Thursday, 18 July 2013

Exercise: An Essay on Photojournalism

One of the four essays that I need to analyse is Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press, by Karin E. Becker. I have read this essay and made some initial notes and jotting and will write it up again at a later date.

my pencil jottings and initial thoughts

*update* Essay read, analysis written 19/8/13

Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press by Karin E Becker

Chapter 28 within The Photography Reader, pages 291 – 308 (The Photography Reader, 2003) is a revised version of a paper originally presented at a seminar in Yugoslavia in May 1990, we are not advised as to what or when the revisions were but not sure that matters as the essay contained therein is very detailed and is being judged on what it currently is, rather than what it was before, but I thought it interesting to note that it has been amended from its original form.

As with all academic essays, the writer begins with a statement of intent, a thesis, several paragraphs outlining the “uncomfortable” history of photojournalism within the western press and how the use of photography is skewed more toward the “popular” rather than the “serious” press; that the “consequences of this position (are) evident…in the pages and discussion of the tabloid press.” Tabloids are dismissed as “merely popular”. (p291)

As a brief summary: Becker sets out to examine the link between photography and its relationship with the tabloid press by examining several distinct areas and stages in her argument- all under subheadings within her essay-  and wishes to prove one way or another if it is correct to assume that the photography of the tabloid press is merely entertainment and “popular” and seemingly concludes by saying that yes, tabloids treat their photographs/photojournalism in a different manner but in most respects they still report news and provide a vehicle for discussing said news so are they inferior or less serious? I shall write slightly more in depth with regards to her conclusion after dealing with the main stages raised within the essay.

The early picture press - (p292-293)
This section discusses the launching of illustrated, weekly magazines in the early 1840’s. To form an aspect of her argument Becker provides many examples of publications of the time e.g. the Illustrated London News, L’Illustration, Illustrierte Zeitung and Harper’s Weekly to name a few. She cites other authors and their publication’s (Hassner 1977:Taft 1938), (Johannesson 1982) (Carnes 1940: 15) to name a few, which give academic weight to her argument.

According to Becker and other authors, these magazines did on occasion illustrate their news but technology dictated that these were in the form of wood engravings carved by craftsmen from drawings provided by “on the spot” artists. Sometimes, but rarely, these engravings were made from photograph, However, more often than not photography was dismissed as too “stiff” and the technology unreliable. This meant that the press established “patterns of visual reporting” and, as with a lot of early photography, journalistic or otherwise, the conventions of the art world were placed upon it.

I felt in part that this section provided an interesting historical background as she mentions that photojournalism can trace a heritage to a limited number of “prestige periodicals” the reason given being the seriousness of the topic covered (the Spanish-American War). The lack of use originally of any form of illustration was due to the problems with technology and cost. With the introduction of industrialization and advertising these were no longer an issue, photography was being used more and yet there was no evidence that it helped sell more copy. However you could also argue that this was the establishment of a weekly photographically heavy publication rather than daily tabloid news.

The tabloid = sensationalism = photography – (p293-295)
This section deals with daily newspapers and their deadlines being prohibitive to the use of either illustration or photographs. Later on there were exceptions to the rule; the “yellow press” of the US “where pictures were seen as key to successful and sensational coverage” Becker seems to hint that it is this period in time, the 1920’s, where tabloid journalism and associated photographs of violence and sex scandals made for a “low point for the press”.  I am not sure if the morals and ethical standards of the era made for the gutter press or if the press photography encouraged the readership of the scandals? Whichever, there must be a general agreement that both then and now tabloid newspapers tend to break the rules of ethical and moral guidelines <coughs News of the World> however with the Leveson inquiry (LEVESON INQUIRY:Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press) it has become more apparent that the broadsheets are not as innocent as they claim to be, but that breaks away slightly from the topic of photography, although quite a few reputable news photographs have been tainted with the ignominy of Photoshop, for example Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj. (BBC News Channel, 2006)

However returning back to the historical aspect of photojournalism Becker, via Taft, informs us that the “sensationalism of the tabloid press was intensified by photographs of events… which are trite superficial, tawdry, salacious, morbid or silly” (Taft 1938:448) which provides evidence to support initial ideas that photojournalism in the tabloid press was populist. She further explores how photography was banned from judicial and legal proceedings leaving publications no choice other than to fabricate images, citing (Hassner 1977:282; Kobre 1980:17), or sneak into events such as the public execution of Ruth Snyder to provide illustration for their text. The supporting text and headlines were as “sensational” as the images thus linking the two together. Again using a citation from Taft, Becker informs us he claimed that “prodigious and free use of photographs…defeated their own object…of disseminating news..” he paints a picture of the audience glancing at the images, taking what information they glean from the pictures and disregarding the written journalism. He goes on to say “These criticisms and abuses the pictorial press must meet and correct if it to command the respect of intelligent people.” (Taft 1938: 448-9) Becker uses this citation well to support the growing idea that the tabloids are not for the intellectual elite and the inclusion of photographs in a story implies it is dumbed down for the entertainment of the popular masses.

The daily press ‘supplements’ the news – (p295-296)
Becker further supports the theory within this section by outlining how publications gradually started to recognise photography as an acceptable medium in some instances yet were still wary over the tabloids “abuses of press credibility” making it harder for photographs to be viewed “as a medium for serious news”. In order to get around this problem they created weekly supplements to work alongside daily news “while insulating and protecting the newspapers primary product from being downgraded by the photograph.” Again she uses citations to strengthen points being made.

The picture magazines legacy – (p296-297)
Yet more evidence pointing to the growing disparity of photography and certain types of photojournalism becoming more acceptable, e.g. the photo essay and documentaries of famous and non-famous people, being welcomed into the art world and considered “high culture” whilst this continued to exclude the tabloid press. More academic citations were used and from a variety of authors.

