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Posts Tagged: Photo Assignments from Bloggers

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?

Just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Michael Shaw asked photojournalist Alan Chin to cover the event for his BAGnewsNotes blog. Despite his plans to go to Georgia, Alan had worked with BAGnewsNotes before and decided to take the assignment. As he discusses here, it was a learning process for the whole team. Check back next week when Michael talks about the difficulty of getting outside the political media bubble.

Here and below: Alan's images from the floor of the DNC. © Alan Chin

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.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Do you think editing images for a blog requires a significantly different strategy than when editing for a traditional publication? What are your favorite blogs that use images in interesing ways?

After working with Michael Shaw at the BAGnewsNotes blog during the primary season, photojournalist Alan Chin decided to take an assignment to cover the 2008 Democratic National Convention for the blog. The experience brought up some big questions about photography as well as blogging. Don’t miss “Photo assignments from bloggers… 1” and “2” describing the pros and cons of shooting for the blog and Michael’s explanation of how BAGnewsNotes still distinguishes itself from the MSM. In “Photo assignments… 4” Alan explains how the team’s coverage developed at the DNC.
Biden and Obama during the DNC. © Alan Chin

Biden and Obama during the DNC, published at BAGnewsNotes. © Alan Chin

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.

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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