We have talked before about how a yearbook is a story, the story of this academic year at this school in this town.
Your yearbook staff are, therefore, storytellers and journalists. However, the unique thing about a yearbook is that it is primarily a book of photographs, which means your students have to learn to be photojournalists.
Photojournalism is not the same thing as photography, just like how knowing how to write poetry doesn’t mean you know how to write a news story. Photojournalism is the process of storytelling using the medium of photography as your main storytelling device, using pictures instead of words to get your meaning across.
Storytelling photos usually cause a feeling, whether it's astonishment, empathy, sadness, joy, etc. Most of us are familiar with the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This is the whole idea behind photojournalism.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Now, photojournalism is not about having the best composition or the best technical details or a pretty subject (although these things are nice). Rather, photojournalism is about showing the world a story that really happened. The photographer is not directing the scene the same way a portrait or marketing photographer would. They are there to observe and capture the story, not to create or stage it.
To get unique pictures, the photojournalist has to step into an event in a way most people would be hesitant to enter. It takes courage to overcome fears and get close to the subjects; as one renowned photojournalist said when asked how close one should get, “[Get] as close as you’re comfortable...and then one step closer.”
So whenever a photographer goes out to cover an event, they should be thinking in terms of story. A picture that has no meaning, even if it’s beautiful, is not photojournalism.
In order to tell a story, your photos should have two or more of the following elements:
● It should show people
● It should show emotions [via facial expressions or body language]
● It should show action
● It should show something extraordinary or unusual
Photojournalism has been around almost as long as cameras. Matthew Brady took a camera out into the field during Civil War battles, becoming known as a father of photojournalism.
Mathew Brady, Virginia, 1863
Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration [see photo below]. Later, she published a powerful series of photos of the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar.
Dorothea Lange, Nipomo, California, 1936
Alfred Eisenstaedt was one of the four photographers hired to launch Life magazine; by the time he left, he had over 2,500 photostories published, most taken with a small 35mm Leica camera in natural light. "They don't take me too seriously with my little camera," he said, when asked how he got such relaxed, natural shots. "I don't come as a photographer. I come as a friend." His most famous photo is of Times Square, New York City, moments after the news that World War II was over.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, New York City, 1945
Each of these photos succeed as photojournalism because they tell a story, and perhaps more importantly, they evoke a feeling from the viewer. A good piece of photojournalism tells a story; a great piece of photojournalism tells a story with feeling.
Preparing for the Photoshoot
Since photojournalism is the act of telling a story with a very specific piece of equipment — a camera — there are some steps that should be taken beforehand to set yourself up for success:
First, be familiar with your equipment so you’re not fiddling (with aperture, shutter speed, light balance, ISO, etc.) when the “moment” comes. However, don’t obsess over having the right or the best camera; remember Eisenstaedt and his little Leica. Instead, practice a lot with the camera you do have; don’t make “assignment day” the first day you pick it up. Practice is also a great way to learn composition, creativity, the rules of thirds, etc.
Second, anticipate and plan. Think through your shoot well before you get there; ask yourself, What is ‘visual’ about what I’ve been assigned to? This might require you to do some research, specifically by visiting the location in advance and thinking through where you want to stand, what the light will be like, etc. Consider using a storyboard (or making a “shot list”) for your shoot in advance; “Okay, I want a shot of this, then I want a shot when they do that, and I want multiple group shots when this happens….” But even the best plan will need to change, so be flexible.
In this video, renowned photojournalist Dan Milnor talks about preparing and planning to tell your story: Photography Tips: Creating Visual Stories - Dan Milnor (we suggest watching from the 2:14 mark until 3:45, although the entire video is worthwhile).
Third, establish rapport if possible. It’s easier to get in close if you’re not a total stranger. You want to shoot inside a sideline huddle during a football game? Introduce yourself to the coach during the week and tell him what you’d like to do. Your best shots will often come after your subjects forget you’re there. Try to make it a win-win; they have a story they want told, and you’re looking for a story to tell! Remember, there are three main stakeholders here:
You, the photographer, want to do good work and be creative;
Your subject wants to be represented well and have their story told;
Your school wants to sell a high-quality, accurate book.
