At a time of cost cutting for media budgets, lots of news organizations imagine that user-generated content can fill the void. But the recent failure of crowd-sourced news photos of Hurricane Sandy, and the shortage of coverage of other climate change-fueled disasters around the world, demonstrate how far we are from truly democratizing the medium of photography. Photographers worry that the lowering of technological barriers means “everyone’s a photographer now,” but in fact, the number of people who can take and share news photos is still limited by economics, infrastructure and geography.
Now that news organizations have quit crowd-sourcing instantaneous images of the approaching storm, we are seeing enterprising professional photojournalists who are focused less on flooded tunnels and wrecked cars, and have been seeking out the less obvious stories behind the slow process of rebuilding, rehousing the displaced, and supporting those underserved by relief efforts. (The New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson’s November 2 coverage of people coping without power, elevators, heat or a sense of security on the upper floors of public housing projects is one example.)
Among the critics of the media’s immediate response to the storm, photographer Kenneth Jarecke and Prison Photography’s Pete Brook (who gathered a round-up of storm coverage) seem most irked by the poor quality of many of the images editors chose to publish (by professionals commissioned to shoot on iPhones and by amateurs). “Most of the photographs are REALLY bad,” Jarecke wrote. “It’s history. It changes people’s lives. You’re not allowed to make excuses or drop the ball, but sadly most of you did.”
As a New Yorker who was seeking up-to-date information about friends and loved ones the day after the storm made landfall, I’ll forgive esthetic lapses in favor of timely and useful information. The problem was, amateur photographers don’t seem to know how to write captions, and they lack journalistic instincts.
During a panel discussion at ASMP’s “Sustainable Business Models: Issues & Trends Facing Visual Artists” symposium, Stephen Mayes, managing director of the VII Photo Agency warned photographers not to think of themselves strictly as service providers. He suggested looking not for clients, but for “partnerships.” He said VII has successfully formed several such partnerships, in which the entity paying for the photos isn’t necessarily the same company that’s using the photos. One such partnership is the VII Photo Agency’s recent work creating videos and photo essays for Think Outside the Cell, a non-profit organization that works with the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and their families to help end the stigma of incarceration
The campaign was funded by the Ford Foundation, and VII acted as Think Outside the Cell’s “exclusive visual communications partner,” according to the press release from VII. The photographs and video that VII photographers created for the Think Outside the Cell web site show the ordinary lives of people who were formerly incarcerated in order to raise awareness about the stigma and challenges they face upon release from prison— problems that go far beyond discrimination when applying for jobs. The stories the photographers tell also explore “the local, state and federal laws that prevent formerly incarcerated persons from accessing the resources necessary to establish a stable and productive life.”
The first of the videos, ten minutes long, debuted on the Think Outside the Cell web site this week. It’s a collaboration between Ed Kashi, Jessica Dimmock, Ashley Gilbertson and Ron Haviv; the videos are edited by Francisco Fagan.
Here’s a short trailer:
The Prison Photography blog has begun a five-part series on the Think Outside the Cell campaign, and will be running weekly interviews with each of the photographers. Part One of the series was posted this week. In it, writer Pete Brook talks to Sheila Rule and Joseph Robinson, co-founders of Think Outside The Cell, and one of the subjects featured in the video. They explain how the organization is addressing the problems of the formerly incarcerated, how the campaign was planned, and why the partnership with VII was, in Rule’s words, “a natural fit.” Says Rule, “We are both driven by storytelling. Stories change hearts and minds.”