Asking questions with photographs

THE FUNDAMENTALS of photojournalism remain the same as ever: to tell a story, no matter what technologies the photographer is using. But some aspects of photojournalism today are different than in the past. New technologies put different pressures on photojournalists and surviving as a photographer in the media industry today is more difficult, says Aidan Sullivan, vice president of photo assignments for Getty Images UK and USA. Sullivan served as a member of the jury for Slovakia’s 2010 Journalism Award for best news photos in February and was also one of nineteen jurors that selected the World Press Photo of the Year 2010 in Amsterdam.

Aidan SullivanAidan Sullivan (Source: SITA)

THE FUNDAMENTALS of photojournalism remain the same as ever: to tell a story, no matter what technologies the photographer is using. But some aspects of photojournalism today are different than in the past. New technologies put different pressures on photojournalists and surviving as a photographer in the media industry today is more difficult, says Aidan Sullivan, vice president of photo assignments for Getty Images UK and USA. Sullivan served as a member of the jury for Slovakia’s 2010 Journalism Award for best news photos in February and was also one of nineteen jurors that selected the World Press Photo of the Year 2010 in Amsterdam.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Sullivan about how he goes about judging photos, the impact of the global economic crisis on print media, and the kinds of challenges facing the current generation of photojournalists.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You were a member of the jury for the 54th annual World Press Photo contest in January. How do you go about selecting the best photos when more than 108,000 photos were entered for 2010?
Aidan Sullivan (AS):
It is an intense process. I believe that most awards and competitions are really as good as the judges and the work entered. If you have good work and bad judges, then you’ll get a bad result. If you have good judges but no good material, it’s the same thing. I knew many members of the judging panel over a number of years, people I highly respect. I went in knowing that we had work that would be coming from Haiti, work coming from the Pakistan floods, other dreadful kinds of natural disasters and man-made disasters, so we knew from day one that there was going to be a lot of material. Everything was pretty much anonymous so I think we all identified the works we liked best; but it’s a long process, it takes many, many hours to go through the photos.

TSS: Was there a general consensus in the jury about the winning portrait by Jodi Bieber of Bibi Aisha, a woman who was disfigured as retribution for fleeing her husband's house in Afghanistan? Was it reached by discussion, by voting? How did the final decision come?
Choosing the winner is very much a case of discussion and of a voting system that is very fair and very well thought out. But in the end it was pretty much this very powerful picture that remained among the last few, and the judges discussed it and voted and it was not as long and painful as it sometimes might be. Then there was the case of why it should win, what was the picture’s strength. It was the questions that this photograph is going to lead to. When people see this image, they are going to wonder why this happened. Somebody is going to have to explain that. And I think that an image can highlight an issue and this issue is an issue that needs to be addressed. The picture is one very powerful and poignant photograph – it sums up something that was horrific.

TSS: Do you think this image can become a kind of an iconic image?
I think the chairman, David Burnett, put it very well when he said that it is so good that it could become one of those images where you ask ‘Do you know the picture with the girl?’ and then, you know, like the language we might use to describe Vietnam, the picture of the girl with napalm, everybody knows exactly what you mean. So this could be one of those photographs in 20 years’ time.

TSS: Do you think that a photo has the power to change opinions and address an issue?
It raises the issue and I think that’s all we can ask. It’s no doubt that people who have the ability and power to ask for change, to make change, use that as a vehicle to address the situation. This image is highlighting it in a very visual and very strong way that you can’t back away from. I think most people would be horrified to learn what happened to that woman – with the sanction of a supposed court giving permission to a man to do this to his wife. What we hope is that by the power of this picture, as World Press Photo will be touring the picture around the world, we’ll put the issue in front of a lot of people. And that’s what we hope; that the questions will be asked.

TSS: In your opinion what impact has the economic crisis in print media had on photojournalism?
Regarding the business part of it and the position I run, I actually liken it to the position the music industry was in about 10 years ago when Napster came along and suddenly, some pretty smart people in the music industry ran around like headless chickens and didn’t know what to do and were just panicking, panicking, panicking. And if you look now, guess what? They worked out how to do it, they have licensed the music to make money out of it, to get it in front of the public, and management companies found the way to do it themselves and generate fans for their artists. And so when I look at the crisis [in print media] I look at it as a similar crisis. And you know what? There are a lot of very smart people in our business and we tend to be up to surviving because we can think our way around problems. There is always going to be storytelling. There has been storytelling since man drew pictures on cave walls. We tell stories. We tell visually, we tell through writing, photography, illustration or art, but it is storytelling that gets passed down from generation to generation. What we are facing now is that we are going to find a new way to do that. I’m always optimistic – probably too much so and I am not making light of the situation because clearly our industry has suffered enormously, but I do believe that there’s almost light at the end of the tunnel now – subscriptions coming through Apple and Google… that’s the future. It’s a good future as long as we can make people pay for it. And if you make it good enough, smart enough, they will pay for it.

