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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.

In this post Michael Shaw, creator of the BAGnewsNotes blog, explains the Catch 22 he found himself in at the DNC — being part of the event makes it impossible, to a certain degree, to report on it. The images he works with photojournalist Alan Chin to find attempt to get outside that made-for-TV political theater. Below he describes how. Be sure to check out earlier posts from Alan and Michael about the questions raised when bloggers make photo assignments.
Alan's portrait of a man working a concession stand at the Pepsi Center during the Democratic Convention is a reminder that, in spite of the demonstration of populism inside, inclusion -- especially with all that wealth and power around -- has its limits. ©Alan Chin

Alan's portrait of a man working a concession stand at the Pepsi Center during the Democratic Convention is a reminder that, in spite of the demonstration of populism inside, inclusion -- especially with all that wealth and power around -- has its limits. ©Alan Chin

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.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Do you think there is a general lack of visual literacy about politics or in general in our society? Do you know of innovative programs that focus on improving visual literacy?

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. More »


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