Meta-narrative: Fred Ritchin on the future of photojournalism

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By Fred Ritchin in British Journal of Photography

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Photographer Balazs Gardi co-created the experimental media project Basetrack, which documents the deployment of the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, at Combat Outpost 7171 in Helmand, Afghanistan. Image © Balazs Gardi / Basetrack.org

Ensuring the future of photojournalism rests in more complex narrative formats, believes Fred Ritchin, who spoke with Laurence Butet-Roch ahead of the release of his new essay, Bending the Frame

Author: Laurence Butet-Roch / Polka Magazine

02 Aug 2013Tags: PhotojournalismBooks

As the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper was making plans to lay off its entire photography staff, Fred Ritchin was putting the final touches to his latest opus, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen. Keenly aware of the current dismal state of traditional media, the former picture editor of The New York Times Magazine and professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts prefaces his essay with 16 questions and two pages full of interrogations about the future of news – photography in particular.

Looking at a world where “image-making has become a form of communication nearly as banal, instinctive and pervasive as talking”, Ritchin asks: “Do we need – even more than we need photographers – metaphotographers who are capable of sorting through some of the billions of images now available, adding their own and contextualising all of them so they become more useful, more complex and more visible?” In other words: “How does today’s image-maker create meaningful media?”

Proliferation
To say that the wealth of images found online is overwhelming is an understatement. Absolute numbers are difficult to aggregate but, according to Fortune magazine, 10 percent of all the photographs ever taken were shot in 2011. The following year, while the Pew Research Center reported that 46 percent of American adult internet users post original photos or videos online, Facebook announced that seven petabytes – that is six zeros more than a gigabyte – of new photos were added to its servers every month. This equates to roughly 300 million images posted every day on Facebook alone. And according to Yahoo!’s estimation, in 2014 alone more than 880 billion images will be taken.

“There is an extraordinary need to make sense of the billions and billions of images available online,” says Ritchin. “Photographs originating from different sources need to be confronted with one another to figure out whether they are overlapping or contradicting each other.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, the author sees this evolving media landscape as an opportunity for photographers to expand their visual language, and for traditional media to revisit the way in which it interacts with its audience.

Nowadays, photojournalists – competing for what little work is left – are under extreme pressure to produce an arresting double-page spread at low cost and in a short space of time. “What this does is reduce the visual vocabulary,” says Ritchin. “For example, references to the Madonna holding a child keep coming up in all kinds of pictures because it is recognisable.” Recently, it was Samuel Aranda’s photograph, which won the World Press Photo Award in 2012, of a Yemeni mother cradling her son suffering from the effects of tear gas that was compared to a modern-day Pietà. A few months later, Edouard Elias’ image of a wounded Syrian man was likened to the Deposition of Christ. However effective these images are, their recurrence may well eventually tire the viewer.

A solution can be found in the very web platforms that traditional media is slowly getting a grip on, says Ritchin. “If a photographer has an Instagram account and a large number of followers, he does not necessarily need a magazine for people to see what he is witnessing and photographing. One now has the potential for more authority in the sense of authoring; one has to have a vision, as well as the resources and strategies to get his opinion across.

“Photographers can show their work in a more complex and interesting way. It is the difference between trying to say everything in one sentence or in five pages.”

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Susan Meiselas’ mural project installation, Re-Framing History, is based on the original photographs she took in 1978 of the popular insurrection against Somoza © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

Freed from the limitations inherent in print publications, the photographic community can devote itself to inventing in a new long-form photo essay. Yet, laments Ritchin, rather than experimenting with the unique characteristics of the internet – non linearity, audience engagement, image- mapping (where different parts of the photographs lead to different information) – most web pages are emulating print media or video. “The revolution has yet to happen,” he claims.

“Marshall McLuhan [the media theorist] believes we were all going at 90 miles an hour looking in the rear-view mirror. We think we are moving forward when in reality we are simply copying older methods. The advent of cinema was like filming theatre – early photography imitated paintings.”

