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AZ's Blog | Indonesia Photograher / Photojournalism  / To Tell the Truth: Codes of Objectivity in Photojournalism

To Tell the Truth: Codes of Objectivity in Photojournalism

Communication, 13:95-109, 1992

Recent mass media scholarship has shed considerable light on journalistic objectivity as a social construct. Seminal studies by researchers like Tuchman (1978), Gans (1979), Epstein (1973), and Fishman (1980) have revealed the relationships among work routines, professional norms and values, and the institutional contexts in which newsmaking takes place. Examining news production as a social activity has helped to place objectivity within an appropriate cultural frame, allowing us to see it as a professional value and a set of communicative strategies employed by journalists. While the newsmaking routines associated with print and broadcast journalism have received significant scholarly attention, surprisingly little scrutiny has been directed towards news photography, or photojournalism.

Both history and popular lore have encouraged us to view photographs as direct, unmediated transcriptions of the real world, rather than seeing them as coded symbolic artifacts whose form and content transmit identifiable points of view. Statements of the kind made by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, published in the London Quarterly Review for 1857, represent the enduring popular attitude towards the medium of photography:

    [Photography] is the sworn witness of everything presented to her view. What are her unerring records in the service of mechanics, engineering, geology, and natural history, but facts of the most sterling and stubborn kind?…Facts which are neither the province of art nor of description, but that of a new form of communication between man and man–neither letter, message, nor picture–which now happily fills up the space between them?

Since the introduction of photography, viewers have invested the medium with a level of authority and credibility unparalleled by other modes of communication. The iconic similarity of the photograph to its subject masks the distinction between image and reality, and obscures the significance of the picture-making process in the construction of a photographic message. Like Lady Eastlake, most contemporary viewers continue to think of the photograph as a transparent window on the world, capturing the reality in front of the camera lens.


The unidentified bodies of victims of the tsunami, in Pangandaran, Indonesia. The tsunami killed at least 600 people and injured 431 people across six districts along Central and West Java provinces. More than 230 are still missing and feared dead. The death toll is expected to rise. Most deaths were caused by the tsunami along coastal fishing villages and along the beaches at the Pangandaran resort in West Java’s Ciamis district, about 270 kilometers (170 miles) southeast of Jakarta. A total of 68,464 people were displaced. (Photo by : Ahmad Zamroni)

The facticity attributed to the photographic image contributed to the emergence of its reportorial use in the latter part of the nineteenth century. During this period of photographic experimentation, energetic camera operators explored a variety of uses for this new medium. They employed photographs for artistic, commercial, and scientific purposes at the same time that the use of the photograph as a documentary record was expanding. In the United States, Jacob Riis is the most frequently cited pioneer of photojournalism, utilizing photography as a part of his reportorial apparatus to cover the “police beat” in New York City during the 1880s and 1890s. During the late 1800s it also became clear to newspaper publishers that using illustrations boosted the circulations of their periodicals. The reluctance of editors and publishers to sensationalize or cheapen their publications with photographs gave way with the development of increasingly reliable and standardized reproduction technology and the prospect of increased sales. By the 1920s photographs became a regular part of the news diet.

Tension between the natural and the symbolic is an inherent aspect of photography. To viewers possessing little familiarity with the processes of photographic image-making and the choices shaping the appearance of the final printed photograph, the image seems unquestionably truthful, generated by the subject matter itself, rather than the agency and the intent of the photographer. However, when the many variables involved in the photographic production process are examined, the conventionally constructed, symbolic character of photography becomes undeniable. The iconic linkage of subject and image causes an ontological conundrum unique to photography. For this reason, photography offers a productive focus for the study of objectivity as a social phenomenon.

