I’ve Been Thinking: Emotionally involved journalism

“I’ve Been Thinking” is a new column on Hey Miki, spurred in part by my new bi-weekly newsletter. I’ve always got a few “big ideas” buzzing around my brain, maybe not so fully formed as my usual blog posts, but nagging a way that tells me there’s something important there. I’m hoping if I share them with you, I’ll be able to get to the bottom of them quicker 🙂

An image from Justin Maxon's project on Chester, PA, where he is getting directly involved in improving the lives of people he photographs.

Although I love all kinds of photography, photojournalism is what keeps me up at night (probably because I studied journalism myself). Dedicated photographers like James Nachtwey and EugeneRichards  have proven that photographs can change the tide of history. But I strongly feel that we need to refine and sharpen the way they do that for the current media landscape, which is fragmenting and/or going bankrupt at an alarming rate.

The photojournalism community (including myself) seems stuck on an old story: photographer makes image of something terrible, magazine or newspaper publishes it, people realize how bad things are and send help. Maybe part of you thinks, “How naive,” but I bet there’s another part that remembers that Nachtwey’s Somalia images led to international aid that saved 1.5 million people.

I’ve had many conversations with photographers who simply don’t believe in that model anymore. Although they still strive for fair and balanced coverage, they no longer connect to the concept of “objectivity,” and instead are actively working to change the situations their images highlight.

Two examples come from Emphas.is projects I’ve helped publicize: Aaron Huey’s on the Pine Ridge reservation and Justin Maxon’s on Chester, Pennsylvania. Aaron has photographed at Pine Ridge for 6 years, but it was after his impassioned speech last fall, asking that the U.S. give back the Black Hills to the Lakota Indians, that his audience became truly engaged. His speech ran on the TED website, from which it quickly went viral, and his Emphas.is project raised $24K+ to print posters and billboards using strong language to condemn the U.S. government’s treatment of indigenous people.

In Justin’s proposal for Emphas.is he states: “Making more images to fill the pages of a book or hang on a wall is not enough. I am done with sitting comfortably in my safety net of journalistic passivity, documenting the struggle of life in Chester. I cannot and will not allow tragedy to unfold in front of my eyes without doing more to stop it.” He is trying to raise $8K to organize a rally using his images of bereaved families and workshops to promote community non-violence projects.

I’m not so interested in debating the relative value of emotionally involved vs. emotionally removed journalism. I already know that my best work is that I have a passionate connection to, and the work I’m most interested in displays the same passion in its creator.

And the bottom line is, it’s happening. Journalists (not just visual ones) are fed up with traditional media structures, so they’re taking things into their own hands. And more often than not, that means leaving their fingerprints all over it.

What I am interested in is knowing about more projects like these, especially outside the photojournalism realm, where artists or journalists of any kind are openly choosing a side and using their creative skills to make a difference. If you know of any, please share in the comments. And, of course, other thoughts are also welcome 🙂

10 thoughts on “I’ve Been Thinking: Emotionally involved journalism

  1. I think this is a great development as long as it's clear from the start that the photographers/artists are working not only to document something but to make a positive impact in a more direct way. Although he's a big name, I really like what Nick Brandt has done to create a nonprofit group [http://www.biglifeafrica.org] to save the animals he has photographed @biglifeafrica:disqus


  2. My goal with my blog (and future website/broader resource) ThisIsWheretheHealingBegins.co… is precisely to make use of my journalism background without the pretense of objectivity. I believe that by being openly subjective, facts become more valuable and a greater truth can be presented. By taking a stance–in this case, “yoga can make everyone better”–and explaining how/why I support that stance with personal knowledge and experience, I create a forum that not only provides readers with relevant information, but also encourages them to reflect and decide for themselves whether they think my stance has merit. Who I am (and am becoming) is essential to the case I make, just as the subjective perspectives of my readers affect how they respond to my assertions. Acknowledging that we all have feelings and that (like it or not) we tend to react emotionally more often than logically clears the way for gaining awareness and accessing a crucial universal truth that goes beyond the “just the facts, please” aim of traditional journalism.


  3. The interesting thing about Nachtwey is that his integrity is first as human and second as photographer. He's sees it as a duty to be a witness, but on more than one occasion he's put down his camera or put himself in harm's way to help others.It's a very challenging point that many journalism programs (even top tier ones) don't address – they spend much time on principles of objectivity and ethics – but don't address the ethics of when to stop being an observer.My mentor Dr.David Mindich wrote an excellent book that touches on where our notion of objectivity in news even got its start: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obi…I think the sea change is not that people are telling news from the perspective of topics they feel passionately about or change injustices they see, but rather that visual journalists are now in the position to do that themselves, rather than working within the box of interests pursued by their editors or publishers.


    • Ooh, I'll have to read that book. And yes, I'm not suggesting that journalists/photojournalists are any more passionate now than in the past, just that they are taking matters into their own hands. In part because that's easier than ever to do, and in part, I'd argue, because they are fed up that's it's not happening via the traditional routes anymore.


  4. Pingback: Men Being Emotional | HEY MIKI

  5. Pingback: Involved Journalism « jakdaddy1

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