Saturday, January 29, 2011

What Dorothea Lange's Photojournalism could teach videojournalism

Migrant Mother- Dorothea Lange - from Wikipedia Creative Commons

To any photojournalist worth their salt this iconic image should be part of their long term memory.

To any visualists (videojournalist, multimediast) this photo has never been more relevant, with regards to an era of digitlization which is drawn to immanence - the now.

To anyone watching Egypt unfurl; angst and angry crowds in the streets, this photo is telling us something profound, which goes beyond the non-nutritious commentary provided by international broadcasters from the region.

I watched a network television reports from Cairo thinking, how caught off guard, fly-in journalism had become the de facto informant. Where once it may have worked, dropping-in reportage can only but provide information based on one's immediate perception, yielding pros and cons.

The documentarists
"Migrant Mother" - the story of California's migrant pea-pickers during the austere, depressed period of the US in the 30s, showed how its author Dorothea Lange would capture that of news value yet also provide context to the news at large, The Great Depression.

There were others, who loosely or as part of the RA, the Resettlement Administration, documented across the US what may have been known, but not seen.

They included Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White and Roy E Stryker who was charged with heading up the RA and coined the aphorism:

“documentary is an approach, not a technic, an affirmation, not a negation".

They pioneered the photo essay, and gave depth to the evolving form of documentary-photojournalism.

From the work of these figures came the likes of March of Time, US Newsreel par excellence; it was like no other newsreel in its documentary approach, as such calling itself a new form of journalism, and  then there was Pare Lorentz, The Plough that Broke the Plains (film clip)

Seeking new methodologies
What is videojournalism? A gathering of videojournalism professionals at the BFI photo by attendee Don Omope

Two days ago, a group of like minded film makers, onliners, creatives et al  gathered at the British Film Institute ( BFI). Parralleling meetings over the years; in the 1950s the gathering sought answers to Free Cinema; what is it and how does it work.

Well, this group's common cause was videojournalism.  The questions the group asked in many ways  put Lange's photos into perspective.

Mark, a BBC videojournalism trainers asked: "What's different now? What has videojournalism added to the body politik of news and content that hasn't been done already. [1more on that event in another post].

In Cairo, over the next few days, and for the past few, we've had TV Networks reacting to events, attempting to explain them; generalisations,  and the ocassional hyperbole.

What we need is Dororthea with her digital film camera, whom behind the headlines would give us context; not for what she solely thinks ( after all she's choosing the shots) but what she can make us think by within context.

The notion of if it bleeds it leads is still a strong draw in news; after all it invariably involves an event which pulls on the curiosity of our voyerustic-rubber necking nature.

The event has bystanders asking each other, what happened, with each shrugging until we stumble upon that person, untrained in observations ( aren't we all?) who saw something and attempts to interpret it.

Going beyond the obvious 

In subsequent broadcasts, the comments will fly again, we might even be afforded a background piece, strung together or is that shaped to provide knowledge of the now, but even that in sociological terms is flawed.

In a day and era where cameras are cheaper, we should and could be doing more to inform; and no doubt somewhere on YouTube lay those videos: on the web is the blog and Flikr, but what really of videojournalism?

Temporal time perhaps is the Achilles, but it isn't solely the cause. 

For the pro-reporter there is much to be hopeful about, if we can surpass our instinct to fall on the tried and tested methods e.g. give em dramatic shots of streets burning, that'll bring in the audience. Yes, but it's half the story.

In the last three years I have had the opportunity of working with a new generation of videojournalists in Cairo. I was last there in December 2010 and was able to see the fruits of the videojournalists' endeavors. For the first time they were sourcing new stories - naturalism or realism stories.

  • The vendor selling kebabs
  • The woman eking a living selling cheese
  • The souvenir makers who fuel the tourism industry
  • The struggling actor wanting to emigrate

These stories gave context to understand complexities.

I likened it to my first visit to South Africa, where through the fighting spirit of one amazing BBC producer I was allowed to make the radio documentary, First Time Voters.

It involved documenting four young black South Africans about to vote in their first election who over 40 minutes educated me and hopefully other listeners about their country.

Context doesn't have to be a matter of obsfucation, at least that's why reporters are paid to do their job, but neither can it rest on the default reacting to unfolding events in which 2 minutes will suffice.

It requires going beyond the news. That's what Dororthea did, that's what videojournalism can do ( Michael Rosenblum tells his strory about his work from Gaza in the 80s and how he helped inform one of the major US TV Networks).

But to the question Mark from the BBC poses, that too needs sorting: What can videojournalism do in programming context, content and aesthetics that hasn't been done yet?

The group hopefully will meet again soon to figure out.