Photojournalists, highly skilled manipulators of the medium, must negotiate the tension between the natural and the symbolic in photography during the course of their everyday work routines. Although photojournalists are constantly involved in the manufacture of imagery and they actively employ a set of learned codes and conventions, they still must work to legitimize photography as a medium that “captures” the news. They must insist on the objectivity of their pictures at the same time that they attempt to demonstrate their mastery of the craft.  Thus, the relationship between content and form plays a pivotal role in defining photojournalism. As an objective newsgathering activity, photojournalists view content as primary, while form serves as its vehicle, imperceptibly transporting content to the viewer. The rhetoric surrounding the practice of photojournalism configures form as transparent, and thereby neutral. For example, Frank Hoy, a photojournalism professor, advises aspiring photojournalists:

    The practical test of any compositional device is whether the viewer can understand the content. When the viewer notices a form or composition, it has called attention to itself at the expense of the message. Content must communicate with the viewer so clearly that the viewer doesn’t even notice the compositional devices (Hoy, 1986:169)

Hoy’s advice suggests that photojournalists learn to integrate the dualism of photography into a single conceptual package rendering news photographs simultaneously natural and symbolic through a communicational code of naturalism. As I use the term, naturalism refers to a communicative strategy which seeks to obscure the articulatory apparatus utilized in the production of a message, diminishing the perceived presence of an author and the significance of intent or point of view. To quote Hoy,

    In many instances the photograph is interpretative, in that it can also present a point of view–the photographer’s personal intellectual stance, opinion, or unique attitude toward the subject. At its best, however, the single photograph overcomes its “one-view” disadvantage by communicating the significance of a scene or event. To do this the photojournalist must know the story and how much to include in the frame. He or she must question the resulting photograph, asking whether it is true to the nature of the particular news (1986:76).

This approach to photography exploits the iconic nature of the medium and suggests that photographs are authored by the subject matter they depict, with the able assistance of the skilled photojournalist.

Working from the assumption that news photographs are socially constructed artifacts, their appearance shaped by the institutional context of the mass media organization in which the are produced (cf. Rosenblum, 1978), this discussion examines how the code of journalistic objectivity is expressed in photographic terms and the symbolic strategies photojournalists are taught to employ in order to make pictures that tell the truth.

The 2006 Yogyakarta Earth | Old women in front of her damage house. Photo by Ahmad Zamroni


A comprehensive catalogue of the communicative codes of photojournalism is readily available in photojournalism textbooks. Written by journalism school faculty members (most of whom have come from the ranks of professional photojournalists) photojournalism textbooks detail the photo-techniques, typical work routines, professional ethics, and visual aesthetics of news photography. These how-to-do-it manuals offer the aspiring photojournalist a complete introduction to canons of professional practice, framed within a distinctive set of values and beliefs which school the reader in the culture of the profession. An analysis of these texts reveals one mechanism by which professional practices and codes are perpetuated.

In an attempt to explicate the role of photography in journalism I have analyzed the eight photojournalism textbooks currently listed in Books in Print. The high degree of correspondence found among these texts, expressed in recurrent professional rhetoric and aesthetic prescriptions, underscores the existence of a functioning code of photojournalistic practice. Examples from these sources will be used to construct a composite view of photojournalists’ approach to objectivity.

A common presupposition found in these texts is that photojournalism’s primary responsibility is to engage and inform a non-specialized mass readership. Frank Hoy lists a set of characteristics defining photojournalism that illustrate these ideas.

    • …photojournalism is communication photography. The communication can express a photojournalist’s view of a subject, but the message communicates more than personal self-expression.

The aim of the photojournalist is to communicate a clear message so the viewer can understand the situation quickly. The power of a great photograph is the power of an immediately understood message. The simpler the composition, the better the photograph…

…photojournalism reports…you should report news so readers wish they had been there…

…photojournalism deals with people. To succeed, the photojournalist must have a great interest in people. People are the prime ingredient in both ends of the photojournalistic message–they are the subjects and the viewers…

…photojournalism communicates to a mass audience. This means that the message must be concise and immediately understood by many different people. Private images or meanings have no place in photojournalism. A photojournalist can produce lasting images, even art, but the immediate message must effectively communicate to a mass audience (1986:5-7).

Photojournalism texts are rife with inferences about the needs and desires of readers, although the characterizations are rarely supported by any explicit evidence. Instead, photojournalists carve out their roles and responsibilities in response to an audience constructed on the foundation of “occupational wisdom”  and common sense.

550_HiRes_CigarStory01_18 Forbes 2012 April

550_HiRes_CigarStory02_18 Forbes 2012 April

Content: Fires, Accidents, and Crime

Content plays a major role in defining photojournalism, and the code of photojournalism includes a conception of what is and what is not news photography. Photojournalists adhere to a conception of news values espoused by print journalists, and because their images often illustrate reporters’ stories a clear parallel can be found between the kinds of stories newspapers run and the kinds of images staff photographers produce. Photojournalists recognize a finite set of picture-making categories, categories which are formalized through National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) competitions, held nationally each month. Picture categories include: spot news, general news, features, sports action, sports feature, portrait/personality (close-ups), environmental portraits, pictorial, food illustration, fashion illustration, and editorial illustration.

