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Does Haiti's Crisis Call for a New Photojournalism?by Michael David Murphy

Does Haiti’s Crisis Call for a New Photojournalism?
Michael David Murphy
21 Jan 2010

Last week’s crisis in Haiti has yielded a significant response from photographers and editors in the photojournalism community. Photographers were sent to Haiti on assignment, and others left for the Carribean on spec to document the devastation and help tell the tragic story.

In looking at the various outlets for imagery from Haiti, I’m wondering if there might be a new way that photojournalism could capture a story of this magnitude, and if the current, traditional way in which multiple media outlets send multiple photographers to places of crisis has preventable pitfalls of its own.

Currently (from what I can tell) regardless of their media outlet (the New York Times, AFP, Reuters, CNN), many of the photographers (with few exceptions) are taking very similar pictures. There’s an unbelievable amount of redundancy, which, in the end, means the entire story isn’t being told.

Sure, there’s clearly an unbelievable amount of devestation and destruction to “cover”, which is why the photographs tend to look the same. But why couldn’t these media outlets band together to paint a wider, deeper, more involved picture of what’s really happening in Haiti?

Are conflict photographers, or the kinds of photographers who are on the first flights into situations like Haiti, more experienced in reacting to quickly evolving events, rather than telling a story that spans a sequence of pictures? It looks like everyone’s running around trying to photograph the next iconic image that will win a World Press Photo award, rather than trying to visually tell the stories of the Haitian people.

Some “Palace Gates Helicopter Redundancy” from Reuters and AP:

© AP, Ricardo Arduengo

© AP, Gregory Bull

© Reuters, Carlos Barria

© Reuters, Bianca Marin

Why don’t media outlets join forces to divide and conquer the enormity of a situation like Haiti’s? Media outlets could assign individual photographers to follow one aspect of the Haiti story, and the story could be published by all participating outlets. An editor could send a photographer to cover one or a few of these:

  • Hospitals: existing and mobile
  • Infrastructure: destruction, rebuilding, and homespun improvisations
  • Utilities: the effort to restore power, water, sewer
  • Burials: cemeteries and mass graves
  • Architecture: visual analysis of loss of historic sites and improvised temporary structures
  • Orphans: the newly orphaned, and survivors at orphanages
  • Law enforcement: the struggle of a decimated police force in its attempts to establish security/safety
  • The full story of one particular building; covering the families affected, the rescuers, the role of that building within the community, pre-quake and post-quake
  • The global response: up-close and personal photo stories with specialised teams; doctors, firefighters, K-9 rescue units, etc…
  • A community where a family with more resources is helping their less fortunate neighbors

We’re beginning to see some of these specific assignments. Damon Winter, who’s taken some striking single images, just published a longer essay on the Port-au-Prince prison. Perhaps it’s just the nature of an unfolding disaster that the first pictures tend to be more sensational, reactionary, and less about telling a story. This week, The Times embedded a videographer aboard the USN Comfort, which will be very interesting. And it’s taken a week, but the Times is finally starting to branch-out and develop some of these specific stories here.

I would have liked to have seen a story following a single family through the first week’s quake aftermath. Where’s that story? Do photographers leave those more in-depth pieces to writers (Jon Anderson’s short interview brought the scene alive for me in a way that photographs have not) in favour of more action-shots of survivors wrestling over what’s been left in a collapsed store?

Ron Haviv, a seasoned photographer of desperate situations, intimates that photographers are working on video pieces. Perhaps these pieces take more time to develop, produce, and deliver.

“The way our mind works and the way that we remember things, I think, will ensure that still photography will be a powerful tool of communication. It’s just a matter of finding the balance.”

A few more quick examples of photographic duplication and redundancy in Haiti:

© Chris Hondros, New York Times

© Jonathan Torgovnik/ Reportage for CNN

© AFP, Olivier Laban Mattei

If the global community truly cares about Haiti, its people, and the country’s future, shouldn’t we be telling a deeper story than flooding the wires with pictures of looting, scrambling, fighting, and begging?

I’ve never photographed a dead body, and I’ve never photographed conflict. But as a consumer of imagery, and as someone with a keen interest in how photographers represent the world around them, one can’t help but notice that there’s something missing in all of this coverage.

I’d love to hear how I’m wrong. Here are some truly unique views that stopped me and seemed to show a way forward, illuminating what appeared to be small, complex truths about Haiti, its people, and this crisis.

