Tag Archives: photojournalism


The Valley/El Valle

The Valley/El Valle features twenty diverse prints taken by staff photographers over the past decade. The Chronicle images serve to emphasize the diverse citizens and lifestyles in the Central Valley and include subjects such as members of a mosque in prayer, Hmong dancers and rodeo stars.

San Francisco Arts Commission









I was a bit annoyed that there were no photographer credits on SFAC’s original tumblr post. It’s even more annoying that the SFAC official webpage didn’t have any information either.

Still, I liked these. A lot. I may admittedly be a sucker for images from the Central Valley* but I also like images which show people working and having fun and living in a California which is vastly different from the California which people travel to see. This is the California people travel through on the interstate where they can ignore and avoid everything in these pictures.

*Previous posts have touched on Alec SothLisa M. Hamilton, and Ken Light. And I’ve actually posted some of my own work from the Valley too.

It’s also interesting to see these photos online without any of the context in the exhibition. Especially since they’re all photojournalism literally from the news archives. I don’t feel like I need the stories when I see them this way. There’s a sense of place and life that I get when looking at these as they are. Maybe that’s just me filling in my own context as a native Californian. But it’s still something worth noting.

The Mirror in our Memory

(Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle)

(Julla Carrie Wong)

(Joe Vazquez, KPIX)

These striking photographs are from a protest against police violence that took place about a week ago in Oakland. Some of the protestors brought mirrors with them to hold up to the police, and the resulting news photographs present striking images.

“I was holding up the mirror because I wanted the police to just look at themselves. Especially if they were about to take some kind of action just so they had to acknowledge what they were doing,” protester Nichola Torbett told KPIX 5.

Demarco Robinson, also a protester, said, “We want that person to look at themselves so that they can realize they’re not a badge. They don’t have to follow the system that they don’t agree with.”


These mirrors are emblematic of a part of the national reaction to police conduct particularly in Ferguson, MO (but not only there): an acute sense that police are acting in a way that should be impossible for people who understand that they are visible.

Don’t they know they’re on camera? Don’t they know we see them? Can’t they see what they’re doing?

Race, Privilege, and Visibility

My first thought was to say, “we are shocked,” at the seeming obliviousness of, for example, police officers explicitly threatening violence against journalists while on camera. But that suggests that these things are universally surprising, which is not true. The degree to which “we” are surprised is on a spectrum, correlated to the degree to which each of us has to live with the reality of police violence.

For some, these things are totally shocking, and can only be interpreted by analogy to distant times and places — thus the spate of comparisons to police conduct during prior decades of civil rights struggle in the US, as well as comparisons to war-torn regions in other parts of the world today. But for others, what we are seeing is neither a revival nor alien: it is everyday lived reality.

Note: I am not referring just to shock at the extent or severity of racially based police violence against citizens, but also and more specifically to our reactions to the apparent lack of concern over its visibility.

In institutions, there is usually (or should be) a significant gap between levels of misconduct that are accepted or tolerated (or even encouraged) depending on whether or not they are subject to prominent public attention, news coverage, and perhaps future legal action. The default level of citizen cynicism expects bad behavior to be pointedly (and temporarily) suspended or made covert in the wake of a public relations crisis.

And yet, what we’ve seen recently in Ferguson is an apparent eagerness of police to repeatedly double down on illegal behavior, all while in the public eye. They seemingly believe that they can get away with almost anything while the world watches — and the gap between mainstream coverage and what twitter has surfaced, along with the appalling racial gap in public perception, show that (depressingly) they might not even be wrong.

How surprising this is (or isn’t) probably has a lot to do with how accurate an intuition you have of the relationship between white privilege, white power, institutional racism, and police authority. We aren’t talking about a certain percentage of police officers having personal racist pathologies — and we aren’t even just talking about certain police agencies having baked racism into their policies.

Privilege and power shape perception across a society. Racism, as a societal process, tends to blind those involved to its effects.1 So, for the police, racism acts as a kind of invisibility cloak, screening actions against people of color from scrutiny and exempting the police from self-reflection.

This runs counter to assumptions we tend to form in the absence of an awareness of racism. We know, bone deep, that being seen changes how we behave. This knowledge expresses itself constantly in our interactions with each other. Institutions utterly rely on it for purposes of social control. The panopticon is the sociological and philosophical specter of our time. And remember that it does not even necessarily matter whether we are actually being watched; the point of the panopticon is that just the idea of being watched influences behavior.