News photography categories warrant particular concern here, because news pictures demand the photographer’s reportorial skills as an impartial observer. Photojournalists distinguish between two types of news assignments, and these distinctions are routinely discussed in photojournalism texts. Spot news refers to the coverage of unanticipated events, photographed as they happen or soon afterwards. Disasters, acts of violence, and conflict predominate. General news, in contrast, refers to planned news events, such as press conferences, speeches, ceremonies, or parades.

Kobre defines news in contradistinction to feature photography, writing that

    A news picture portrays something new. News is timely. Therefore news pictures get stale quickly (1980:100).

Feature pictures, on the other hand, are expected to exhibit a quality of timelessness, depicting subject matter not necessarily defined by a specific time or place. Features pictures record commonplace occurrences, while

    A news picture accrues value when (1) its subject is famous, (2) the event is of large magnitude, or (3) the outcome is tragic (Kobre 1980:101).

According to Kobre even the act of shooting a news photo differs from shooting a feature photo in that photographers surrender control to the news event itself:

    With hard news the event controls the photographer. Photographers jump into action when their editor assigns them to cover a plane crash or a train wreck. When they reach the scene, they limit their involvement to recording the tragedy. They certainly would not rearrange the bodies and wreckage for a more artistic picture angle (Kobre, 1980:102).

Despite the assertion that photojournalists record events when they cover news assignments, photo texts give clear instructions detailing how a news event should be photographed in order to produce the the most complete narrative re-telling. Kobre, in particular, gives lengthy descriptions of three major types of spot news assignments–fires, accidents and disasters, and crime–and he offers both a rationale for the newsworthiness of each and a list of specific photo possibilities, described in detail. His advice reads like a film storyboard, pre-scripting the visual narrative.

Why should photojournalists shoot fire pictures? Because, explains Kobre, even though “they have read the news about fires, people want to see pictures of the disaster,” and photographs can show not only the emotions of the participants, but also the size of the fire better than words can describe it” (1980:52). Photo coverage should include:

  1. a record shot;
  2. an overall shot, perhaps from a high angle, in order to establish the location and the size of the fire;
  3. the human side of the tragedy;
  4. firefighters at work;
  5. he psychological attraction of the fire (“the crowd stares with wide eyes and open mouths, seemingly transfixed”);
  6. the economic angle–the type of building burning, its proximity to other buildings in the neighborhood, the extent of the damage, the cause of the fire, investigators at work;
  7. the scene of the fire on the following day–charred buildings, residents returning to examine belongings.

The list of photos Kobre suggests makes possible the construction of a visual narrative filled with drama, excitement, and pathos. While the newsworthiness of the report receives significant attention in Kobre’s text, the importance ofemotional impact is a recurring theme in this and other discussions of spot news photography (see especially Rothstein, 1979 and Hoy, 1986). Because photojournalists assert that photography operates primarily at the level of emotional response, pictures exemplifying good news photography are said to “grab at the heartstrings of the reader” (Kobre, 1980:55).

Like fires, “accidents make news” so photojournalists need to know how to photograph them. Kobre offers four reasons for shooting accidents and disasters. First, “accidents and disasters occur” and to “record what goes on in the city and to keep readers informed about what’s happening constitute two of the major roles of the press.” Second, “readers are curious about accidents.” Third, “people want to see what they read about.”  And fourth, “accident pictures grab the emotional side of the reader…the picture brings the tragedy home” (1980:61). Kobre acknowledges that while accidents are all different, they also “have certain points in common for the photographer to look for” (1980:63). As before, he generates a list of shots the photographer can make.

Kobre advises photographers to “concentrate on the human element of any tragedy,” because “readers relate to people pictures.” A straightforward record shot should be made because “the viewer wants to see the relationship of the cars to one another and to the highway.”  Symbolic pictures can be used to imply what occurred, affording editors the option of using a picture lacking literal (gory) detail. Photographers can sometimes make pictures that show the cause of an accident, and they should attempt to portray its effect on people in the surrounding area (e.g. traffic jams). A follow-up story might look at the frequency of accidents in the area. To round out the coverage, the photographer should try to portray people’s responses, “how they adapt to their misfortune” (1980:63-64).