Damon Winter inside a building where quake survivors are taking goods.

© Damon Winter/The New York Times

Damon Winter again, at a church service:

© Damon Winter/The New York Times

Chris Hondros, outside the US Embassy

© Chris Hondros/ Getty Images

And Damon Winter again, early in the week, outside the Palace gates:

© Damon Winter/The New York Times

If there’s an iconic photograph from the disaster, it might belong to Daniel Morel, a Haitian photographer who lived through the earthquake, and was on-the-ground during the most desperate moments. It seems fitting that this image, made by a Haitian who’s been documenting his country for the last 25 years, has been so widely published.

© Daniel Morel/ AFP-Getty
Does Haiti’s Crisis Call for a New Photojournalism?
Michael David Murphy | 21 Jan 2010 | Blogs

by Suvendu Chatterjee at 2010-01-22 02:18:44 UTC | Bookmark | | Report spam→

In going to cover any story, in the “back yard” or on the other side of the world, the journalist must ask himself what his presence does to the ecology of the region. Whether a rich doctor with a Leica on a death-porn vacation or a paid staffer from Getty with a clear assignment, this rings true.

The problem with Haiti is not the coverage, or the people covering it. It’s the WAY it’s being covered; the overlap. It’s downright disrespectful to embark on a project like that only to run in the pack of journalists from photo op to photo op.

And that’s precisely why I would argue against “pooling” these happenings. Of course, I would also argue against journalists just deciding to “go in” in a willy-nilly fashion as well. I also refrain from churching it up into “helping people with a camera.”

Pooling photographers would result in the same “media safari” images we see from bloody near every other pool event. 5-10 photogs all shooting from the same rail with the same equipment trained on the same subjects.

I have a lot of contacts that would give me good access in Haiti, and yet I am not there. I’ll go at some point, but I don’t think that my being there would do anything for them or for me, or for the media outlets already deluging the region with Nikons and Sonys.. Once things have calmed down, and the “new normal” of life in Haiti kicks in; when CNN and the American public (hey, it’s my market) have forgotten about Haiti, then I might go.

And I won’t do it pretending it will directly help any single living soul on the whole bloody island. But it might help keep attention on the long-term rebuilding process.

The blame goes to those who have no training or preparedness to be there. Those individuals who simply expect to hitch a ride everywhere and enjoy in-flight food and beverages. It lies with news stations sending 25 or more people to cover a relatively small region.

Why pay some airhead from CNN to ask people, “What was it like to be trapped in fallen rubble for 35 hours?” Does that airhead need 23 other people behind him to get that feed back to Atlanta in this age of bgans and satphones?

How many of the guys here who routinely go into shitstorms do so with a crew? I bet practically none.

Every time we go anywhere and do anything, we are an impact. The goal is to be as small an impact as possible.

I love what I do, and I hope to whatever deity might be in charge of this shithole that it might enlighten someone somewhere or do some good otherwise. But I also fully accept that its what puts food on my table. Big stories can mean big paychecks.

Journalists need to accept doing more with less, mitigating their interference, and being true to themselves about their reasons for being will allow them to tell a much more complete and respectful story; and determine what to cover and when to “go in.”

At that point, whether there’s one photog or a thousand at the next Haiti-magnitude story they will barely be noticed; save for the photos and video coming back.

Flame away.

by Will Seberger | 22 Jan 2010 20:01 | Tucson, Arizona, United States | | Report spam→
Well, I do agree to you with certain points you raised or rather pointed out. Shall try to share in a broader perspective on ‘Fodder reporting of the disasters in the world whether Haiti or Tsunami..’
Please bear with me of the time constraint.

by Suvendu Chatterjee | 23 Jan 2010 01:01 | New York, United States | | Report spam→
“Death-porn”? Brutal!

Will’s post makes me slightly uncomfortable – aren’t photographers supposed to go from photo-op to photo-op? What are the writers doing?

by Vish Vishvanath | 23 Jan 2010 08:01 | Big Island, Hawaii, United States | | Report spam→
You are absolutely right. Resources are being wasted, people are traveling in herds (not packs) Herds!!! I was downtown yesterday and walked into an area with a couple looters. I turned around and was in the way suddenly of eight photo jockeys with scarves and cargo pants. Who the hell are these people? They cant have work because they are ill-equipped, some with one body and one lens and know laptop food or water. This is a very large problem.