But racism changes what it means to see and to be seen. And power determines the meaning of observation in any (real or metaphorical) panopticon.

Racism is a Defect of the Eye

I don’t know whether holding up a mirror to a police officer in riot gear is likely to reveal anything to them.2 Racism is a defect of the eye — both the collective public eye and the individual gaze. It is not suspended just because the eye is turned back on itself. The kind of self-reflection that reshapes self-image and behavior is unlikely to be triggered by a single provocative gesture in a charged, antagonistic setting.

But it forms an eloquent gesture for the journalist’s camera, crystallizing in one physical moment a complex and for many people counter-intuitive critique.

In a sense, it is also an implicit critique of the journalist’s camera, and of its inadequacy for changing our understanding of events. The mythologies of journalism and photography want us to feel that images change minds and shape understandings. We want to believe the camera has that power — we want to believe that when a photograph shows others what we see, they will be able to see it, too.

The photograph is supposed be “the mirror with a memory,” and in the hands of journalists, it is supposed to be able to induce personal and societal reflection. But if the mirror with a memory had that power, would people have to be in the streets holding literal mirrors up to the helmets of riot cops?

As John Edwin Mason recently pointed out in two great posts on iconic photographs (Part 1, Part 2), our mythology of photojournalism’s purpose and power is far from the reality. The meaning and significance of even the most powerful, disturbing photographs depends on what viewers are willing and able to see in them.

Time had to catch up with the photographs. More correctly, attitudes had to change, and change they did. But they didn’t change without struggle.

The civil rights movement, the American anti-apartheid movement, and, of course, South Africans, at home and in exile, created movements that convinced the vast majority of Americans that segregation and apartheid were wrong. The anti-Vietnam War movement (and the utter futility of the war itself) led a majority of Americans to support its end.

The photos of King and those of Phan Thị Kim Phúc became icons retrospectively. They don’t reflect the past, they reflect what we now think about the past.

The photos that I posted here are unlikely to become iconic in any case, because (despite the national character of the struggle over police brutality, of which Oakland owns a huge part), these particular photos are at the edge of what’s happening in this historical moment. But there are photos that have come out of Ferguson that should be and hopefully will be iconic — if they can come to stand for a change in how America sees what is happening now.

  1. Think of it as meme, in the original Dawkins sense. More like an idea parasite than an outdated view. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Even though memes are a useful idea, Dawkins is still an asshole whom you should always ignore.) 
  2. And of course, this protest happened in Oakland, not in Ferguson. OPD doesn’t exactly have a spotless record, but they tend to get treated as a proxy for cops at large, much as Oakland’s residents do. 
Carlos Javier Ortiz

North Lawndale

And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Carlos Javier Ortiz

Carlos Javier Ortiz

Carlos Javier Ortiz

Carlos Javier Ortiz

As much as I enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Case for Reparations, I found myself really thinking about and appreciating Carlos Javier Ortiz’s photos of North Lawndale which accompanied the article.

Ortiz’s website suggests that he’s more into social justice photojournalism—lots of people and getting into the thick of things in proper Robert Capa fashion—but these aren’t that kind of photo. Nor are they mining the textures of poverty and decay for superficial appeal and authenticity.

These photos illustrate how different Black America is from White America even today but do it in a way that references a lot of the photos I associate with White America—especially the way the New Topographics looks at the built environment. They also point out a glaring blind spot in Looking at the Land and the concept of what we mean by 21st-century American views.*

*Note: I love both the New Topographics and Looking at the Land.

Vava. 1962. Keystone/Getty Images.

World Cup

Diego Maradona. 1982. Steve Powell/Getty Images.
Diego Maradona. 1982. Steve Powell/Getty Images.
Vava. 1962. Keystone/Getty Images.
Vava. 1962. Keystone/Getty Images.

In celebration of the World Cup, Sports Ilustrated posted a gallery of the 100 best photos in World Cup history. I couldn’t help but click and look at all of them since I’m always interested in looking at sports photography from an art point of view.* I was a bit disappointed with what I found. The gallery is a list of great moments and great players, but most of the photographs are more about documenting the moment rather than anything else.

*I’ve been keeping notes in the comments on that post of examples of sports photography which I also consider art photography.

For me, there were only two which I really liked as photos themselves. Both the Vava photo and the Maradona photos are deserved classics. The Maradona photo gets copied/referenced a lot now in soccer photography anytime a player appears to be taking on a whole group of defenders. The original is a great photo in both its composition and how it allows us to empathize with both Maradona and the outmatched defenders.