While crimes may be difficult to photograph as they occur, Kobre suggests that a “photographer with good news sense can learn to predict some situations that might erupt into violence,” an important skill because “crime, almost any kind, makes a printable story in most newspaper offices throughout the country” (1980:67; 70). According to Kobre, photos of crime personalize the meaning of “abstract crime figures” for readers. Newsworthiness aside, photojournalists should shoot crime pictures because they “rivet the attention of the viewer.” Kobre substantiates his claim by citing the popularity of TV cop shows. News photography differs from TV representations, however, in that

    [a]ctual news photos take the viewer from the fantasy realm of television to the real crisis in the streets. Crime photos in the paper remind the viewer that felonies don’t stop at 11 P.M.; they can’t be switched to another channel, or turned off at bedtime (1980:70).

Building on what he considers to be evidence of public interest in crime photographs, Kobre asserts further:

    The public’s insatiable curiosity about crime photos accounts also for editors’ continued use of such photos. Few readers can resist inspecting a photo of a mugging in progress or a grocery store hold-up.

Perhaps readers’ curiosity for crime pictures lies in a deep-seated belief that criminals look different from regular people. Even though psychologists have disproved the notion of the “criminal face,” the reader checks to see if the convict has close-set eyes or a lowered brow–just as the reader suspected…(1980:70).

The circular reasoning exhibited here legitimizes crime as a worthy spot news subject, and the photojournalist’s (and editors’) responsibility to satisfy perceived viewer interest perpetuates this type of photographic coverage.

News as narrative. With the three examples of spot news coverage Kobre offers, the importance of narrative becomes clear. In each case, photojournalists are directed to compile a set of photographs which will allow an editor to assemble a sequential visual representation of a news event, telling the story “as it occurred.” Since very few stories utilize more than a single photograph, each individual image should be able to tell something significant about the event in case it is used alone. In each example reviewed, the photographic strategy includes making a shot to establish the scene; photographs of participants, whether victims or authorities; representing the nature and extent of conflict, injury, or damage; photographs showing the modus operandi; and photos representing the effect of the incident. In all cases, photographers are instructed to seek out opportunities to represent the affective dimensions of the stories they shoot, personalizing the news and allowing for reader identification and empathy. As the suggested photo possibilities make clear, drama is an important story element because drama draws and holds viewer attention, provoking a more emphatic impact and legitimizing the utility of visual illustrations.

Kobre compares the photojournalist’s job with that of the movie director: when Gone with the Wind was shot, the director carefully planned each shot. Photojournalists do the same thing, but they “work under the pressure of the moment” without the luxury of retakes. Going beyond notions of appropriate content, Kobre suggests a specific formal approach to “directing” a photo assignment, assuring visual variety and complete coverage of the event. The establishing shot should be taken from a high angle using a wide angle lens. Medium shots “contain all the `story-telling’ elements of the scene…compressing the important elements into one image.” The close-up adds drama and “slams the reader into eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the subject.” The close-up “elicits empathy in the reader.”

Utilizing these strategies allows the photojournalist to produce a dramatic visual narrative. The fact that Kobre employs comparisons from entertainment media–television and film–warrants note. By invoking these comparisons, Kobre implicitly frames news photographs within the domain of narrative fiction. Like a good movie or television show, photojournalism benefits from conflict, excitement, action, and emotion. Pictures exhibiting these qualities are assumed to satisfy readers’ visual appetites. The photographic strategies Kobre recommends require a simultaneous conception of news photographs as impartial recordings of events and as dramatic photoplays. This conceptual merger resembles the format of docudrama, an emergent genre of television entertainment that packages fact in the conventions of narrative fiction.

Extending this further, Kobre advises that even general news assignments can take on the drama and excitement of spot news if the photojournalist approaches them in a way that demonstrates the uniqueness of the event. The photographer can portray the “flavor” of a meeting:

    through the creative application of framing techniques, catching the moment, and using long lens and light, the photographer can help portray for the reader the excitement, the tension, the opposition, and the resolution of the meeting (1980:79).

