Seeing Double


To say that it has been raining a bit here in Boston would be an understatement. It has rained nearly 15 inches this month, and it seems the whole city is soaked to the core.

Courtesy of Soon S. Byun, Boston Globe

Gray skies and deep puddles have slowed Boston down to a near standstill. My desk is near the window, and while normally I enjoy smiling at the neighborhood folks who stroll by, yesterday the sidewalks were vacant.


In an effort to shake the gray mood, I grabbed hard copies of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and headed to our reception area to read some of the pieces that I miss now and again.  Unsurprisingly, terrible news of yesterday’s suicide attacks in the heart of Moscow dominated the front pages of both papers.  Unexpectedly, however, the competing covers featured the exact same photo.  Taken by Egor Barbatunov for the Associated Press, the photo frames a wounded and ash covered commuter solemnly hanging his head shortly after the blast.  

Courtesy of Egor Barbatunov, AP

The piece is photojournalism at its best, gripping and emotional.  Clearly the Times and the Journal – two of the world’s most influential newspapers – share the same sentiment.  Well done, Mr. Barbatunov.

Inspired by the duplicity, I started thinking about the “power of the lens,” and how many people rely on photographs as their primary means of storytelling.  Nearly every week we read (online) about another paper folding or massive layoffs in editorial rooms across the nation.  What about the photojournalists?  A story on New York Times Online  discusses the issues facing the field of photojournalism.  The availability and affordability of digital camera equipment has empowered more people to take “pretty decent photographs” as civilian photojournalists, and companies like Getty  have developed processes to license and market these photos to editors.

Recently, PBS Frontline, the International Center of Photography  and the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard hosted a symposium on the future of the visual narrative. A roundtable of renowned photojournalists discussed the value of a still image in an environment that is increasingly video-centric and interactivity-obsessed. Mixed opinions tell us the debate is still open and the future is uncertain.  Full coverage of the event can be found here.

Anyone with a camera can get lucky and capture that “one great shot,” but few can translate it into words for millions of people. There is a unique point of view and extraordinary talent required to propel a mere photo into photojournalism. Skill and education aside, a photojournalist is defined by the dedication put into each assignment, and the ability to convey a feeling and emotion with a single image.

What do you think will become of the professional photojournalist?  Will Flickr replace the dark room at the Journal? Has our obsession with video catalyzed the extinction of the still image?  I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

Courtesy of Jennifer Williams Photography

On a personal note, I recently had the pleasure of meeting photographer Jennifer Williams from California, who happened to be walking through Boston’s Beacon Hill on vacation.  I left my English Bulldog, Henrietta, outside while I ran into a shop to pick something up. Henreitta is a bit of a fixture in the neighborhood, and is used to having her photo taken.  However, I have never been able to get her to sit still so I can take her picture. A tourist was snapping some shots and I asked if he could send me a copy if there was a good one. I can aim and shoot at just about anything, but not Henrietta. A decade of trying has resulted in broken cameras, slobby lenses and half head shots.  After the nameless tourist walked away, Jennifer appeared and handed me her card: Jennifer Williams Photography.  She said that she had a few shots as well and was happy to share them with me.  To my great surprise, Jennifer not only sent me some images, but she included Henrietta in her vacation blog updates.  Thank you, Jennifer, for using your expert eye and taking time from your vacation to share your visual story of Henrietta with me. Her picture is certainly one still image that will always retain its value.


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0 Responses to Seeing Double

  1. Jen says:

    Thank you Margaret. Henrietta has been quite a popular post for me. Everyone thinks she is so adorable and I am happy you finally got your photo of her! :)

  2. As an undergraduate art student, this is a topic that came up often: what is the fate of the photograph? At Indiana University, I was one of the last students to have the opportunity to use the dark room. The romance of the soft red lights and the soothing sound of running water will soon be replaced by the clicks and beeps of a digital multimedia lab. But I don’t think that spells imminent doom for the photojournalist.

    Still photos tell a story in a way that video cannot. They capture a single solitary moment, and in that moment, you as the viewer can reflect on what you’re seeing. You notice the details, the humanity of the image – with video, you are just trying to keep up.

    Using Mr. Barbatunov’s photo as an example, think about this: would a video of this ash-covered commuter walking away have the same effect as this still? Would you really pay attention to the simultaneous look of pain and disappointment in his face, or the defeat of his posture? Or would you just see a nameless commuter leaving the scene of a horrible incident? Would you remember his face a day from now? An hour from now? With video, no, I don’t think you would. I wouldn’t. But the face I see in this still image I will never forget.

    Just because video moves does not make it more moving. In my humble opinion, there will always be a place in journalism for the photographer – always.

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