What Value Do Photos Have in Everyday News Consumption?

We asked Chicagoans about photojournalism that they found impactful, and how they would use photos to portray their own neighborhoods.

City Bureau
Apr 22 · 9 min read

By Max Herman, Caroline Olsen and Youngrae Kim

On a recent Saturday this April, City Bureau’s photo team stopped by the Chicago Cultural Center to find out how people are feeling about photos in the news. Talking with both Chicago residents and visitors, we asked about the importance of captions, what images have had an impact on them and how they would like to see their community portrayed visually. We heard a lot of skepticism about the media as a whole and also some strong ideas of how neighborhoods can be represented in a more positive light.

Angel Ang (left) with mother Ching Liu (Photo: Caroline Olsen)

Angel Ang, 27, Hong Kong

How do you feel Hong Kong is displayed in the news?

I feel like newspapers sometimes are controlled by the government so what you’re seeing is not really what happened or maybe there’s politics behind it… especially in China.

And do you feel like that affects how you value the photos you see?

Yes, definitely… photos speak more to what is actually happening.

If you were a photographer, how would you portray Hong Kong?

If you really want to show Hong Kong, I would show more local people because that’s the most real thing to do.

Daniella Antilla (Photo: Caroline Olsen)

Daniella Antilla-Porter, 32, Uptown

What’s a photo that you saw in the news that you remember for whatever reason?

Probably one of the most impactful for me were some of the initial ones of Obama in the White House, especially bent over the desk in the Oval Office because it was such a historic moment, and I love the idea that I was part of that moment in history because, you know, I voted for him. So just that idea of being a part of something that is going to be talked about in every history book ever.

What do you think about photo representation of Chicago as a whole?

I think that it’s usually very idealistic. Especially of a life most Chicagoans don’t get to lead, like downtown life and the glamour of the tall buildings that most people don’t get to work in.

If you were representing Uptown as a photographer, what would you show?

I would probably try to capture some of the little shops along Broadway, because honestly, a lot of them are hiding gems and I like the idea that it may not look impressive but it is.

Rashid Chapeyama (Photo: Max Herman)

Rashid Chapeyama, 30, Ukrainian Village

What value do you put in photos when you’re looking at a news story?

I just think it’s capturing the true meaning behind that photo. Cause you know, with photos people can take things out of context. You never really know what’s really happening with that photo — there’s always multiple sides to a story than what they’re saying in an article or in the media.

Can you think of an image in the news that stood out to you from any neighborhood you lived in or that you called home?

I lived in [Pilsen] for four years and I remember moving to Chicago and every time I saw images of Pilsen in the media they were always negative… they all said there was lot of gang violence there. And I lived over there for four years and I didn’t see a whole lot of that — it was just a lot of families trying to make a living. And then now you see Pilsen as just gentrified. It’s a lot of 5-star restaurants, you know fancy stuff, but I just think if you’ve never been to Pilsen, you see images of Pilsen as just negative — like gangs, a bad neighborhood, low income and that sort of thing. But there’s a lot of culture and family.

So if you could see Pilsen portrayed differently, would you focus more on families?

It was my favorite neighborhood that I’ve lived in. There’s a lot of culture and families and kids there — a lot of schools and a lot of culture and history — more than any neighborhood I’ve been to. From looking at images of the neighborhood, you wouldn’t really get that I guess.

Jaida Croaker (Photo: Caroline Olsen)

Jaida Croaker, 18, Fargo, N.D.

Can you think of a photo that stands out to you that you saw in the news recently?

You see so much every day that you’re desensitized to the amount of photos and politics and everything that the world throws at you that I don’t even remember.

Can you remember the last time you saw North Dakota represented in the news?

Usually it’s all crime rate stuff in North Dakota.

If you were a photographer representing your own community in North Dakota what would you show?

When you go from an area like Fargo, North Dakota, to Chicago, like you just notice the kindness and hospitality of people in North Dakota is so different as opposed to here. Not that people are mean here but, so much more standoffish. So I would show the kindness of the people and the outdoors and all the snow. I mean I wish there could be more positive portrayals instead of the media always focusing on the drama and the bad stuff.

Amy Luna Manderino (Photo: Max Herman)

Amy Luna Manderino, 53, Wood Dale, Ill.

Can you think of any really impactful image that you saw in any news story or feature story?

I thought of the recent picture of the mother being separated from her child at the border — Mexican border — which really sort of humanized that story. I think of stories of natural disasters where you can see the fires in California. I used to live in California so seeing that, I can really put myself in the story and really felt empathy for the people involved and I think it helps with humanitarian efforts as well.