Similarly, Hoy writes that with general news the photographer is

    still aiming to get a spontaneous photo, so look for candids as the event unfolds. After you have covered a number of similar events, you can anticipate the action (1986:66)

While explicit manipulation may violate professional norms, setting out with a pre-conceived storyboard does not. Prior knowledge about news events and the conventions guiding editors’ decisions elicit from photojournalists a routine work strategy that ensures predictability and aesthetic continuity.

People and posing. Because people pictures are a staple of photojournalism, photo texts offer extensive advice on establishing rapport with subjects. To pose or not to pose people when shooting an awards ceremony, a mug shot, or an environmental portrait raises questions of professional ethics. Hoy addresses the issue in this way:

    • Perhaps one of the most confusing myths of photojournalism is that posing or directing a subject is unethical. The second most confusing myth is that the vast majority of good photographs you see in magazines and newspapers are totally candid. The old photojournalism saying, “make a picture, don’t just take one,” applies to imaginative thinking. It also applies to the many situations where some posing of the subject is needed to get more than a snapshot….

A working photojournalist cannot consistently cover assignments without being willing and able to pose, direct, or otherwise enlist the cooperation of subjects. It is ethical to do all of this to get a better, more story-telling, photograph.

Tips for making subjects look natural abound: when photographed in familiar surroundings a subject is more likely to “be himself”; look for gestures that give an informal appearance; coax people to do what they normally do; when there is too little time to wait for a natural response or to establish rapport, provoke a reaction; ask for a demonstration to “elicit the natural ham in people”; or tell the subject exactly what to do. Rothstein echoes Hoy when he addresses the ethics of re-enactments in his text:

    The re-enactment of a news event is a problem for every photographer’s conscience. It can be resolved only when the photographer honestly believes that his directions are creating a true picture of what actually happened. Direction by the photographer supposes a conception of what the final print will be like. It should add to the realism of each picture by coordinating the events or subjects before the camera to make the visual impact more effective. Direction has its greatest value when it is least discernible (1979:44).

Kobre suggests that photojournalists ask subjects to wear professional costumes (a lab coat, for example), and to pose them in front identifying props that will indicate their significance. He also spells out the meanings viewers will attach to different kinds of lighting and compositions. High-key light will be perceived as “upbeat”, while shadows will lead to a somber image. A balanced composition will suggest stability, while an off-balance composition will produce tension. Close-ups suggest intimacy.

A constant admonition underlying the discussions of useful strategies is that the use of these picture-making techniques should not be discernible to the viewer. Photojournalists strive to construct naturalism; the pictures they make need not actually be spontaneous or candid, but they should appear as if they record actual behavior. The photographer bears responsibility for the honesty of his or her portrayals of individuals and events. If the image is true to the spirit of the subject, the means to that end are justified–the photograph must tell the story.


While the range of subjects appropriate to news photography contribute to the communicative codes of photojournalism, form plays an important role in distinguishing photojournalism from other kinds of photographic practice. Photojournalists strive to make form transparent, an unobtrusive vehicle for content. Yet despite the prominence of this notion, formal codes can be readily identified by examining news photographs. The aesthetics of photojournalism require the active manipulation of form in order to maintain the illusion of naturalism.

In his discussion of techniques of good composition, Kerns offers this advice:

    Economy of visual elements within the frame is primary to visual success. Convey the most information or emotion with the fewest visual elements possible. When this guideline is followed, there is little to confuse the reader (1980:76).

Likewise, Hoy recommends “simplicity of design”:

    Even when reporting a complex idea or scene, your design should be simple and effective (1986:163).

As is frequently the case, the needs of the reader are invoked in these calls for simplicity. The recurring assumption in photo texts is that readers cannot adequately deal with images requiring active, extended scrutiny. Good news photographs communicate their messages directly and immediately. As Geraci writes:

    In simplicity, as in brevity, there is usually strength. So it is with photographs. The less cluttered, the more readily the eye of the beholder can grasp the full meaning of a photograph. The quicker it gets to the reasoning center of the brain, the quicker a reader can register approval or disapproval. If a photograph is too cluttered, the reader may move on to something else without really comprehending the subject of the photograph at all (Geraci, 1984:122).

