based on this concept. Just because the bullets stop flying or the Earth stops shaking doesn’t mean the story is over.

I think it is completely unrealistic to think this is going to change anytime soon, but I for one am really growing tired of the superficial, super fast bombardment of information that seems to increase on a daily basis.

When is enough enough?

Fingers crossed for Haiti.

My Comment on The Melcher System

I just posted this comment on Paul Melcher’s blog, The Melcher System.

I really like his blog, and I think he tends to come up with topics that don’t get a lot of play. He looks more at industry trends and business tendencies. His latest post is about all the multimedia pieces regarding the death and dying of Africa, and how this is so overplayed. I think he has a valid point, and I’ve certainly had conversations with many photographers about this exact thing. He also touches on NGO work and how it seems to be what everyone wants to do now. Take a look.

First of all, I think there are plenty of good photographers doing valid and important NGO work, and in fact I have friends who do. Their heads are on right and their hearts are also in the right place. They are professional, get paid for their work, and are constantly reassessing what they are doing and if there is a way they can do it better. They are respected by the people they work with, and for, but earned this respect by being real photographers, and by not just doing what is expected. They supply more than just images. And…you have probably never heard of them.

But, I think there are also a lot of photographers who gravitate toward this work for a variety of other reasons, and I’m not sure how many of these reasons are often talked about. First, I think this work is easy. I know that might sound odd, but when you shoot things of this nature your subject matter is right there in front of you. I’m not saying it’s easy to get to, easy to look at or easy to stomach, but the contents are provided. It’s a lot different coming up with projects in your neighborhood in Brooklyn, or Boise or wherever else it is that photographers live, and there are plenty of people in these places that also need help. I’m not sure how skilled the photographer needs to be to get this imagery, perhaps you need to be a more skilled traveler, to get in and out, than a skilled person behind the lens.

I also believe that this work is as much about lifestyle as it is about the work. Hey, I think we have all had romantic notions about being photographers, and typically when we do, these notions don’t come in the form of running a portrait studio in suburbia. Most of the time these notions revolve around travel, major events, etc. I think this is natural, but again, we don’t seem to want to talk about this. Ever seen a portrait photographer in a scarf? How about photojournalist/documentary photographer? I’m guilty. After my first trip, many years ago, I came home with a scarf. A few years ago I was in a gathering of photographers in New York and we were all introducing ourselves. As my turn came I introduced myself and added, “I shoot weddings.” You could feel the air come out of the group. Photographers scattered. A friend of mine in the group asked, “Why did you do that?” I told her I just wanted to see the reaction, and a reaction there was. I do shoot a few weddings a year, and many portraits and documentary work, and I have an interesting observation. When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, if I say, “I shoot weddings,” I NEVER get a follow up question. When I say, “I shoot portraits,” I will occasionally get a follow up question. But when I say, “I’m a documentary photographer,” I get a follow up question, typically many, every single time. I don’ think there is anything surprising about this, but I think this is, again, about lifestyle. For every Elliot Erwitt, there are hundreds of photographers focusing on death and dying.

I also think that this work shows up on industry radar, Brooklyn and Boise are less likely, and can afford the photographer name recognition in the most macho of photo-circles. This is, after all, the genre that presented us with the “concerned photographer” title, which I’ve never really understood. Again, there are great photographers doing this work, but I’ve also run into a fair number who don’t really seem to be concerned about what I think we have been led to believe they are concerned about. We are all concerned about money, getting work, getting published, getting more work, doing the right thing, having those we photograph represented in the most accurate way, etc, but this seems to bounce off this crowd, masked by the “concerned” label. I think being a “concerned” photographer can also be used as a crutch for asking for more things, whereas a portrait photographer or commercial photographer maybe just has to work more to get where they are going. Anyone who does journalism, documentary, or most any other genre of photography is a “concerned” photographer. I think PDN recently did a piece titled, “Photographers Making a Difference.” I think this is a far better way of labeling these photographers and their work. In the end that is what matters. Are the images incredible? Are you making a difference?

I have also found there are huge numbers of these young, and sometimes not so young, NGO photographers who are working for FREE. Is doing volunteer work a good thing? Yes, it can be. Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place. But, I’ve found many of these photographers think that “nonprofit” means the company doesn’t make money. I’ve found photographers that don’t realize many NGO’s have a budget for photography. NGO’s are in business, so if they can get images for free, they do it. It’s not a malicious thing, it’s financial. Working for free, for me, isn’t sustainable, and frankly I’m not sure how anyone else does it.

A while back I was at an NGO gathering in Los Angeles, a fairly large gathering, and was introduced to an NGO coordinator from Latin America. Finding out I was a photographer she said, “Oh, I take advantage of you guys all day long.” I was a little surprised and when I questioned her further she said, “Photographers just don’t know the business, so we get them for free every time.” This might be an extreme example, but I think the message is true. How many times has a photographer heard, “Well, so and so is way better but so and so will do it for free.” In the end, everyone suffers, most importantly those in the photographs. We are bombarded by so much of this work, that continuing to rapidly produce the visual overload we are creating will only contribute to the image fatigue regarding places like Africa. Our technology has allowed us to mass produce incredible numbers of images, and then instantly load them into the information pipeline, flooding the world with work that frankly should have never been released. I think it would benefit everyone to slow down and create work that is top-notch, thought out and presented in ONLY the most critical of ways.

Death and the dying will always be covered, more so today than ever before, but perhaps photographers should also focus on the humanity and the glimmer of hope. I’m sure it will be a harder sell, and perhaps not viewed in the same daring regard, but you just never know. And, the outlets for this work should also widen their coverage…….I know, I’m crazy.

Writing this email made me think back to the recent Africa stories, those I can remember, and most are as you point out, war, famine, but I can also think of an education story or two . What I wonder about is farming, agriculture, transportation, commerce, the elderly, debt, the residue of colonial times, etc, and wonder where all the stories are about these topics? Maybe there out there and just not getting the chance?

Maybe the answer is that you can’t win awards with these stories?