The contemporary domain of the tabloid – (297-298)
Here, rather than looking at attitudes towards the photography itself, Becker examines how the photographs are taken and used in the tabloid press. She concludes that while the front pages are similar to the “elite” in respect of a main headline and main photograph, the approach of reporting the news itself was “distinctly different.” The photographs used in the tabloids were awkward, invariably “garish” and revealing.

Plain pictures of ordinary folk – (p298-299)
Once more Becker looks at the photographs used in tabloids to show how they are used to inform or illicit emotion rather than just report news. Ordinary people are presented in recognisable settings yet will be holding a prop or displaying expressions which help convey the story. Although taken to present informality care and attention is given to lighting and framing and subjects usually the photographs provide eye contact between subject and audience. There is a nod given to the id shots reserved for tragic or criminal events and the candid shots taken at an event. Whilst not providing a strong argument for or against the theory with regards to tabloid photojournalism, Becker is providing background information which implies that the images in the tabloid press are not of high value or exceptional importance and are taken/presented in a way that whilst factual, appear to be manipulative.

Celebrities – (p299-300)
Becker examines how celebrities are presented, either “behind the scenes” to make them appear “just like us” whilst making us feel we are being given a “privileged” view of their lives, performing or candid. Candid shots fall into two categories, those being controlled by the star and those which are unguarded and snapped by the paparazzi. She accepts however, that the paparazzi images are not as frequent as one might expect. We are informed via a citation (Sekula 1984: 29) that less technical compositions are more common in the tabloids news coverage because of “the theory of the higher truth of the stolen image”. They don’t care if the picture is naff; it tells a story and the more naff, the more believable!

The news event – (p301-302)
Here, Becker defines the different ways news is defined and represented pictorially within the tabloid press. Candid shots maybe from an unscheduled event or planned as in a press conference, they tend to show people unmasked and revealing a certain truth. Technical flaws are overlooked and this seems to have become “conventions of the tabloid style” in producing authentic images. More import is placed on the common people that the political leaders causing the issues affecting them, tabloids traditionally do more crime reportage therefore use a lot of id shots but these tend to be smaller than that of the victims. Disaster coverage will focus on the photographer and how the shots are achieved and with all stories there is an “impossibility of seeing the photographs independently from …the text” She therefore is once more backing up a theory that the photojournalism of the tabloid press is brought down to a certain level by the standard of its writing and presentation and the public perception that tabloids are down-market, informational fodder rather than a higher class epistle.

Reframing the picture in words and layout – (p302-303)
More commentary and citations which confirm that photographs have little meaning without their settings; where they appear and how they are presented. The text in the tabloid press tends to be more dramatic, large in relation to page size, and sensationalist. More often than not the text will be a contrast to the ordinariness of the image, with the text illustrating the image rather than the other way round; direct quotes are employed giving voice to the person portrayed. Once more the photographer is held up as the first person in certain circumstances and this “contradicts the ideal role of the journalist as one standing apart from the events” Becker holds that this adds to the sensationalism of a story, the fact that it could not be told within the confines of usual reportage. She reminds us that the style of the tabloids is not the fault of the photographer but the way the editorials are constructed with odd sizing, montages, re-touching, directional arrows and black bands over the subject’s faces/eyes. Broadsheets or the elite press tend to stick to the usual conventions of rectangular proportions and established guidelines we associate with “photographic truth”.

Conclusions – (p304-305)
Outside of the daily press photojournalism has attained the status of popular art, tabloid press does not employ these conventions. The tabloid photographers are not revered as artists rather “impulsive individuals, consumed by events”. Tabloid photojournalism is a contradiction to the elite and to itself. It presents factual images in ways that should support the reality and credibility of the photographs but due to framing and sizing prevent the very thing it set out to do. Becker recognises the issues of pigeon-holing tabloids as merely popular. They may be popular and appear anti-elitist but not “merely”, the photography under discussion does work to report serious news.

My conclusions
This was a difficult essay to read in some respects. There was information overload at several points and I had to read it several times before I could work out if Becker was writing subjectively or objectively. In the end I chose objectively. Nowhere did she write “I think…I believe…my opinion is…” She sets out an idea that photojournalism in the tabloid press is considered trivial and merely popular, then provides many examples as to why this could be so, the arguments are well presented, historic background is provided with examples of publications and over 30 references are used throughout the essay. These academic references add weight to any points she is making. Becker contrasts the use of photographs in other publications and at first I thought this detracted from her argument, stating that photojournalism was used seriously in weekly publications, but having re-read these sections I am more inclined to think they bolster it due to them being weekly not daily publications and the way that these publications presented the images. Having weighed up the evidence she reaches a conclusion which in essence admits that it isn’t that easy to say “yes” or “no”; tabloid photojournalism flies in the face of the establishment and many journalistic conventions but does provide reliable accurate news despite the sensational presentation. Due to the amount of research undertaken for this essay, the acknowledgement that different cultures have slightly differing approaches to reporting but she was examining a narrow band within the aspect of “tabloid” press I think Becker argued her case well.


BBC News Channel. (2006, August 19). BBC News Middle East. Retrieved August Monday, 2013, from BBC News Channel:
Becker, K. E. (1990). Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press. In L. Wells (Ed.), The Photography Reader (pp. 291-308). Oxon, England: Routledge.
LEVESON INQUIRY:Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. (n.d.). Retrieved August 19, 2013, from The Leveson Inquiry:
Various. (2003). The Photography Reader. (L. Wells, Ed.) Oxon, England: Routledge.

Slightly intrigued as to how the press of today still operates within these historical views I purchased a copy of The Sun and The Daily Telegraph…and yes they still seem to follow the same conventions ;o)

"Elite" broadsheet

No comments:

Post a Comment