Simplicity of design is achieved by following a set of regularly cited rules. In a well designed photograph, the “center of interest”, the main subject of the picture, must be clearly discernible to the viewer. This may be accomplished through framing, selective focus, or the use of leading lines in the composition. Photojournalism texts uniformly recommend use of the “rule of thirds” in order to frame the subject in such a way as to assure a dynamic composition. Using the rule of thirds, the pictorial frame is divided into three equal sections, horizontally and vertically, as though a tic-tac-toe board were drawn within the edges of the frame. The grid produced by this partitioning yields four points of intersection, all of them off center. The main subject is placed at one of these four points of intersection in order to produce an active composition with visual interest. At all costs, photographers are enjoined from placing the subject in the middle of the frame, because centered compositions inevitably produce a “static image”. To achieve pictorial balance, Kerns (1980) recommends that photographers place the largest object in the frame at one point of intersection on the rule of thirds grid, and the smallest object at another.

Rothstein (1979) discusses selection and focus as key elements of composition. According to Rothstein, photographers should select the proper moment, the right lens, and the best viewpoint in order to emphasize the center of interest in the image. Manipulating the focus within the frame allows specific areas of the photograph to remain discernibly sharp, while others blur. Varying focus makes it possible for the photographer to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular part of the photograph, passing over others. Choosing when and how to shoot a picture, the photographer controls which elements within the visual field will receive viewer attention.

“Distracting” backgrounds and foregrounds can plague photojournalists, diluting the immediate impact of their pictures. Framing and selective focus are used to draw attention away from “inessential” objects or activities in the foreground or background. Photographers can either move in closer to eliminate unwanted elements from the frame, or they can throw them out of focus by manipulating the depth of field of the camera lens they have chosen. Distracting elements, known as “clutter”, draw viewers’ attention in different directions, detracting from the simplicity of the composition, and making it more difficult for the reader to instantly apprehend the significance of the image. Kerns writes:

    Our pictures may have more than one area of interest, but it should be instantly clear what the most important center of interest is (1980:81).

Because professionals assert that photojournalism communicates immediately and emotionally, too much visual information appearing within the frame undermines the efficacy of the image.

Housing of damage

The use of “leading lines” also helps establish the photograph’s center of interest. Leading lines result from the presence of objects within the frame that impart a sense of directionality. For instance, the appearance of a roadway from lower left to upper right within the frame would tend to draw the viewer’s gaze in a diagonal direction through the picture. Photojournalists recognize the utility of these directional elements and frame their pictures so as to exploit the graphic emphasis leading lines offer. Hoy (1986) suggests the use of leading lines to point to the picture’s center of interest. He mentions lines in the shape of a “c”, an “l”, and a “t”, as well as “s-curves”, “pluses”, and “radials”.

Taken together, these three formal strategies–the rule of thirds, selective focus, and the use of leading lines–allow the photojournalist to construct a successful image capable of communicating “at a glance.” Hoy offers a list of related semiotic equations photojournalists should keep in mind:

  • simplicity of design=visual impact
  • visual impact=action or possibility of action
  • close up=intimacy or emphasis
  • long shot=isolation or aloneness
  • subject facing into frame=leads to object of gaze
  • subject facing out of frame=mystery
  • sharpness of detail=reality
  • softness of focus=mystery or non-reality
  • lightness of print=happiness
  • darkness of print=sadness or foreboding
  • facial expression=best for showing emotion (1986:167)

Because many of the circumstances confronting photojournalists demand split-second responses, these formal decisions are often made tacitly, carried out as a part of the routine of the job. Unlike other photographers, photojournalists usually have little time to consider a variety of approaches. They rely upon the codes of photojournalism, internalized through professional practice, to guide the process of making pictures.


