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One of the most important features of the blog format is this ability to have a comment thread, this feedback with the readers. As a photographer I’d never had that before. When you publish something, you know people write letters to the editor and maybe weeks or months later you might get a few letters. But that’s very rare and remote. Now it can be instantaneous. We forget very easily what the average person who’s not a journalist, when they pick up a paper or they go online, how they approach the imagery. This is what Michael’s site is all about to begin with, but it’s especially important with the original photojournalism work we’re doing.
It’s been educational for me that this is what “normal” people think about when they look at pictures, which is not the way we as professionals look at pictures. We’re really jaded. And we have a huge opportunity educate our audience; they can be really surprised. If I put up a little diary entry, for example, of how I work in Iraq, or being on the campaign trail, readers are amazed. For photojournalists, we think, of course, you have to get a fixer, you have to get a flak jacket, we don’t think twice. But the average person, they’re not thinking about that at all. They only see the results of our labor, they never really understand how we go about doing it. And when you give even the most basic of explanations, then that whole conversation starts. We have found specifically on this blog a tension and dynamic between photo people and political junkies, because it is a political blog. It’s telling how people who are really politically savvy can be very naive photographically, and vice-versa.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t read the comments on my images. Photographers are like children in that sense. We crave praise and hate criticism. And we’re insecure about ourselves. I mean, if some total stranger says, wonderful picture, you feel good, even though you have no idea who this person is and why they say that. And also if some other stranger says it’s terrible, you feel bad, even though they might be blind for all you know. So I read all the comments on BAGnewsNotes, and I will on RESOLVE too!
But most of the comments on BAGnewsNotes are more of a political nature, using the photographs to inform the debate. At least I don’t have to worry too much about my “photographic” pride, especially at something like the DNC, which we’ve all seen so many times. How do you take pictures at a convention that aren’t boring? I think I spent most of my time just trying to make good pictures. I read the comments, but that doesn’t change what you do the next day because you know you just have to go out there and try to make interesting pictures.
Making images for BAGnewsNotes is a unique way of working with an editor. Although it’s Michael’s site, we’re both pioneering a new format, so I have more of a stake. It’s more of a cooperative situation rather than me working for a boss.
Traditional media can be very hierarchical. I’ve had a lot of assignments when I felt like the editors were my bosses and I couldn’t offend them or differ from their conception of the story too much. Of course, when you trust them and they trust you, then you can really speak freely and there’s a give and take. That’s how I’ve felt with Michael. He’s comfortable criticizing what I’m doing, and I feel the same way talking to him. So we have more ability to do that than might be typical in our industry.
I do have to point out, though, that sometimes there are great people, with imagination and vision, like Jamie Wellford, international photo editor at Newsweek, with whom I also have that relationship, because fundamentally it’s just good people that really matters.
Also I know that we can screw up more more, because we’re still at the beginning of this. If we make mistakes, it’s not so horrible because we are trying to break new ground. It’s not going to be perfect; it’s just the two of us. We can’t be perfect in everything we do. And that’s OK in a way that it wouldn’t be for Time or Newsweek.
I also believe that the work I’ve been doing with Michael is indicative of changes in traditional media, where photographers are being seen more as reporters and analysts. Last year I was in China and I covered the Sichuan earthquake. Because I ended up being on the phone a lot with editors and reporters, they started giving me credit on print stories, in part because they have to be more accountable about giving credit than they used to be.
Increasingly, whoever is out there, if you can verbally report on a situation or figure out what’s going on, that’s going to go into the mix, because things happen so fast now. It’s not like the editors and reporters have the luxury they once had to wait until the end of the week to figure everything out. They have to have the story together very quickly. Even weekly magazines don’t have the long deadlines that they used to.
As a photographer, you’re out there seeing things. And the desk views your pictures relatively quickly, which is another source of information for them. In fact, not only are we becoming reporters, we’re also becoming our own technicians. A lot of photographers I know record audio to do multimedia as well as take still photos. We’re becoming this one-person multimedia insanity. You can’t possibly be at your very best trying to do three or four tasks at once. But I think in some ways it’s good, if it means photographers are being taken more seriously as observers and reporters.
On the other hand, nobody is paying us more for our increased responsibilities, and that’s true not only for photographers but for everyone in this era of bankrupt news organizations and newspapers closing down. And ultimately that is the bottom line: if there’s not enough money to pay us or our expenses, then the coverage simply won’t exist, whether in traditional or new media. Enthusiasm, volunteerism, and the sheer love of our craft can only take us so far. It is my hope that we figure this out sooner rather than later; it’s all over, otherwise.