I did have another comment about media: If it’s a scene of people being active, people being sporty or rescuing people, it’ll be men. And if it’s the arts or something pretty or something fashionable, it will be women. Like you really don’t see women rescuing people or in those strong pictures. And of course in a lot of the world, women are prohibited from doing those things, which is even more of a reason when women do do that, to feature it.

But it’s amazing to me how in our media we’re very conscious about being diverse. Like when we show men, we want to show all different kinds of men — we want show Black men and Muslim men — I call it the ‘rainbro’ because it’s different types of men. Or with women I call it ‘diverse sexy,’ which is diversity but ‘all women can be sexy’ instead of really challenging the gender roles and showing women doing what we would historically call masculine things and vice versa.

Another comment I wanted to say about captions — this is a big thing too. The media will show a picture of a crowd and they’ll say, “Egyptians.” Like during the Arab Spring, they would show these crowds and say “Egyptians” when the crowd was 95-percent male but when the crowd was 95-percent female, like when the Italian women were protesting against Berlusconi, it was “Italian women.”So it’s like the default citizen is still male. And [you should] point out the fact that females aren’t in public in these countries. I’ve traveled a lot in the world and it’s always horrific to me when I go to countries and then I get looked at very differently by the men because I am in public. So it’s something that I’ve experienced.

Rose Houston (Photo: Max Herman)

Rose Houston, 86, Rogers Park

How much do you value images when you’re reading an article?

I read the newspaper daily, cover to cover, and I watch a fair amount of television so the photos are important.

And what about the way Rogers Park is portrayed visually in the news. How would you like to see it portrayed differently?

Well Rogers Park has been named one of the outstanding places in the country to live. So I think we’re quite happy with the way we’re being portrayed right now. Now unfortunately we had a shooting, or a murder, in the neighborhood last year and that of course wasn’t good but we don’t have those that often and we’re thought of as a safe community.

So you don’t feel like there’s too many negative stereotypes associated with Rogers Park?

I don’t think so. It’s not a hot area. You probably don’t read about it as much as some areas but it’s just a good place to live. And to be honest I was very disappointed that my alderman [Joe Moore] did not make it [in his reelection campaign] because we had an excellent alderman.

Ray Feran (Photo: Youngrae Kim)

Ray Feran, 29, Lakeview & Stephanie Mater, 29, Wicker Park

How much importance do you place on photo captions?

Feran: I don’t put a lot of emphasis in it. It can be harmful depending on the context. I just think that the journalist is then telling their own story with it. It could be out of context.

Mater: I don’t really read captions a whole lot. I guess I’ve looked at captions mostly for, like, data location, to make sure that I know what I’m looking at.

What neighborhood or town are you from and what was an example of a recent photo you saw that documented your community?

Feran: I live in the Lakeview, and I’ve seen pictures of the newly elected mayor. That was powerful and exciting to see.

Mater: I’m in Wicker Park. I used to live in Logan. So I get this isn’t like recent but I liked seeing the before and after pictures of those neighborhoods as they’ve been redeveloped.

Stephanie Mater (Photo: Youngrae Kim)

Considering news photos that you have seen of your community, how would you portray your neighborhood differently?

Feran: In terms of just seeing photos of the newly elected mayor, just seeing more excitement and joy of celebrating the diversity of our city.

Mater: I feel like the photos, at least at the northwestern neighborhoods, usually tell the same specific story of yuppies coming and changing the neighborhood or what new businesses are opening or what’s closed because of that. So I guess maybe getting more in terms of like the community that’s always been there versus the new entrants.

Kevin Smith (Photo: Max Herman)

Kevin Smith, 25, Logan Square

How much importance to do you put on the captions that go with the photos?

Usually the captions add a lot of context to the images that I’m looking at and sometimes I don’t have enough time to look at or read up on anything so the caption and the photo is all I have to make a quick judgment on what it is I’m looking at.

Can you think of an example of a really impactful photo you saw that was in correlation with a story?

Being younger during 9/11, the iconic images of the Twin Towers being hit by the airplanes and then being mass produced in newspapers and throughout the media — that’s been pretty impactful. It’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

Can you think of an example of a photo from your neighborhood and what you saw and how that documented your community?

I haven’t really seen too many photos or images of Logan Square recently to be able elaborate any more than that.

But if you had a say in how Logan Square was represented to you, how would you like to see it portrayed visually?

Visually, some of the smaller and surrounding neighborhoods in Logan Square, some of the things not necessarily off of Milwaukee Avenue and the smaller neighborhoods — the blue collar-ness of the people that are still working there.

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City Bureau

We're a civic journalism lab focused on reviving our media landscape - follow us as we create a media outlet built on people-power in Chicago.