The Vava photo is just strikingly lit with not only a great gesture but the rim light and almost-silhouette and shadow anchoring the height of the celebratory jump. Both photos also show how great photos can be when they show the back of the subject.

Zinedine Zidane. 2006. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.
Zinedine Zidane. 2006. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.
Diego Maradona. 1986. Bongarts/Getty Images.
Diego Maradona. 1986. Bongarts/Getty Images.

The Maradona photo is also one of the few action photos which isn’t of a specific moment in the game. Most of the photos are of greta moments—including some truly iconic photos which are recognizable to non-soccer fans. The Hand of God is infamous and the Zidane headbutt occurred in the age of memes. These photos capture the moments at the exact right times and while I can’t call them art, they do count as great photos.

Alcides Ghiggia. 1950. AP.
Alcides Ghiggia. 1950. AP.

The Maracanaço photo isn’t the iconic image* but it’s a great moment and a great example of a photo which shows two players responding in the exact opposite ways.

*That would be the photo of Moacir Barbosa Nascimento from behind as he fails to save the goal. Which is totally fitting in how he took the blame for the event.

Bobby Moore. 1966. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images.
Bobby Moore. 1966. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images.
Uli Steilike. 1982. Picture-alliance/dpa/AP.
Uli Steilike. 1982. Picture-alliance/dpa/AP.
Roberto Baggio. 1994. Luca Bruno/AP.
Roberto Baggio. 1994. Luca Bruno/AP.
Iker Casillas. 2010. Simon Bruty/SI.
Iker Casillas. 2010. Simon Bruty/SI.

A lot of the other photos are reaction photos of either happy winners or distraught losers. Nothing new here and a lot of them are obvious photo opportunities. Many of these require us to know the context of the game to really understand anything more than just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s nice to see people celebrating and happy but those are also the obvious photos.

I was especially disappointed that the photo of Daniel Passarella wasn’t included here as I think I would include it with the Maradona and Vava photos at the top of this post. His expression is more than just happiness and speaks to how sports matters so much to so many of us.

What interests me most though in looking through these is that it forces me to think about how so many of the iconic photojournalism images are also purely documentary yet we have a tendency to treat them as something higher brow as well.

A lot of this I think is due to the fact that sports is somewhat predictable. You know where the key action will occur and you even know what kind of action to expect.* This isn’t even “ƒ/8 and be there” since the photographers are also all stuck in photographer zones. Unlike news photographs where the photojournalist has to get to the right place at the right time, sports photography just feels (incorrectly I should add) like something you need good gear and access in order to do.

*Although the Zidane photo occurred off the ball and is something which I wouldn’t expect to be photographed even though the photographer was probably following Zidane instead of the ball.

The other thing is that even in an event which occurs once every four years, a lot of these photos are of the same thing. After a while, goal celebrations and even goals look very similar and it’s tough to say that any of them are that much better than the others let alone being the kind of thing that stands out to a non-soccer audience.

Whereas with photojournalism, I think a lot of what we value in the photo is both the uniqueness of the image and the ability of the photographer to both get there and be able to take it. Everything we’re looking at here is technically good, it’s the everything else which makes the difference.


Tom Howard. Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 1928: Ruth Snyder is executed by electrocution.

Death and the power of photography

Daily News Front page. Extra Edition. January 13, 1928.
Daily News Front page. Extra Edition. January 13, 1928.

The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.

Erica Fahr Campbell

Campbell’s article doesn’t delve any further into the effect of this photograph on death penalty debates. To this day, however, no prisons allow photography during executions. What if things were different? How might the careful documentation of this process — with all our technology for capturing and sharing images — change the debate today? And whose interests are most protected by keeping executions invisible?

Lisa Wade

A good photo to be aware of. Especially given photography’s history with death and the way that photography really came of age during the Civil War. There’s something about photographing death that is especially compelling, even today. While the news media’s fixation on death images as clickbait is gross, it is worth asking ourselves why we all look and why those are newsworthy.

I don’t think it’s just shock value. Death is one of those things that we don’t like to think about because it’s unknowable and inevitable. It’s one of those things we’re taught from an early age how to compartmentalize and protect ourselves from addressing.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to talk to my son about so far. Precisely because we don’t know. And he wants answers. To everything. And I can’t give him good ones. I think I’m still looking for those myself. Hence my difficulty in turning away from these photos.