Alan and I met when I ran one of his pictures on the blog from when he was embedded in Iraq. We had this big conversation going in the discussion thread, and he just showed up and said, look, I’m Alan Chin, I took this picture, and you guys don’t understand, you’re not here. At first, no one believed he was Alan Chin. I remember he was getting mad and wrote something to the effect of, “I can’t believe I’m sitting over here risking my life and I’m having to defend to you people that I’m Alan Chin.”
But what Alan realized from that experience was that the view I and my readers had of the situation was completely different than the frame of reference he had as a photojournalist in Iraq. And very quickly, what the BAGnewsNotes crew realized was that we were making all kinds of assumptions because — between the Bush Administration, the embedding program, and the media’s self-censorship — we had a very obscured picture of what was happening on the ground.
After Alan returned, we started collaborating on posts where I would interpret Alan’s images, comparing and contrasting the way the traditional media defined the story and how the Administration and the political spin machines were trying to frame it. We did that for his numerous trips to post-Katrina New Orleans and various 9/11 anniversaries he photographed from Ground Zero. As we entered the ’08 election cycle, this collaboration evolved even further to the point where, to best determine the political story line and our visual plan of attack for that day, we would actually share each others perspective: mine, the tone, mood, and circumstances highlighted by the media, his, the actual mood and mindset of the various campaign camps.
It worked basically like this. He’s on the campaign trail, and having gone to one or two campaign events, he calls to tell me what is going on. For example, this couple whose daughter died because she was allegedly denied medical treatment from her insurance company is traveling with John Edwards and they are saying this and the people are reacting this way. And my response is: Really? Because the media is presenting it like this-and-this. So, from my end, I’ll sketch out the narrative the media has constructed and how the campaign messages have been interpreted, and I feed that to Alan. Often his reaction is, Wow, that’s really weird compared to the impressions and feedback from local organizers, campaign people speaking off the record, other photographers, citizens following the campaigns, and so on. So we’ll cook all this together in quick 10-minute conversations usually. The result is that he now has a picture in his head of how events are playing out between “the media filter” and “the public square,” which allows him to shoot not just what’s going on, but but to potentially capture moments and imagery that might call out the politics, the message-making, and/or what people have been conditioned to see.
There is also a check-and-balance to this process in the feedback we get from our readership. From the beginning, BAGnewsNotes has been structured as a seminar. So the idea is, I can have an idea or an agenda, or Alan and I can go out and see something that we think is happening. In posting the material, however, what we are doing is presenting it to our readership. Then they lend their eyes and their frame of reference to the edit and our interpretation of the images. Using that approach, the readers represent a SWAT team of analysts, since that many are deeply informed on politics, not to mention well versed in history, economics, in government. Still others are professional photographers who really understand the visual circumstances and dynamics around the acquisition of images. So by putting content out in a seminar fashion, we’re essentially asking, “Do we have this right?” Or, “What else is going on?” “What else could it mean?”
In setting up this kind of environment, we’re never simply looking to map pictures to specific narratives or agendas. If an image is really expressive, in fact, it will function prismatically. In other words, it’s possible that there will be seven, eight, nine different social or cultural or political implications within the picture. And if that’s the case, our audience will typically find and elaborate on most or all of them. So it’s pretty democratic that way. And that’s why, approaching political pictures this way, I’ve had a robust number of comments on the site from day one, especially in proportion to my overall traffic. And, even if a post only draws a few comments, it’s more likely than not that the feedback is pretty insightful.
The biggest continuing problem is that, although Michael has established himself as a non-profit, and fund raises in that sense, let’s be realistic: This is a tiny, tiny amount of revenue coming in compared to traditional media. So while he has been able to pay, to support what I’ve done and what other people have done in terms of our original contributions to the site, thus far that remuneration has been more symbolic. I should say it’s more than symbolic, because when you consider how little the magazines pay these days, even to get the equivalent of a couple of day rates is actually pretty significant. But at this point I can say it still doesn’t replace getting a traditional assignment.
Like everybody else, we’re trying to figure out how to make money on the Internet. Major newspapers and magazines are going bankrupt every day; they don’t have a clue what to do. Presumably they tried their damnedest and hardest, hired the best people they could, and still they fail. So our task is exceptionally daunting. But we have the advantage, at the moment, of being lean and personal and we have the faith of idealists and revolutionaries. But will that be enough?
