Previous month:
March 2009
Next month:
May 2009

Bite the Hand

Kenneth Jarecke, Contact Press Images

I've been branded a bit of a heretic lately for suggesting that photojournalists should strive to not only tell the truth, but to make sure their photographs don't appear to be photoshopped re-creations of actual events.

I must tell you it feels... good.

There was a time in my career when I lived for stirring things up. I've forgotten how great it feels.

I first picked up a camera to do three things;

1) Make great pictures that I liked to look at.

2) Call attention to things that I thought were wrong with the world.

3) Meet hot chicks.

OK, admittedly I never completely thought through the third reason.

For the record, unless you're a British fashion photographer, or a French war photographer, it's pretty near impossible to look cool while making pictures. Also, as awesome as you may think it is to carry a Nikon F3-T (high eye-point and with a motor) everywhere you go, it gives women the (correct) impression that you are a geek.

Kenneth Jarecke, Contact Press Images

There was a time in my career, that I wouldn't hesitate to speak-out (in the most childish ways I could imagine) against anything I disagreed with.

Stuff like how editors used (or didn't) use my pictures.

I didn't worry about biting the hand.

There was always another editor or magazine I could work with. I also felt we were all in the business of telling the truth, so we should start with ourselves (yeah, maybe I didn't think that through so well either).

I'm not sure, nor do I want to know, how much this behavior hurt my career. I never gave that a thought . At some point I realized I was however, causing a lot of collateral damage for the people around me. People in the business that I cared about.

That wasn't the goal.

So around 1993 or maybe '94, I started to play nice. I started to try to keep my mouth shout and occasionally I even succeeded.

Big mistake.

Kenneth Jarecke, Contact Press Images

What good did it do?

The wonderful people in the business that I tried to help have mostly been fired at this point, and the craft of photojournalism, the very language of the medium has pretty much been destroyed.

Boy, I really missed a golden opportunity (at least a full decades worth) to be a real pain in the arse, as the great Philip Jones Griffiths once called me in a letter to the DoP of LIFE Magazine (got to frame that one of these days).

A pain that this business and the younger generation of shooters sourly needed (sometimes I just write things to make myself laugh).

Kenneth Jarecke, Contact Press Images

Of course, I wasn't the only one that kept my mouth shut, so I can't take all the blame.

There's a whole bunch of other shooters out there that played nice, when they should have been making a scene.

You see, the reason I could make all the trouble I did and still keep working is because I was giving the magazines great content, which was (way back in the 80's and 90's) what they depended on to stay in business.

Yes, there was a time when magazines wanted great content, and I was far from the worst of the prima-donnas.

So, the first time any of us said, "Thank you." for a two day assignment that should have taken two weeks.

The first time we said, "Oh, sure. That sweater is the wrong color, go ahead and change it in Photoshop."

The first time we said, "Hey kid, how'd you get those neat tones in the sky when you were shooting at high-noon?"

The first time we didn't say, "No, I'm a journalist. you are not allowed to publish my work if your director of photography reports to the art department."

The first time we didn't publicly humiliate a photo editor at a news magazine that asked us to "Just make it happen." when what they meant was "I don't care what the truth is, just give me the picture my boss wants."

The first time we reviewed a photojournalist student's portfolio that was a created fiction, and didn't drop it into the nearest wastebasket.

We failed.

We failed as individuals and as a profession.

The example set and the failure to act of the older generation (a group that had the power to say no because the magazines were in competition with each other over what we could deliver), has given us a generation of would-be photographers that really doesn't understand how valuable the credibility of a photojournalist's work really is, and will even argue against it.

Kenneth Jarecke, Contact Press Images

What did we hope to gain by playing nice, a big cover shoot that normally went to the obnoxious schmoozing guy?

What do you hope to get now, a half day to shoot a portrait of somebody you aren't even interested in?