In 1996, inspired by the potential of non-linear narratives (Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a book in which readers can rearrange 16 sonnets, would later become a reference point for him) Ritchin, who had previously been picture editor of The New York Times Magazine, produced Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace with Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. “The reader could follow a path of his devising to understand the civil war. He became a co-author. The confusion on screen evoked the chaos on the field. It is still one of the most complex attempts in new documentary photography storytelling that I am aware of. That was 17 years ago.”

Many of the subsequent exemplary projects he cites – from Jennifer Karady’s re-enactments based on the experiences recounted by war veterans, or Laurie Jo Reynolds’ involvement with inmates in a maximum- security prison, or The New York Times’ Watching Syria’s War, a page where videos emanating from Syrian sources are decrypted by viewers – involve not only the readers but also the subjects. “Today, through crowdsourcing and citizen journalism, there is a lot more knowledge available. It goes beyond what a week-long assignment in Libya might accomplish. How can you know Libya in a week? You can’t. But if you make your images, have people from there comment on them, or show their own and allow the reader to participate as well, then you have access to more layers of meaning. Combining the points of view of professionals with those of the subjects is much more useful.”

Storytelling
Over a decade ago, Ritchin created PixelPress to encourage new forms of storytelling and foster more partnerships, namely with non-governmental or international organisations. He worked with Sebastião Salgado and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to produce a body of work that would compel viewers to support the fight against polio, and created several platforms, such as ‘The New World Order: Where are we now?’ and ‘Democracy in America’, calling for contributions from people in all walks of life using a variety of mediums to express their concerns. Although such initiatives are complex, the experienced photo editor dismisses claims that they are costly. “Small projects can actually be inexpensive. If you wanted 500 eight-year-olds to photograph their breakfast in one hundred different countries around the world [and put their photos online], we might learn more about one another’s eating habits than what Le Monde or The New York Times could ever tell us. And how much would it cost to do so? Very little. It is really the framework that we have to figure out.”

However, traditional media’s reluctance to do so might have more to do with economics. Consumed with the necessity to maintain readership, they have focused on speed and efficiency – attributes they believe their readers seek. When thanking its photo staff, the Chicago Sun-Times justified its decision by asserting that “our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. As a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”

A similar faith awaited PixelPress, which halted its online activities after six years of operation. “I was hoping that, at some point, there would be a support system for our web publications to continue. But advertisers found us too political and readers were already used to being able to consult everything for free,” says Ritchin.

Despite that setback, he does not concede defeat. Last year, he organised What Matters Now, a two- week exhibition run in association with the Aperture Foundation. On the first day, the walls of the gallery were bare. Through discussions, lectures and public involvement, they were filled with what the audience felt was important imagery from around the world.

“Imagine,” he exhorts, “if we got to a point where 100,000 people were each willing to pay three dollars a month for a group of people to filter the important images and stories from around the world, then we would have enough money to create a new form of the front page and to assign photographers, videographers, painters and writers to do new kinds of stories.”

The wealth of material readily available, the medley of sources from all parts of the world, and the myriad readers’ comments, would then be arranged in a way that is useful and coherent, as opposed to an unintelligible mass.

“Everybody should be involved in trying to create that model – the photographers, the students, the artists, the filmmakers, the writers, and the small and large publications,” he urges.

“Young people have an enormous potential to make an impact, as well as a responsibility to figure out new media formats. If print media disappears, and no suitable alternative is created to replace it, you are left with an information void that is damaging for society, for democracy and for citizenship,” says Ritchin. “Citizen journalism is not just about producing the content, but also about supporting journalism and helping each other to create and curate it.”

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Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, by Fred Ritchin, is published by Aperture; www.aperture.org.

Dimitri Beck, the editor of Polka Magazine, worked with Drik in the Fredskorpset Partnership. Pathshala alumni Nazrul Islam was working with him while on placement from Drik in Aina, in Kabul. Aina was set up by Reza Deghati, one of the first tutors of Pathshala.

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