I have spoken to an humanitarian worker who told me she saw a photog throwing bottles of water out of a moving TapTap and shooting the the people scrambling to grab them. This is not journalism. The same aid worker watched a photog push the woman of a dying man at the hospital out of the way so she could get a better angle on his suffering. How many shots of sick, hurt, dying people do you need?

I believe in the cause but do not believe in the means. The city is so filled with “journalists” at this point that there are few cars for hire for the doctors to transport and the best fixers are taken.

Another aid worker was shocked that there were more people shooting then helping.

I came in and did my three assignments and now i am leaving. May be back in a week, but I refuse to allow this place to become a camera jockey playground.

Stick together, work hard, tread lightly, DO GOOD. If you are coming here to shoot for portfolio or spec, volunteer the moment that this devestation really hits you.



by Nick Weissman | 23 Jan 2010 14:01 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Nick, if that is true then it’s pretty sickening that ‘photographers’ would behave in such a fashion. It’s always a fine line between getting in the way and covering such an event, but when in doubt remember that you are a human being first and a photographer second. It’s not a photo opportunity but a humanitarian crisis. I’m in full agreement with Nick-especially the tread lightly bit. Do the job, don’t get in the way or use up resources meant for the relief effort and be sensitive to the plight of the people involved, be they victims or people helping the survivors.

by JR, (John Watts-Robertson). | 23 Jan 2010 15:01 | rothwell, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
Nick – this is almost as horrific as the crisis itself. For the purposes of keeping myself calm, I’m going to imagine that these are tourists and not journalists of any sort.

Cannot comprehend why and how these people are there, however. What a burden.

by Vish Vishvanath | 23 Jan 2010 16:01 | Big Island, Hawaii, United States | | Report spam→
I find the subject of discussion very pertinent. Haiti is just a point of reference for all of us here. While we’re questioning the role of photojournalists, and very rightly so, I feel we should also be looking at the role played by the ‘editors’. The photojournalist is getting feeds from his boss- the editor. It is the editor who decides which image gets published and which not. And if the editor gives his/her photojournalist a clear brief, in this case as an example. an in-depth photo reportage from one of the topics suggested in the above postings, then they can go ahead and perhaps do a better job than they’re presently.

Sharbendu De

by Sharbendu De | 01 Feb 2010 20:02 | London, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
Nice post Will, thanks. I agree. Its the pack press that turn the story into a “one dimensional” circus, framed by the interests of Western audience……for CNN its show business. For others its awful reporting, fed by NGOs and the US government. Photo ops of food giveaways give the impression food is getting through, when in reality it isn’t. For every rescue, thousands in tent cities with no sanitation……..some fight there way through this…..look at Bruno, how the captions and the photos contradict.

Everyone tries to do their best…..its just that the hard news aspect really is cold, and the longer story yet to develop, so folks are maybe in a bit, over their head and it shows. Please no allegations about photographers taking up vans used by ambulances….this is false, most photogs are on MOTOS, only TV crews would be in vans.

Where are the Red Cross ambulances however— that really is a story. Where is the Red Cross money, the $500 million US money, where the fuck is all of it? Keep your eyes on the big pictiures folks.

by [former member] | 01 Feb 2010 21:02 | | Report spam→
Sharbendu hit the nail on the head … it comes down to economics.

Don’t forget news is a business and editors want shots that can sell. Simple as. The most bankable shot is a young child being pulled out of the rubble, so that’s what many photogs are forced to chase.

Too much time has been spent criticizing the puppet and not the master.

by duckrabbit | 02 Feb 2010 10:02 | UK, United Kingdom | | Report spam→

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Suvendu Chatterjee, Photographer/Photo Editor Suvendu Chatterjee
Photographer/Photo Editor
(Director,Drik India)
[undisclosed location].
Will Seberger, Photojournalist Will Seberger
(Freelance Visual Journalist)
Tucson, Arizona , United States ( TUS )
Vish Vishvanath, Photographer/PJ Vish Vishvanath
London , United Kingdom ( LHR )
Nick Weissman, Visual Journalist Nick Weissman
Visual Journalist
(Weissman Studio)
Brooklyn , United States ( JFK )
JR, (John Watts-Robertson)., Photographer JR, (John Watts-Robertson).
Rothwell , United Kingdom
Sharbendu De, Documentary Photographer Sharbendu De
Documentary Photographer
New Delhi , India
duckrabbit, Journalism duckrabbit
(sparks may fly)
Uk , United Kingdom


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