It's time to start biting the hand again. At least for me, you do what you like, but I'm going to resume the truth telling. Besides, that's what I enjoy. That's (at least a third of) why I got into this business.

The magazines, although those in charge don't realize it, need great content more than we need the occasional day-rate they're doling out.

At some point, telling the truth is going to be cool again.

My Generation


Laurie Simmons, "Big Camera, Small Camera," 1977

I've been wearing my grumpy old guy pants all week, but the job (chasing kids off my lawn?)  is still not done. 

This works...

This, not so much...

Yes, I know another judgment call. How unfair.

Listen, I like Green Day. I think American Idiot is a great album, but this half-hearted cover of The Who doesn't do justice to the original. It doesn't even come close.

So why is that? For me at least, it starts with the dismissive way (I think that's) Billie Joe Armstrong refers to it as a "hippie" song. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending hippies here. That's Ron Paul's job.

I'm saying that you either pay proper homage to that little bit of (I mean huge) genius that The Who came up with, or you stay off their grass.

Don't be embarrassed of your work, or by work that has influenced you, and never talk down to your audience. Trust that they'll get what you're trying to do, without being spoon fed.

That said, it is perfectly natural to push away from the generation before you. I think it's a good thing. That's how humans evolve. By breaking away and trying new things.

Regardless of the example above, it's no secret that Green Day would be nowhere today without careful study of bands like The Who. I think they'd readily admit to it also.

However, in photojournalism we made a bad evolutionary leap, the rolls got reversed, and now we're paying the price.

It happened when the older generation suddenly didn't know how to use their cameras. Well, not just their cameras, but the computers and applications that came with them.

The student became the teacher, and not in a cool kung-fu type of way.

It makes sense, why would someone want to learn from, or respect someone that doesn't even know what "command-M" does?

This is one of our biggest problems (out of quite a few). We've got a generation that raised themselves. It's not their fault. We dropped the ball, not them. Well, sure they're a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls, but that's part of the job description when you're starting out. It's required just to survive.

The second mistake (as this conversation goes), started happening about five or six years ago. It kind of snuck in at some point. It started the first time you looked at a contest result and thought, "WTF?"

We (at least I) ignored it, but the marketplace didn't (once again venturing into Ron Paul territory).

Photographers started to get rewarded for producing set-up images, or over-photoshopping, or removing unwanted elements, and delivering style over content.

The snowball grew. Editors, judges, and photographers all followed the carrot, when they should probably have been swinging a stick.

The publishing industry, by doing stupid things like the WASHINGTONIAN did (the cover of their May issue) over and over again, sent a very clear message to their readers.

These images don't matter. See how little we care about them? See how little we respect them (and the people that make them)?

And the readers agreed. If the don't mean anything to you, they asked, why should we pay to buy them off of the newsstand?

Things have gotten out of hand, and (for the most part) the older generation seems content to remain on the sidelines and not try to fix the mess they've largely created.

Which isn't keeping with the spirit that got many of you to grab a camera in the first place.

Short Term Thinking


WASHINGTONIAN political reporter, Garrett Graff told the AFP that they've been "swamped" by reader response to their May cover showing a topless Obama.

Unfortunately for the magazine, Susan Moeller, someone you should know, writing in the HUFFINGTON POST, pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the image has been altered.

Graff went on to say (to AFP) that Moeller was up in arms over nothing, "We didn't change the concept of the picture."

After making a few more meaningless and silly excuses he added this whopper,

"This is much ado about nothing. It's not like the Iranian government's shot last year where they added a whole fourth missile."

Since when is not being as dishonest as the Iranian government a valid journalistic standard for the American news media?

Here's the image they started with...


Garrett, enjoy the traffic spike.

You must realize of course, if you ever get a really big "scoop", something along the lines of Watergate, there's absolutely, in my opinion, no reason why anyone would trust your words.

At this point, we can't even trust your publication to accurately report the color of a pair of swim trunks.