Why Photojournalism Needs Diverse Storytelling Approaches
Anastasia Taylor-Lind on why an industry needs to step out of its comfort zone
by David Schonauer
The World Press Photo contest has produced another controversy.
This one isn’t about photographers who go too far in re-touching the truth, but rules that go too far in restricting creative storytelling and effective photojournalism.
After the winners of this year’s World Press Photo competition were unveiled last month, Associated Press announced that it was withdrawing the third-prize winner of the People category, Daniel Ochoa de Olza’s images of street memorials erected after terrorist attacks in Paris. The memorials featured photographs of victims placed there by loved ones, which Ochoa de Olza had rephotographed. AP said Ochoa de Olza’s images had been “submitted in error” because the “originating photographers of the images had not given written permission for their use.”
Documentary photographer and World Press Photo juror Anastasia Taylor-Lind took issue, in a well-articulated TIME opinion piece, with AP’s decision to withdraw the images. Taylor-Lind argued that the use of found images was exactly the kind of inventive approach to storytelling that photojournalism needs at the moment.
“Every year, the results of World Press Photo generate important conversations that bring the concerns of photographers and the aspirations for our industry to the table,” wrote Taylor-Lind. “This curation of images allows us to consider what we are, and what we want to become.”
This year, I see a desperate lack of diversity in the winners, the ideas as well as the backgrounds and experiences of the photographers themselves. Plus, there seems to be a homogenized aesthetic approach to subjects. This is not a critique of the World Press Photo itself but of the industry that the contest reflects.
Ochoa de Olza’s series, “Victims of the Paris Attacks,” was different, wrote Taylor-Lind:
The series featured several vernacular photographs that had been chosen by the victims’ friends and family, and left at street memorials across the city. In the process of re-photographing, the images are transformed by the photographer’s artistic vision: we see the pixels of the photographs, the texture of the prints, as well as the large dewy raindrops collected on their plastic covers. We are not misled: it is clear that these are photographs of photographs.
Instead of presenting the victims of the attacks through visual cliches of traditional photojournalism, Ochoa de Olza found “a simple, beautiful and moving way to tell this tragedy’s story,” wrote Taylor-Lind.
“In his conceptual approach, it is not only the photojournalist who is the storyteller, but also the relatives of the victims,” wrote Taylor-Lind. These are the pictures that they chose. This is how they saw their loved ones. This is how they wanted to represent those who died. Ochoa de Olza uses found photographs to illustrate the idea that the victims are as we are.”
At top is one of Ochoa de Olza’s images from series. Is Taylor-Lind correct in her description of its impact? As photojournalism continues to search for meaningful ethical guidelines in the digital age, it is important that restrictions on creative uses of storytelling not result in visual uniformity and tradition-bound narrative devices. That is another way to make photojournalism increasingly irrelevant.