The reason I’ve done it is there is hope in this model. Of course right now we’re not making a lot of money, and we’re barely breaking even. For example, we spent a week at the DNC in Denver. We were able to post dozens of images. The content we published was really strong. But to field an operation like that costs money. It would cost a lot of money for Time magazine, and it cost a lot of money for us. So Michael was able to throw some money my way to pay for lodging and transportation and also a little bit of money so that my time isn’t entirely volunteer, but at the end of the day it cost thousands of dollars to do that. And of course we can’t really compete with Time magazine. But in terms of what we’re able to do on-site, the level of discourse and the level of imagery is excellent. What the blog medium allows us to do is very dynamic. I think it’s the future of our industry.
We’re doing a lot of great work, but we’re still at the very beginning. During the DNC Michael was getting, I think, one day 40,000 hits, which actually crashed the picture-hosting server for a while. So we make mistakes, which we know we have to avoid in the future. But in a way I think that was very encouraging. If you have 40,000 hits, it’s not the million people that read the New York Times or Time magazine, and in that sense it’s very humbling. But 40,000 people who are actually going to go to a website, they actually care. They are committed to seeking something, as a opposed to all those copies of magazines and newspapers that circulate, but do people really care what’s in a paper at any particular moment? Whereas the people that come to our site, we know that they care, because the Internet being what it is, you don’t go anywhere on the Internet unless you really want to see what’s there.
The method I have with Alan is to compare what’s happening on the ground, as he’s experiencing it, with the media and/or the political narrative and show how they illuminate each other. Ideally, we try to illuminate the contradictions, the artifice.
I decided not to go to the Obama inauguration and the reason is, and this is what was weird, in Denver I got really disoriented. The problem, I realized later, was that I couldn’t read the spin because being at the Democratic National Convention was like being on a giant stage set.
On the last night of the Convention, I only had two press passes to Invesco Stadium, but there were three of us. So I ended up staying behind. And, although I was disappointed at first, it turned out to be a great relief to watch the whole “show” on TV in The Bloggers Tent. The experience really was stunning. It was the first time in the whole four days I could see the show through the media lens, and I could really appreciate how much this whole experience was constructed for television.
You know, what we see of politics, and even governance now, is so contrived, whether it’s mediated by the media’s agenda or by the agenda of parties, candidates, and elected officials. And I think we — meaning Alan and I, my other contributors, and the BAGnewsNotes — have to stay outside of that. So when I have someone like Alan on the scene, the idea is to be able to see beyond or though what the stakeholders necessarily want you to see.
Because the parties and the media are so sophisticated in the use of imagery (we’re talking Madison Avenue-level expertise), our mission is simply to try and narrow the perceptual gap between the public and the spin. Readers are pretty smart when it comes to breaking down words, slogans, and text. But when it comes to pictures, I think there is still a lot of work ahead to raise the level of visual literacy on the part of the news and politics consumer.
At the DNC, typically we would talk in the morning. Michael was there with his son, who works for Talking Points Memo, so the two of them were in what’s called the big tent, which is the press tent for bloggers. They were live-blogging the event and keeping an eye on everything going on, and they would text or call if they saw something I should cover. I would do the same for them. In the morning we would discuss things on the calendar, and I would spend the day doing those things. It meant not sleeping a lot because the big speakers were in the evening. We were working from 9am to midnight. We would meet in the evening and discuss how to we were going to put everything up on the site.
Basically I said to Michael, I trust you as an editor. It’s your site. If I file a picture to you, it means I’m willing to have you use it. Obviously you can’t file every picture. And actually I think it was a real learning experience for him as an editor. Because at the beginning he was using every picture I sent him. And I said, you don’t have to do that. Nor do I think we’re serving ourselves well by doing that. If we do four pictures or three pictures or one picture, sometimes it’s a lot more powerful than doing a 15- or 20-picture slideshow. So we talked about that a lot, and he got more comfortable being a kind of editor. And of course he’s wearing so many hats at once and ideally he would have a bigger team; there would be someone who’s thinking about aesthetics, someone else doing analysis, someone else doing really technical stuff — and then at that point you really are getting to be like the New York Times. You’re really starting to emulate how traditional media works.
With a sense of duty but not much true excitement, I had planned on traveling to Denver for the Democratic National Convention, months before. Then, in August, war broke out in the Caucuses between Russia and Georgia. I called Michael and said, I want to go to Georgia. And he said, do you have an assignment? And I said, no. And he said, what about the DNC? I said, forget about the DNC. And he said, are you going to forget about the DNC if I can “assign” you again? I said, what do you mean? He said, if I can commit to paying you, would you think about not going to Georgia on your own?
