A profession forever in search of a definition

At Washington & Lee University recently, the communications professor introduced me to his class as a “visual journalist.”

A few weeks earlier, another prof at Hollins University called me a “multi-media storyteller.”

Over the years, what I do for a living has come under many titles.  I’ve been a photojournalist, a journalist who takes photographs, a reporter, a photographer, a newspaperman, an ink-stained newspaperman and a visualist.

Lots of titles for what basically is still one job.  I report on what happens in the world through words, pictures and – more and more often – video.

The world’s first journalists reported on the events of their day through drawings and carvings on cave walls.  Later reporters wrote on scrolls and drew rudimentary pictures.  You could say the authors of the various books of the Bible were the journalists of their time, writing down what they saw, heard or were told.

What we do as reporters hasn’t changed.  How we do it changes almost daily in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world.

I took my first photo for publication with a twin-lens reflex Yashicamat.  Later I would use a 4×5 Speed graphic – the standard “press camera” for the time.  In following years, I would graduate to a 35mm Nikon F and then up through a progression of cameras to the digital single-lens-reflex Canons that I use today.

I wrote my first newspaper story in longhand on sheets of lined paper in a notebook, followed by a manual typewriter, then an IBM Selectric.  Like many reporters in the 1980s, the Radio Shack TRS-100 become my on-the-road, electronic traveling companion with its great keyboard, long battery life and tiny lcd screen.  Nowadays, I churn out copy on a Mac, an iPad or a netbook, depending on locale.

For video, I can choose from a digtal SLR like the Canon 5D, Mk II or 7D, a large, shoulder-mounted HD Videocam like the Panasonic AG-HMC80 or a compact HD cam like the Sony 560V.  Each has a purpose unique to certain tasks.  Each can produce broadcast quality video or high-definition images for web use.

Yet a growing number of “visual journalists” are leaving their big, expensive toys at home and depending on an iPhone as their tool of choice.  New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter won third place in last year’s Pictures of the Year features category for a series of photos of American troops at war – all taken with an iPhone and processed with a filtering application called Hipstamatic.

His award generated controversy.  Traditionalists sneered at the Winter’s non-traditional use of a camera phone as a journalistic tool.  Some felt the filtering effects of the Hipstamatic application violated the Times’ own policy when it comes to altering the context of photographs.

But Winter proved something I’ve long believed.  When it comes to photography, it’s not the tool that a shooter uses but the eye behind the tool that composes the picture and tells the story.

It’s only a matter of time before someone wins a Pulitzer Prize for a photo taken with a camera phone.  With so many of the littler buggers out there, someone – somewhere – will capture the right moment of a major news event and produce an image that will flash around the world and catch everyone’s attention.

Winter didn’t have to lug a camera bag filled with a couple of $5,000 digital SLRs and several lenses around for his assignment.  Instead, he composed his photos and shot them with a small, unobtrusive camera phone.

The debate continues, just like the debates that have raged over the years about what we – as reporters – should call ourselves.

Let’s hope the debate never gets in the way of our main goal:  Doing our jobs.

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© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse