Salt Lake City , Utah

Against Me! and the Future of Photojournalism

Blood on the guitar, No Use For a Name, Vans Warped Tour, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2002

Just for the record, the photo is not Against Me! The blood on the guitar is from No Use For a Name, who I photographed in 2002.

Last July the punk band Against Me! released the album New Wave. I rocked it for a lot of the summer, whittling it down to about five songs worth keeping in rotation. What do they say about photojournalism and multimedia at newspapers? Let’s find out…

Track 1: New Wave

We can control the medium. We can control the context, the presentation.

Covering the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster I’d drive down the winding road towards Huntington every night cranking this song and thinking about the multimedia piece I would produce for the day. The pounding drumbeat and loud lyrics about new directions and presentation control were inspiring. That’s what multimedia had come to mean to me. I was telling the story through my photos, my sound, and my edit. My personal vision went straight to the reader with no filter. It was great, but one question remained:

Well is there anybody on the receiving end?

This is the key multimedia question. Is there anybody watching these pieces? As we are pulled away from the great still photojournalism heritage we have espoused and perfected over generations, is anybody watching? As more and more outlets move toward producing video pieces by the bucketload will there be anybody on the receiving end?

We can be the bands we want to hear. We can define our own generation. Are you ready for brave new directions?

This mantra is powerful to any young (or young at heart) photographer. We can become as good as our idols. We can define our own generation of storytelling. What we do now shapes the future of photojournalism.

We are now repeatedly warned that newspapers must change or die. Am I the only one who sees that it’s not the content that is dying, but the advertising model? The readers aren’t disappearing, the advertising dollars are. We have more readers today than we ever did before. The money is what’s drying up. Video and multimedia are important, but they will not solve that bigger problem. And if still photojournalism online seems to be unimportant, is it only because most photos online seem to be miniaturized and lost in a sea of text? I wonder if the iconic photographs of history would have been remembered if they had been published smaller than a 2×3 inch business card.

Look at the Big Picture photo blog for an example of great photojournalism as it should be seen.

Track 2: Up The Cuts

I can’t sleep. Turn on the TV. Watch music on television. Have I heard this song before? Did this already happen?
Derived influence in style of dress. Similar trends in camera technique and editing.
All the tastemakers drinking from the same glass.

In this track Against Me! is singing about how every band sounds and looks the same. Wow, that’s familiar to any photographer. The amount of copycat photography out there is amazing. It’s enough to make me want to stop looking at everyone else’s work just to ensure that I’m not copying and only following my own vision. The copycat behavior is even more evident in multimedia. We all read the same tip sheets on how to do a good slideshow, so most have the same ingredients. Ever notice how many slideshows start out with this line that the tip sheets advocate: “My name is ________ and I’m a ________”? I’m as guilty as anyone for using that one. I think I’ll start using it a little more sparingly.

For all the talk about brave new worlds and fresh techniques of storytelling, so many of the same old photojournalism rulemakers are now talking about the “proper” direction of multimedia and video. They are happy to tell you which techniques look “amateur-ish.” But study the great filmmakers and you’ll see behind the curtain. I was watching a documentary on one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Stanley Kubrick, and in clips from his greatest films I was repeatedly seeing those same “amateur” techniques. Who should I look to for direction when it comes to using motion? A filmmaker like Kubrick or the syllabus from a week-long video crash course? Like Against Me!, I ask myself, ‘Will we create a new wave by listening to the same old voices?’

One thing to make clear: When it comes to ethics, tradition is critical. Integrity in photojournalism is important above all. But when it comes to creative technique there should be few limits if any. This is the time to let our vision run free.

Track 4: White People for Peace

This is an anti-war song. My kids hate it and say the lyrics are stupid. I can’t argue.

Still, this song lets me riff on a lot of the great videos out there. They are short documentaries about the poor, about people being displaced from trailer parks, and all the other societal issues that we should take note of but tend to ignore. When it comes to these pieces, no matter how well done, I’ve always wondered if the general public really cares about these stories. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether they care, but you can’t argue that people seem more interested in junk news, like celebrities and pointless chatter.

One of my favorite films is Martin Bell’s 1984 documentary Streetwise, which follows a group of homeless kids in Seattle. As great as it is, probably none of you saw it. It is a great shame that these stories don’t get the play they deserve. And I wonder, in today’s climate of lower budgets coming to newspapers, will there be money for these long-term pieces?

Now that viral videos of kids talking into their webcams get thousands more hits than an in-depth piece on an important social issue, the funding for these stories may be left solely to the passionate artists and storytellers who will carry this legacy forward. If news outlets continue to be fascinated with apartment fires and cars crashing into telephone poles…

Track 5: Stop!

I could say a lot about photojournalism with these lyrics but I hate this song. Next!

Track 7: Piss and Vinegar

I’ve heard the hype about your band, I’ve seen your video playing on the TV.
?Publicity photos in magazines, no none of it makes me feel anything.

A middle of the road opinion that no one finds offensive or challenging. ?
I’m not interested.

These lyrics could be about 99% of the photography and blog posts out there, including my own. Here is the remedy:

Just say what you’re thinking. Say what you’re really thinking.

Hopefully I’ve done that here.

  • Post category:Writing