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March 19th, 2009

Photo assignments from bloggers: new model or same old problems? 7

Posted by Michael Shaw

Photojournalist Alan Chin and Michael Shaw, founder of the BAGnewsNotes blog, have been collaborating on coverage of political events for several years. Here Michael explains the way they uncover discrepancies between media spin and what’s happening on the ground. Don’t miss the rest of their discussion about covering the DNC and how the interactivity of a blog audience influences image making.

Hillary Clinton perusing a New Hampshire Deli as part of a routine photo-op, this one to emphasize her appeal to the "common man." Chin photographed her pacing instead of posing to reveal the "staginess" of this kind of campaign ritual. ©Alan Chin

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.

©Alan Chin

The Bush Administration insisted that FEMA had everything stabilized in New Orleans by early 2006. This image demonstrates otherwise. This "town meeting," which started with a discussion on formaldehyde poisoning, broke into conflict during an attempt to elect a new committee of representatives. ©Alan Chin

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.


  1. March 19th, 2009 at 5:03 am

    RESOLVE — Photo assignments from bloggers: new model or same old problems? 7 | The Click

    […] Check it out here. […]

  2. December 12th, 2009 at 4:50 am


    yes… nice ))

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