Magazine article Nieman Reports

Inner Eye: A Life-Long Strategy for Learning Photojournalism

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Inner Eye: A Life-Long Strategy for Learning Photojournalism

Article excerpt

Pinned to my office door is a poster prepared by one of my students, a peer adviser who uses it to help orient incoming freshmen. On it she quotes documentary photographer Dorothea Lange: "A camera is an instrument that teaches you how to see without the use of a camera."

Lange hung on her own door a quotation by Francis Bacon: "The contemplation of things as they are without error or confusion is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

These two gems of wisdom make fine touchstones for anyone who would practice, as well as teach, photojournalism. Discipline yourself to see with or without a camera by immersing yourself in life and drawing inspiration from its diversity.

My objective as a teacher is to tap the wisdom within my students in ways that inspire them to resonate with the larger world. I believe that each of us has a wellspring of creativity that resides in our unique set of family, cultural and educational experiences and values. Students will progress faster and further if they can relate what they already know to the experiences and concerns of others. Above all I try to discourage imitation, a practice that can produce quick competence but lead to formulaic and stereotypical thinking.

That emphasis on resonating with the outer world is a key factor in separating the best from run-of-the-mill after students become professional photographers.

I demonstrate processes that apply to all problems rather than narrow solutions that apply only to specific problems. By teaching ways of thinking, instead of what to think, I encourage my students to become self-teachers, to adopt habits of gathering and processing information that provide a foundation for a lifetime of self-renewal.

I prefer to coach rather than to lecture, to engage students in dialogues that amplify the insights of individuals to inform and inspire the group. I insist that the tone of critiques be positive and frame them with two questions: What is strong about this work? What would make it better?

As students debate specific details I moderate to bring out as many voices as possible. I point out broad themes and show how photographers have handled similar situations in different ways, or the same situation in different ways. I summarize by linking key points to ideas expressed in lectures and readings and conclude by suggesting how lessons learned in critique can be applied to future assignments.

When I lecture I try to frame concepts within a historical, philosophical and ethical perspective. For instance, an understanding of digital technology requires an awareness of the professional and cultural influences of all reproduction technologies from the daguerreotype through wet plates, roll films, miniature cameras, offset printing and so forth. Concurrently one must understand how image manipulation has been both celebrated and maligned throughout the history of the photographic processes.

Like Lange, I believe that photojournalism's principal mission is to show people doing the things that make them newsworthy, to show the impact of issues on people's lives.

This requires thorough, painstaking research--a chore that some photographers seek to avoid, or to pass on to others. One must understand a subject's character, habits and circumstances well enough to anticipate opportunities for making meaningful pictures.

As in all fields of journalism, the wider one's base of knowledge, the more likely one is to recognize good stories and good subjects. That's why a broad liberal arts education is required by all accredited schools of journalism.

Still, nothing can substitute for personal experience. I demand that students get off campus into the wider world to complete assignments as often as possible.

Individuality: the source of photographic "freshness"

The authority and appeal of documentary pictures are derived from the vitality and relevance of a particular situation. …

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