Visual Culture

Why Photojournalists Are More Important Now Than Ever

Molly Gottschalk
Jan 13, 2017 2:13AM

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 11: President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on January 11, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first official news conference since the November elections. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

At the 74th Golden Globe Awards, just under two weeks before the United States Presidential Inauguration, Meryl Streep unleashed a scathing, six-minute diatribe against Donald Trump that sent shockwaves through the internet. While accepting her lifetime achievement award, the left-leaning, grande dame of Hollywood denounced the president-elect’s mockery of a disabled New York Times reporter. But most importantly, she called on the power of the “principled press” to hold the administration accountable, asking her community in Hollywood to support the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re going to need them going forward,” she said. “And they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.” Photographers snapped away, fittingly, because we also need them now more than ever—perhaps even more than journalists using the written word.

Public trust in the media dropped to an all-time low during the election cycle, squashed by fake news reports, allegations of bias, fallacious tweets, and those left blindsided when the votes were tallied on November 9th in defiance of the polls. According to a report by Gallup, only 32% of Americans currently have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in media outlets. Many have scolded Facebook for not filtering out bonafide news from satire or downright fictitious content—an oft-cited BuzzFeed analysis claims fake election stories beat out genuine headlines in engagement in the final three months of campaign coverage.

Some of the falsified stories that favored Donald Trump, it was later uncovered, were cooked up by a Macedonian youth ring looking to score extra cash. Facebook and Google have since taken serious measures to combat fake news. But with “post-truth” announced as the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year shortly after the election, it’s clear we’re entrenched in a climate where objective facts have lost their strength in informing public opinion and guiding action. Print, digital, and broadcast media—partisan or not—are increasingly cast off by political figures when their reporting is inconvenient. Investigative journalism, once heralded as a pillar of civil society is now being thrown into question. Case in point: this week’s reporting by four senior journalists for CNN regarding both the President and President-Elect having been briefed on the potential that the Russian government is in possession of compromising information on the latter was instantly thrown out by President-Elect Trump as “FAKE NEWS.”

It’s in this climate that photographs, long championed for their ability to transcend language, find their greatest power. Where words can be twisted, fact-checks dismissed, and lies perpetuated, photographs can sear an image into public consciousness that leaves little room to dispute. The responsibility of the media as defenders of democracy has never been so urgent. And within the media, photojournalists, with their incredibly strict code of ethics (a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer was banned from the agency for life after it was revealed a stray camera had been photoshopped out for a shrub in one of his pictures), have a distinct and important ability to indisputably represent the truth.

Time and again we’ve seen photographs change the world—when we’re confronted with truths not through statistics, but with visual proof. In 1936, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a forlorn and starving 32-year-old woman at a pea picker’s camp in California (the now infamous Migrant Mother) humanized the Great Depression. The worry lines on her face—she was living inside a tent, her family eating birds killed by her children and scant frozen vegetables—struck the world. In response, the government rushed some 20,000 pounds of food to the camp.

Eddie Adams’s 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese general shooting a man in the temple, capturing the very moment the bullet entered his head, became a symbol fueling the anti-war movement that some say helped put an end to the war. (It should be noted, though, that the man wasn’t innocent; he was an assassin who had led a Viet Cong death squad. Like words, images used out of context can dangerously distort the truth.) It was not enough to read about these tragedies. Those pictures changed public opinion and mobilized communities.

As the integrity of journalists continues to be called into question, images of visceral power, ones which present unquestionable truths, will play an increasingly important role in not just accompanying a story but serving as the document that allows it to resist being summarily rejected with a buzzword. To effectively operate under “the great respect for freedom of the press and all of that” held by our president-elect, the media must up its standards. (Despite its phenomenal reporting over recent years, Buzzfeed’s choice to publish an unverified dossier of the “Kompromat” did the news media no favors in this uphill battle.) Whenever possible, unimpeachable photo and video evidence of facts reported will be essential.

Molly Gottschalk