A good yearbook photoshoot can make all three stakeholders happy!
Things to Remember
Work for visual variety: Don’t take just a few shots, and don’t take them all from the same angle and the same distance. Can you imagine watching a whole movie that’s filmed from one angle and one position? Remember, the editors may want to publish more than one image from the event.
● Just focusing on one kind of photo won’t tell a whole story. You need portraits, wide-angle shots, shots from up high, down low, action shots, zoomed-in details… all these combine to show “the big picture.”
● This means you need to move around! And, again, don’t be afraid to get in close!
"Don’t be afraid to get in close!"
Find the continuity: Work to capture the flow of the event from beginning to end.
● Be alert for what journalists call “the lede,” the single image that best captures the event’s purpose and mood.
● Just as a writer uses separate paragraphs to tell different parts of the same story, you need to capture different parts of your story in individual images. Make sure you leave the assignment with a set of images that tell a complete story.
● Be alert for cause-and-effect images and images that provide visual context and storytelling continuity.
● Follow through – Great photo moments are often followed immediately by another great moment. Keep shooting and make sure you have plenty of battery power to do it.
● Find the closer – A good reporter follows the story to the end; keep taking photos even though the main part of the event or action may have ended already. Look for the images that show subjects in unguarded moments after the event. Answer the “what happened next” question for your reader. Some of the most interesting images are the ones that capture the action and expression that most people did not stick around to see.
In this video, Dan Milnor talks about telling your story, and the difference between ‘beautiful’ photos and ‘storytelling’ photos: Photography Tips: Creating Visual Stories - Dan Milnor (we suggest watching from the 3:45 mark until 4:48).
Ethics of Photojournalism
A vitally important part of photojournalism is accuracy; in particular, what is in the frame is what really happened. A photojournalist is ethically bound not to change the story. The image should be a window into the event. At most, lighten shadows a little to see faces or sharpen the image a bit for clarity, but do not change the essence of what you have captured. If you do, you change the story.
Journalism is not the same thing as marketing. In marketing, it seems to be totally acceptable to take the picture on the left, and photoshop it into the picture on the right:
However, as a journalist, you’re not allowed to do that. Tell the truth. Do not set up “candid” shots. And, most importantly, in a time when digital photo manipulation and “deep fakes” are commonplace, photojournalists need to promise that what is in the picture is what happened, and that it has not been manipulated to make a “better” story.
Of course, it’s still done anyway.
Above is the cover of the National Review, a conservative magazine. The picture is of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. At the convention (as the lower photo indicates), the crowd was holding up blue signs that said “Forward.” However, the National Review had a different story they wanted to tell, so they altered the signs in the photo...not to tell the truth, but to make a point.
Next is one of the more famous examples of photo manipulation, from Time Magazine, which was at the time the preeminent newsmagazine in America. The story is about the O.J. Simpson murder case. The picture on the left is the actual LAPD booking photo, as published on the cover of Time’s competitor, Newsweek. Notice what Time did to their version of the photo:
When you alter a photo in an attempt to alter its meaning and its impact on the viewer, you are no longer a photojournalist, and you are on dangerous ground.
So tell good stories with your photos…but be sure they’re true stories!
Silber, M. (2014, November 6). “Photography tips: Creating visual stories.” Advancing Your Photography. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMuy68EbiVA.
LinkedIn Learning. (2013, August 8). “Photojournalism tutorial - Planning a photo story.” Youtube. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR-623P8q0M.
Forbes, T. (2016, August 7). “Photojournalism vs street photography.” The Art of Photography. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iX4GId9XECU.
Forbes, T. (2015, February 19). “Photography: Truth or beauty.” The Art of Photography. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfQY5hps_ZA.
McKenchnie, B. (n.d.). “How to do storytelling with your images: 8 useful tips.” Digital Photography School. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://digital-photography-school.com/8-tips-storytelling-images/.
Hansen, C. (2013, September 1). “Yearbook photography: The basics.” The Yearbook Ladies By Your Side. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from http://theyearbookladies.com/5-keys-to-great-yearbook-photography.