TSS: World Press Photo organisers have announced a new contest for multimedia productions. What does this indicate for photojournalism?
Photographers have been using ‘other layers’ to illustrate their material for years. Giving a voice to their pictures, be it a musical score or voiceover or ambient sound caught during the process, adds layers to the story they are trying to tell. This is storytelling in a slightly different way. Now, photographers have all the technologies at their fingertips. Cameras now are hybrids; they can do HD video as well as stills. It makes it very easy technically for photographers to create a new medium. It used to be extraordinarily expensive to run digital video alongside stills. Now it’s only one piece of a kit. So it makes it much, much easier and a richer experience for the viewer.

TSS: How has photojournalism changed since you worked for newspapers? Is the current position of a photojournalist easier than when you were working as a photojournalist, either technically, or just to survive as a photographer?
I think that every technology has its pluses and its minuses – I mean carrying digital cameras and different cards and having to get your pictures back to the picture desk in three minutes creates a lot of pressure. We used to take film, develop it and put it on transmitter and it took three hours so I don’t think that aspect is any easier now. There is more choice and I think digital is now at a stage where it can do what film couldn’t do in much lower light conditions and it’s far more flexible. But it’s a different discipline. So I think that in that aspect photojournalism has changed. I wouldn’t say it’s any easier or harder: it’s just different.

As for being a photographer in this economic environment – it is without doubt harder. There are a lot of people chasing the same amount of work. It is tough but I think most industries, or most professions, have that built-in filter. People who will survive it are the people who are determined, have the skills and are willing to put in the effort. So it is definitely tough, but there are great photographers – great young photographers – out there who are just so committed, who just know that they can’t even contemplate doing anything else. There are also so many awards and foundations and programmes that you can apply to and get funding for your projects.

TSS: You are helping these kinds of people through the Ian Parry Scholarship.
It’s not a great financial reward; it’s not a lot of money. It is certainly nice to have it especially for students when they cannot get an assignment because they do not have the experience. But this is like Catch-22. That’s why I designed the scholarship to take somebody under the age 24 who clearly has the skills, is clearly capable of creating great work, and just giving him or her that spotlight for a year. The winners get recognition in the press, in the Sunday Times which publishes their work and it is just the very first step on the ladder. We are very proud of it; it’s now coming into its 22nd year.

TSS: Why did you name the scholarship after Ian Parry?
Ian was also a photographer, but primarily we were friends. He went to cover the Romanian revolution. And – sadly – he was due to come back to London but the plane crashed. I just wanted to keep his memory alive. He was a great guy and he would have really been thrilled to see his name associated with helping young photographers. He was only 24.

TSS: Digital photography is more susceptible to alteration and manipulation. How do you think photojournalism is coping with this?
Looking again at the basics of photography, manipulation has been going on since the beginnings of photography. It’s just that these days it’s easier because of the technology and it is harder to track. But I think in basic terms it requires people and organisations like World Press Photo, Reuters and others to be absolutely strict about what we will not accept from our photographers. We have very strict guidelines about what they can or cannot do. Any manipulation of imagery at Getty Images, and I am sure also at other agencies, is absolutely not allowed. We tell them exactly what they can do even in terms of colour correction, that things should be recorded as truthfully as possible. I think that’s the only way we can try to ensure that we keep within this discipline. What we have to do as a profession is to try to keep these disciplines as traditional values intact. That is very important.

TSS: What do you think about the publication of touching, or even cruel, pictures; has it gone too far?
No, to be honest, no. The public is so used to watered-down versions of things, dumb-downed examples of things and a constant barrage of surreal celebrity lifestyles. I think the public isn’t seeing enough of reality. Then they are shocked because they are not used to that kind of thing being published. They are expecting to see a celebrity coming out of a restaurant – not people starving to death, killing each other for food. It’s biased to try to protect people from reality in a surreal way.

When I was a kid I remember seeing pictures from the Vietnam War and those were tough pictures. So no, I don’t think it is any worse now. But you have to draw a line somewhere. I remember when I was working for the Sunday Times there was a disaster at a football stadium and I had an issue with running pictures of people who were deceased – and recognisable – before their families were notified. You have to take all these things into account and I think it’s just common decency and not just trying to publish things to shock. It has to have a reason. I think it has to have an element of common decency. These people were someone’s fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. I think we had to respect that. There are rules, for sure. And there should be.

Aidan Sullivan was a member of the jury that selected the best photos for Slovakia’s 2010 Journalism Award organised by the Open Society Foundation. The winning photographers will be announced on April 14 at the Open Gallery.

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