The qualities attributed to good news photos recur across photojournalism texts. The criteria used to evaluate news photographs are criteria invoked with regard to judging other kinds of picture-making as well. That is, photojournalists respond not only to the norms and conventions of newsmaking, but also to the norms and conventions of picture-making. Some of the values ascribed to good paintings, good movies, good television shows, and good photographs also influence what is considered to be a good news picture. Geraci’s view is illustrative:

    Photographs, to be good photojournalism, must be a “slice of life” lifted from reality and transferred to silver in such a manner that the viewer senses some of the spontaneity and excitement of the original scene. If the subject looks uncomfortable, the viewer will feel this discomfort. If the subject is static, “posing for the camera,” the viewer will soon lose interest and move on to another thing. If the subject appears commonplace, viewed from eyelevel and lacking action or some other visual appeal, the picture will not long command the attention of the viewer (1984:115)

Beyond truthfulness then, good news photographs must have “visual appeal”, an ephemeral quality attributed to pictures that people seem to enjoy looking at. Geraci associates visual appeal with impact and emotion. Kobre calls good news photos “eye stoppers”, pictures that have interesting patterns, strong contrasts in tonal value, pictures that lend themselves to unique cropping, and hold viewers’ interest (1980:208). Photojournalists agree that photographs with visual appeal are well composed, pleasing to the eye. Beyond the recipes offered for good composition, well-made photographs trigger an intuitive positive response. “If it looks right, chances are a photo is well composed” (Geraci, 1984:116).

For Geraci, visual appeal also requires dramatic action, real or implied:

    To be interesting, a photograph must convey a sense of the expectant….In most photographs action is an asset and it is indispensable in news photographs…. Action and viewer interest are intertwined. A photograph lacking action is probably one lacking interest, certainly universal interest, and very likely should not be used in a publication (1984:85-86).

As a storytelling medium, stories told in an exciting way are valued above stories told matter-of-factly. Dramatic angles, framing, and lighting add to the impact of the image, presumably piquing viewer interest. Emotion is prized; news photos wring emotional response from viewers as no other medium can. Action, drama, and emotion are conveyed through the content of the image, but these qualities are also conveyed through the formal treatment given to the image. With news photographs, what is represented and how it is represented give the image its impact. Despite the insistence on the pre-eminence of content, form plays a crucial role.

he codes of professional practice make it possible to translate real life’s complexity into a visual representation “immediately understandable” to the viewer.


Photojournalism relies upon the notion that photography captures an objective record of reality for viewers. Yet, at the same time, a clearly defined system of rules and conventions governs the professional practice of photojournalism, delimiting the range of appropriate images and shaping the form those images take. Paradoxically, news photographs are valued as neutral records at the same time that they are admired as carefully crafted pictures. Photojournalists earn kudos not only for what they show, but also for how well they show it. Photo competitions pitting photojournalists against one another in the quest for the best telling of the story attest to the importance of craft in the photojournalistic enterprise.

Photojournalists operate within a conceptual framework and within an institutional context that determines what subjects warrant attention. Conventions of framing, composition, lighting, and color or tonal value guide the translation of newsworthy subjects into the two-dimensional photographic image. But the representational devices employed by photojournalists are designed to be transparent. If an image is dramatic, it is the subject that appears to produce the drama, not the representational skill of the photographer. In their careful crafting of images, photojournalists ascribe to a formal code of naturalism, preserving the objective aura cast around the photographic image.

Well schooled in the techniques and the conventions of photojournalism, the photographer can approach any event, object, or individual and translate actuality into imagery. In an important sense, the practice of photojournalism supersedes its objects: the codes of professional practice make it possible to translate real life’s complexity into a visual representation “immediately understandable” to the viewer. The simplicity of the translation, a quality valued by photojournalists, provokes an emotive response. The dramatic stories told by good news photographs are meant to be apprehended viscerally. The narrative frame cast around news events encourages readers to identify with the story, the dilemmas and situations of its starring actors, masking complexity and diffusing critical response. Photojournalism, cloaked in its mantle of objectivity, offers the viewer a vision of the world easily consumed and digested, while its naturalism perpetuates its legitimacy as an objective bearer of the news.

Dona Schwartz

Paper presented at the 74th Annual Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, August 7-10, 1991


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Original Source:

  • Roni

    Hi Natalie, thanks for your visit. Yup, its Dona’s article. I found it from that website. Sorry I couldn’t help more.. Cheers, Roni

    January 16, 2013 at 8:46 am
  • Nat Kreidieh

    Hello Ahmad, I am writing a paper on this exact topic and wanted to reference this article. Can you help me reference it. Is it by any chance your article or is it Dona Schwartz’s?  Ive been searching for her article with this exact title but it is not available even to purchase online. Thanks again! Both ways, I really enjoyed reading this article!


    January 16, 2013 at 2:43 am

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