If someone gives you a good assignment, you take it, right? I’m not going to be able to pay my rent from this blog, but, a) it’s the thought that counts, the fact that he’s willing to commit; and b) every bit helps. When I thought about it, it came down to: Michael Shaw is offering me an assignment to cover the DNC.
So Michael came to Denver as well, because he’s not only the editor, he’s also the main writer and journalist for the BAGnewsNotes blog. It was the first time we worked together face-to-face, because he lives in San Diego and I’m in New York. And it was enormously productive. We were able to get decent access, because the political parties take blogging very seriously, so they gave us standard press credentials. Of course it’s funny for me because I ran into all these photographers I know, and they asked me, who are you working for? They say, Time or Newsweek or whoever, and I say, it’s a blog called BAGnewsNotes. But just gauging from their responses, many photographers had already heard of what Michael was doing, and were already reading the blog. So within the small world of photojournalism, people know and appreciate it.
They thought what we were doing was fabulous, but also that it was incredibly ironic because I’m known for being very analog in this digital age, and developing film in hotel rooms. I do all these really old-fashioned traditional things, yet here I am on the other end of it. I’m shooting black-and-white film, processing it in a bathtub, and uploading the images to a blog. I was shooting digital as well at the DNC, but the New Hampshire and Ohio primaries I photographed entirely on film.
I believe that BAGNewsNotes has real credibility. Aesthetically, we’re not there not yet, I’ll be the first to admit that. When it comes to design and how we present the images and text, it’s not perfect. But that’s growing pains, technical issues. In terms of mentally and conceptually where we want the site to go, we have a good idea and I think we’re succeeding. Sometimes I feel like I’m really sticking my neck out, because I’ve put a lot of work into this in the last couple years, especially the last year. And I do wonder if maybe that was time that I should have spent trying to get traditional assignments. But then I look at the fruits of our labor, the photography and the analysis, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished, on less than a shoestring. Hopefully, the more people who look at what we’re doing, and the more people we’re able to get turned onto this, the more viable it becomes.
I think I react strongly to this idea that BAGnewsNotes is becoming more like the traditional media. Alan is right in one respect because, as the (political) blogosphere becomes more established, the sites start to look more like traditional media with their own large audience and advertising base. For sure the blogosphere, which was not much more than an opposition space in the past, is fast becoming institutionalized with its own built-in biases and conventional wisdom.
But even though it’s a political blog and has an openly liberal slant, I think BAGnewsNotes is different because of its agenda as a reader and defender of images. What I mean is, I’m ultimately more interested in understanding and showing how the media, the government, the Right, and, yes, the Left (especially with the Democrats in power now) capture and frame visuals.
So, what I’m reacting against and am always looking to illustrate is how the establishment, whichever one, is setting the scene. Although I was chosen by the Democratic party to cover the Democratic Convention, for example, I still think that the more inside I get, the more I am able to present an outside perspective of what’s going on.
I believe when you see political images, I think they’re hardly ever innocent. And I think you can say they’re almost never used purely for informational value. My readers understand that now, and that’s what I try to illustrate. In my mind, media and political images serve much less as objective information than commercial fodder, infotainment, or provocations often playing on fear, social conflict, or the salacious. More »
I’ve been collaborating with Michael for a number of years. Initially it was because he had picked up an image of mine that was in the New York Times while I was freelancing for them in Iraq. One day I had Googled myself and I saw [my photo] was on this blog. I saw his commenters were reading all these things into it and I wrote in and said, I’m the photographer and I want to answer some of your questions. I was very factual, just to give more context. Of course no one had done that before. It started this whole interesting conversation online. Somehow in the process Michael was like, I’m really interested in hearing what you have to say and I would love to hear some more.
And in the next few years, any time I did something that I thought was interesting, after it was published or if I couldn’t get it published, I would send him a picture to let him run it on the blog. I figured, if it’s already been published or it’s not getting published, then what do I have to lose. I might as well have it be seen and talked about rather than just sitting on my hard drive.
Then when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama officially announced their candidacies, both of them did trips in New Hampshire and I decided to go up and shoot that. And I’m not a political junkie; I’m not a Washington photographer. I’m not very well experienced in this, I’ve never been in the bubble, but I thought this was obviously a really important time. So I sent Michael pictures from that because I couldn’t get them published. And he loved it, and the audience of the site loved it. And basically he committed, he said, look, you’re having a problem getting assignments. How about I pay at least a little bit, so at least you don’t go broke doing this, at least you can afford to put gas in your car, and you can cover some of these primaries for me. More »