In our recent interview with photography consultant and former VII Photo CEO Stephen Mayes, he shared his ideas about how photojournalists can stay relevant in the 21st century. He had provocative things to say about current photojournalism practices that we didn’t have room to include in the print edition of PDN. Here are some excerpts. (The interview that appeared in print is now available at PDNOnline.com)
We asked Mayes whether photojournalists still need to learn from 20th century masters, such as Henri Cartier Bresson or W. Eugene Smith. Mayes responded that their work has to be viewed in the context of their times. Photojournalists have always responded to their markets, and to the available distribution platforms, Mayes said. And as markets change, he argues, photojournalists also need to change. “Culture moves, media changes, expectations shift, and we no longer have to limit ourselves to a front cover and eight spreads [pictures] to tell the entire story of a nation, or whatever it might be.
And by the way, all these things which we see as being the natural form of photojournalism were commercially shaped by the magazines and the advertising structures they needed to support. It’s wrong to say Gene Smith worked the way he did because that’s how God created photojournalism. It wasn’t! It was because that’s what LIFE demanded. And we now have an oversupply of photojournalists that was developed to supply a market which no longer exists.”
Mayes also argues, “With 2 billion pictures uploaded every day, there are a lot of other applications for photography. And the point we need to be aware of is not how clever we are as photojournalists, we need to be aware of what are people looking at and what are they responding to. And we have to speak their language. And it’s not a matter of kowtowing to the masses, it’s a matter of being an effective communicator [and] trying different ways to tell a better story.”
New forms aren’t replacing the old, but they are becoming more dominant, he says. We asked him for examples. He replied, “The incidental moment. The Everyday phenomenon I think is very telling. When everyday Africa was conceived by Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, everyone got it. It’s a simple concept, it’s a brilliant concept, and it just exploded. The particular images can include decisive moments. But predominantly the Everyday is not decisive moments. It is the ordinary. And in the ordinary is truth.” He also cited Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur’s approach and commitment, noting, “It’s just that Ed he is supremely effective in using [visual media], and he gets it published, he gets it distributed, he finds all these different applications, and he supports it with a social media feed.
“That to me is the key: we have to find the effective ways of reaching our audience. The medium is less important than the message. One of the things I find very frustrating is that the journalistic world is so hung up on format, that it ties itself in knots. And you see this at the World Press Photo—you move one pixel and somehow the story’s invalid. Plainly, this is nonsense. I understand exactly why the World Press has to maintain that position. I totally get it. But it’s nonsense. For The New York Times to have its standards and say, ‘This is how you MUST see the world. You must participate in the process precisely this way or else the story isn’t valid’—is nonsense! It’s a way of telling the story, it’s an extremely limiting way of telling the story, and it behooves all of us to take a broader view and say, ‘Actually, we can break those rules, if it works.’ And that doesn’t mean alternative truths and fake news and all that bullshit. To me, the issue is honesty more than facts. It has to be about truth.”
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