The tools change but the profession stays the same

At Washington & Lee University recently, the communications professor introduced me to his class as a “visual journalist.”

A few weeks earlier, another prof at Hollins University called me a “multi-media storyteller.”

Over the years, what I do for a living has come under many titles.  I’ve been a photojournalist, a journalist who takes photographs, a reporter, a photographer, a newspaperman, an ink-stained newspaperman and a visualist.

Lots of titles for what basically is still one job.  I report on what happens in the world through words, pictures and – more and more often – video.

The world’s first journalists reported on the events of their day through drawings and carvings on cave walls.  Later reporters wrote on scrolls and drew rudimentary pictures.  You could say the authors of the various books of the Bible were the journalists of their time, writing down what they saw, heard or were told.

What we do as reporters hasn’t changed.  How we do it changes almost daily in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world.

I took my first photo for publication with a twin-lens reflex Yashicamat.  Later I would use a 4×5 Speed graphic – the standard “press camera” for the time.  In following years, I would graduate to a 35mm Nikon F and then up through a progression of cameras to the digital single-lens-reflex Canons that I use today.

I wrote my first newspaper story in longhand on sheets of lined paper in a notebook, followed by a manual typewriter, then an IBM Selectric.  Like many reporters in the 1980s, the Radio Shack TRS-100 become my on-the-road, electronic traveling companion with its great keyboard, long battery life and tiny lcd screen.  Nowadays, I churn out copy on a Mac in the offices of Capitol Hill Blue an iPad or a MacBook Pro, depending on locale.

For video, I can choose from a digtal SLR like the Canon 5D, Mk II or 7D, a large, shoulder-mounted HD Videocam like the Panasonic AG-HMC80 or a compact HD cam like the Sony 560V.  Each has a purpose unique to certain tasks.  Each can produce broadcast quality video or high-definition images for web use.

Yet a growing number of “visual journalists” are leaving their big, expensive toys at home and depending on an iPhone as their tool of choice.  New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter won third place in last year’s Pictures of the Year features category for a series of photos of American troops at war – all taken with an iPhone and processed with a filtering application called Hipstamatic.

His award generated controversy.  Traditionalists sneered at the Winter’s non-traditional use of a camera phone as a journalistic tool.  Some felt the filtering effects of the Hipstamatic application violated the Times’ own policy when it comes to altering the context of photographs.

But Winter proved something I’ve long believed.  When it comes to photography, it’s not the tool that a shooter uses but the eye behind the tool that composes the picture and tells the story.

It’s only a matter of time before someone wins a Pulitzer Prize for a photo taken with a camera phone.  With so many of the littler buggers out there, someone – somewhere – will capture the right moment of a major news event and produce an image that will flash around the world and catch everyone’s attention.

Winter didn’t have to lug a camera bag filled with a couple of $5,000 digital SLRs and several lenses around for his assignment.  Instead, he composed his photos and shot them with a small, unobtrusive camera phone.

The debate continues, just like the debates that have raged over the years about what we – as reporters – should call ourselves.

Let’s hope the debate never gets in the way of our main goal:  Doing our jobs.

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3 Responses to "The tools change but the profession stays the same"

  1. Sandy Price  April 24, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Thank you Chief for sharing your background in photo journalism. I come from a long line of journalists myself. The women of the pioneers had a sense of history in what they were doing including the crossing of the plains on their way to Deseret (Salt Lake City) where many died. Their journals lived on and were continued until the wars broke them up.

    They even started their own religion and realized they were considered breeders over being individuals. They wrote of their experiences without a camera. It’s all there even their birth control methods and all kinds of healing salves taken from nature; all a gift from the Native Americans. The Temple shuns many of these journals so we know they must be true.

    We love your articles about how you started out and we admire what you have done with your expderience.

  2. Jim B.  April 24, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Fascinating, Doug!…I really liked this sentence: “When it comes to photography, it’s not the tool that a shooter uses but the eye behind the tool that composes the picture and tells the story.”

    Don’t you think it’s the same with writing? It’s not the hardware or software used for writing that’s most important. It’s how the words chosen are strung together.

    So, the human mind is the true source of creativity in photography and writing. Human experience, learning, and decisions produce a prize-winning (or at least superlative) photo/story or the opposite or something in-between.

  3. Sandy Price  April 24, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    That was nicely said Jim.

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