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February 12th, 2009

Photo assignments from bloggers: new model or same old problems? 2

Posted by Michael Shaw

Michael Shaw, who runs the visual-political blog BAGnewsNotes, is developing a model to pay for original photojournalism for use on the blog. He has been working most with photojournalist Alan Chin, and in these posts we examine the model from both their perspectives. Don’t miss the first “Photo assignments from bloggers,” when Alan talks about the pros and cons of assignments from blogs, or “3” when Alan talks about his decision to cover the DNC instead of going to Georgia.
An image of Obama looking very Sinatra-esqe at the DNC. © Alan Chin

An image of Obama looking very Sinatra-esqe at the DNC. © Alan Chin

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.

Giuliani during a primary photo op at a New Hampshire Segway factory.

Giuliani during a primary photo op at a New Hampshire Segway factory. © Alan Chin

I was thinking about what we’re looking for when Alan’s out there, specifically when we’ve been covering the campaign trail. What we’re trying to capture, I think, is the set-up, the political narrative, what we’re “supposed to see.”  So we’re there, yeah, with the rest of the visual media, but our agenda is very different because we’re trying to see it from the outside view.

We’re always looking at representation, but that can take a lot of different forms. Sometimes we’re looking at politics as spectacle, drama, or salesmanship, like the above picture that Alan shot of Obama coming out at the DNC. He came strutting out by surprise on Wednesday night, Biden’s night, and he looks exactly like Frank Sinatra in this image. Other times, we‘re looking at politics as an exercise in nostalgia, as with Teddy Kennedy rallying from his sick bed, being lauded and lionized.

McCain supporters at a Palin rally in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaigns. © Alan Chin

McCain supporters at a Palin rally in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaigns. © Alan Chin

We’re also looking a lot at character. We’re looking at what pictures have to say about personality. How they reveal personality, which is actually where my professional training [as a psychologist] comes in. For instance, there are pictures Alan took of McCain early in the campaign –- when he was still a big favorite with the media — where you can see plenty of ferocity and almost a viciousness in him.  We were looking at it that way before the debates when the public started focusing on McCain’s lack of respect for Obama, and before Palin came on board and his whole campaign turned vicious.

Most of those news photographers Alan is side-by-side with are trained to look the other way, because the political establishment and the corporate media have common interests, or favorites at the moment, or fixed story lines, or “rules of engagement.” For us, on the other hand, we’re looking right at that stuff.  We’re trying to see the larger context, those things that are either being left out, or made more pretty, or, on the other hand, or are maybe so obvious that everyone –- the media and the viewership –- takes it completely for granted.

Perturbed workers at a New Hampshire Segway factory during a Giuliani photo op.

Perturbed workers at a New Hampshire Segway factory during a Giuliani photo op. © Alan Chin

So when Alan covered Huckabee, or one of Palin’s rallies where the people there were thoroughly eccentric or a lot of hostility and violence was being expressed in terms of people’s manner and presentation, we were looking directly at that. We were not trying to infer it or coat it in irony or just glance, then move on. We wanted to see it in its full glory because we thought that was the story.  When the rest of the visual media in New Hampshire was photographing Giuliani on a Segway up in New Hampshire, and Alan instead chose to turn and photograph all the employees, pushed off to the side and looking on in scorn, that’s a lot more honest, and it’s what we’re about.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What do you think? Is there such a thing as an innocent political image? And are there photographers and editors out there who are working to expose the posturing of photo ops? Chris Morris’s My America comes to mind, but don’t forget that he didn’t get any of those pictures (except one) published in Time.

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