By Peter Smith
Is it okay to set up a feature photo? No!
Feature photos should speak truth about the world we live in. To set something up and pretend that it happened is not truthful. Are there unethical photojournalists who cut corners by staging a photo instead of doing the hard work of shooting something real? Sure, but that is a dangerous game to play and can end an otherwise illustrious career.
Feature photography can be difficult documentary work to undertake. You need to deal with real people in real situations, not actors or pretenders or art directors. It’s not rehearsed or faked. It takes talent, patience, and a good eye to capture. And like all works of journalism, it must be truthful. Few journalists have the ability to produce a wonderful feature image that amuses or informs about the world around us.
So for those who do not have the time or the talent to find a real situation, why not fake it? Why? Because feature photography is not conceptual art, it must be truthful or it will damage the brand of journalism. Readers are smart and can tell when something doesn’t smell right.
I see no problem with using a stock feature shot with a photo credit from a reputable news agency that is accompanied by a full caption to contextualize the moment. However, I would never endorse using a commercial stock photo as a standalone image or to accompany any story if it does not follow the rules of journalism.
Photographic illustrations can be useful unless they are not well-labeled to point out that it is a constructed moment born through imagination and never happened in real life. Again, it is not a good idea to mislead the public with what’s real and what isn’t. It’s better to not use a photo than to use one that misrepresents the truth of the moment.
The only time that it is ethical to shoot a constructed situation is to make a portrait or for an on-camera interview. And even then, it is important not to misrepresent your subject, the story or the situation.
See Poynter for more on ethics.
One in 8 Million is an award-winning series produced by the New York Times. It uses the basic multimedia format of an audio slideshow. The photographs produced in black and white by Todd Heisler are accompanied by audio interviews that profile New York City residents who live interesting but uncelebrated lives. Unfortunately, the series was abandoned after 53 episodes.
Think of the storytelling photographs as b-roll and the audio interview as primary story and you will begin to understand the basic building blocks of multimedia and video stories.
Charlottesville: Race and Terror is an important community story of a protest march with large national implications. Vice News correspondent Elle Reeve worked fearlessly in a seven-person crew to dig deep in reporting on the white nationalists move to step out of the shadow of the internet and into the broad light of day. Her interviews were riveted with shocking sound bites of chants, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ powerful storytelling b-roll, ‘nat’ sound and tight editing to produce a tragic and chilling story. Counter protester Heather Heyer, 32, was killed during the protest.
You can not tell a visual story effectively without compelling b-roll. That’s where the magic is! Check out this short, and take note of the camera movement and the various views – from wide establishing scene-setter, to medium, to tight detail shot. Listen how the audio narrative is woven together in this piece with synced and unsynced sound. Notice the powerful color and lighting captured in the frame.
If you want to make a movie, this is an excellent model to deconstruct. If you list the components of this video profile on Jim Carrey’s process and motivation to paint, you will crack the code to start your own project. Don’t forget to find a subject with an interesting story to tell and one that is visually interesting. And don’t forget that well-edited sound recording with proper mic placement and gain levels are also critical for success!