Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On Photojournalism

A friend/co-Spectator photog remarked to me once that working in a newsroom inverts your moral compass. I think that may be a slightly extreme assessment -- but after working for (what feels like) so long in the office of a daily, almost-professional paper, I can't help but acknowledge that we newsfolk have a bit of an unhealthy desire for doom and gloom and all things disastrous.

Perhaps it's just part of the job; after all, human nature is such that happy, heart-warming, & cuddly stories are of far less interest than that Harvard grad who cut up his ex-wife into little bits and stored her julienned remains in his closet until the neighbors complained of a strange stench. Or maybe it's because people who go all-out, batshit insane are much more extreme than their benevolent, generous, kind counterparts (though admittedly Wesley Autrey could spearhead a pretty decent counter-argument).

But for whatever reason, journalists never wish for Wesley Autreys on slow news days. We wish for homicides and fires and scandals (on a more reasonable college scale, we wish for epic ideological battles between extreme leftists and nutcase speakers or taser attacks in the campus library). I can't count how many times I've heard an editor or reporter complain that there haven't been enough murders recently, or that someone should consider setting fire to Columbia's iconic administrative building, Low Library, in time to make deadline.

Does that make us bad people? Almost certainly not, but it certainly doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy about my internal ethics system. It doesn't really matter that we haven't actually torched President Bollinger's office to the ground -- the point is, we've weighed the negatives against the number of website hits we'd get the next day.

When I flipped through this year's World Press Photo winners, part of me was slightly sickened every time I realized that those photographers were actively and continually making a choice to stay uninvolved -- even when their assistance might have saved a life. Maintaining neutrality at the cost of empathy is simultaneously a noble and horrific choice to make.

In two weeks, I'm going to New Orleans along with my professor and classmates from a GSAPP class on rebuilding the city, and I'm not sure what I'm going to find or how I'm going to react. Clearly, New Orleans is not Israel or Afghanistan or the Sudan, but still ... I hope I can find a balance.


Mira said...

I never thought of journalism in that angle before. I used to get so upset reading about New Orleans or seeing it in the national news, because the reporters would talk about the widespread chaos and destruction and incompetence of the government, but then they wouldn't do anything either. They'd just shoot photos of the floods and the crowds in the Superdome and leave. At one point, I couldn't even bring myself to watch the news because I was so sick of journalists, the government, and most of the country turning a blind eye to my home.

But with that said, I don't think you'll find New Orleans as damaged and ruined as the media portrays it now. Yes, there are still large areas of the city that are still in ruin from the hurricane, and last week's tornado didn't help the recovery efforts. But I think what you're more likely to find now is recovery and rebuilding. You can drive through the 9th ward or Lakeview or Uptown and see whole neighborhoods destroyed, but now you'll also find residents coming back and trying to rebuild their homes and businesses. From what I can see, many of us residents have taken up the mantra that if the government won't help the city, then we'll do it ourselves. The progress is slow, but hopefully it'll work out.

So, point of ridiculously long comment: Don’t worry about any horrific choices. Enjoy New Orleans, and drop me a line if you want any local perspectives or some good coffee.

Anonymous said...

(link to GSAPP is invalid markup. You used an "-" instead of a "=")

interesting read.

-Ryan Bies (too lazy to log in)