Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010
Rather than the 'how,' IU professor's new book examines the 'why' of photojournalism
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Feb. 4, 2010
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- There have been many books about what photographers see looking through the camera lens. A new book by an Indiana University journalism professor examines what drives the people who click the shutter.
From the midpoint of the 19th century, when Matthew Brady's Civil War images first captured the fascination of a nation, through the rapidly changing digital image technologies available today, four major forces have driven photojournalism.
In his book, American Photojournalism: Motivations and Meanings (Northwestern University Press), IU journalism professor Claude Cookman describes how photojournalists have seen themselves as witnesses of history -- often with the power to advance social justice -- who also saw their subjects from a humanist perspective. Technology, of course, also plays a role.
"To see photojournalism as merely the recording of daily events misses its essence. Recognizing the motivational role of the three traditions is essential to understanding the flood of images produced each day by newspaper, agency and freelance photojournalists," Cookman said.
Most books on photography focus on historical events and people, notable images taken and who took them and when. Without neglecting these elements, Cookman's book emphasizes the how -- the evolution of photographic technology that determined what kinds of images were possible -- and the why -- what motivated the photographers taking the pictures.
"Many photographers believe they can make the world better by exposing its problems," said Cookman, an associate professor of journalism who shared in the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography that was awarded to the combined photographic staffs of The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times.
"We're seeing this right now with the earthquake in Haiti," he added. "The photojournalists are playing their role to try to help people understand this huge natural catastrophe and what we as citizens of the world can do to help these poor folks . . . To make that happen, they're going to have to show the Haitian people as humans with dignity, just like us.
"Those big, defining ideas that photojournalists work under are there (in Haiti), but the technology is as well. If this happened 20 years ago, the photographers would have been scrambling to try and find someone who could carry their film back to the United States to be processed," he said. "Now they can take the picture, plug it into their laptop, edit it and call up on their cell phone and transmit it to their publication . . . The technology has enabled us to have instantaneous communication."
Throughout his career, Cookman's scholarship has focused on the history of photography. His earlier book, A Voice is Born, was about the early years of the National Press Photographers Association, and he has written extensively about the "father of modern photojournalism," Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Anderson, Ind., native was a picture editor at the Associated Press in New York, The Louisville Times and The Miami Herald before coming to teach at IU in 1990.
"Most photographers work out of a tradition of photographic humanism, where they're trying to empathize with their subjects, they're trying to help the viewers who look at their pictures understand people who are different. They treat their subjects with respect," he said.
This is evident, he said, when one studies the images of newspaper reporter Jacob Riis, who taught himself photography in order to document the deplorable conditions of people living in New York's Lower East Side in the 1880s and '90s. Cookman also points to the work of Louis Hine, whose images exposed the use of child labor in cotton mills; and Dorothea Lange's iconic image of "Migrant Mother" Florence Thompson during the Great Depression.
With the advent of the Internet, anyone today with a camera and a modem can bypass censors and journalism gatekeepers. As an example, Cookman points to the photos taken of the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison by an Army specialist.
"While editors and industry leaders concentrate on the ethical issues created by the digital era, the effects of amateur access to the mass communication of images may be more profound," he writes. "Driven by the profit motive, corporations develop new cameras, computers and software at an increasingly rapid pace. Innovations are adopted first by organizations and professionals. Soon they become cheap enough for mass production and percolate down to the amateur level.
"Photojournalism will continue to undergo rapid technological transformation, and amateur photography will follow close behind."
However, despite the increasing role of such citizen journalists, Cookman believes there always will be a role for professional photojournalists.
"I don't think this is going to replace or push out professional photographers," he said. "The publications -- even when they go to being completely available on the Web -- are always going to want pictures of events that people may not necessarily think of photographing. They're going to want illustrations for their stories that no citizen photographer would do. They're going to want pictures of a higher quality, ones that convey a narrative.
"It's not just the technical quality -- it's the vision."