Photography has experienced major shifts in the last half-century and is on the path to experience even more. Not only have our cameras evolved dramatically but how we consume images has exploded in multiple formats. And photojournalism has been in the eye of the storm. No longer do we view a few amount of carefully curated images selected by well-trained gatekeepers but instead thousands of unfiltered photos spread out throughout our various social media feeds.   How does photojournalism evolve ? What constitute an iconic photograph ? And how are they affecting how we make sense of our world?  Director of the Summer Photojournalism Lab at NYU, Lauren Walsh, brings a few enlightening comments before her upcoming presentation at the LDV Vision Summit.

– A little about you, what is your background?
Dr. Lauren Walsh , Director of the Summer Photojournalism Lab
Dr. Lauren Walsh , Director of the Summer Photojournalism Lab

I have a PhD in comparative literature, and as a grad student, I specialized in novels that incorporated photography. The literature I focused on dealt with major historical events, like wars and other significant upheavals. I’ve long been interested in the photograph’s role as an object of historical documentation and a tangible form of memory, and with how it communicates information. I’m still interested in the relationship between fiction and photography, but over the years, my work has moved out of literary study and has concentrated much more on photojournalism.

– How has technology affected how we experience photographs?

I think today most of us view news imagery on screens—and sometimes those screens are on very small handheld devices. Many feel that this changes the relationship we have to news photos, from the days when everyone would have seen them in print, and when overall fewer news photos were accessible to us. Do we spend less time looking at any individual image because there are so many more out there now? Plenty of my students certainly describe this as their pattern.

– How does photojournalism evolve in a world of Instagram ?

It’s another platform for photojournalists to show their work. Instagram has 400 million monthly active users. It’s great that so many people are into photography. At the same time, this topic also comes back to that question of whether we spend less time with any given image or news story because we now consume so many images on a daily basis. Sometimes this will, of course, be the case; other times, viewers will connect deeply with an image. And on Instagram, they have the ability to comment and engage with the photographer, which adds a new dimension to the experience of photojournalistic output.

– Has photography changed from a memory recording device to a speech?

To some extent, the photo has long been a form of shorthand. A picture of me at the Eiffel Tower works to remind me of my trip there but also functions to tell others, without using any words, that I made a trip to Paris. But I do think that the impetus for taking casual pictures today is less about the creation of a memory to be looked back on a long time from now and sometimes more about wanting to show or say something—again, without needing words—very quickly to others. Social media facilitate this very well. And I don’t think it’s specific to photography. Various memes, hashtags, and illustrations do this, too.

– What defines an iconic picture?

Most of us consider an image iconic when it is widely known and “stands the test of time.” They are often highly dramatic and emotional images and they become woven into the cultural memory surrounding a particular time, event, place, or person. They’re the images that get replayed and recalled over time, well after the event itself recedes to the past.

– What is their role in a society?

Iconic images aren’t just about the specifics pictured within the four corners of a photo. They also represent a larger, shared cultural meaning. For instance, Nick Ut’s photo of a napalmed girl running down a street is iconic. Certainly, most Americans know it—all of my students always know it, despite the fact that it predates them by decades. It represents the Vietnam War and the horrors of that war in a visceral, emotional way.

 Nick Ut photo
Nick Ut famous Vietnam war photo, winner of the Pulitzer in 1973
– Is our picture taking habit affected by those iconic images?

Iconic images are generally very powerful images, and of course, many photojournalists strive to produce powerful work. It’s less about recreating the composition of a specific iconic image and more about trying to capture the dramatic instant that could potentially come to define a period of history. Then again, recreating the composition also works, as we saw with Thomas E. Franklin’s 9/11 echo of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. But that kind of direct echo is less common.

Flag-raising: at Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal and Thomas E. Franklin photo of 9/11 on the right.
Flag-raising: at Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal and Thomas E. Franklin photo of 9/11 on the right.
– LDV Vision Summit: What do you expect to get from it?

I’m excited to meet other people in fields related to my own, and to hear about their creative and technical expertise. The conversations that grow from these talks are really important to today’s landscape.

– Since images can be so easily altered, can photojournalism remain credible?

Photos have always been alterable. There are plenty of historical examples of scenes that were staged, negatives that were altered, and prints that were retouched. But we’re more aware of these possibilities today than ever before because we’re not just consumers of images now; we’re also the producers. And the ability to alter is so easy. But photojournalism can remain credible. A healthy skepticism by the viewing public can be a good thing, for demanding a high standard of ethics of our journalists. And there are many well-trained, highly skilled, incredibly ethical photojournalists that take this responsibility very seriously.

– Is technology the friend or enemy of photojournalism?

It can be a bit of both. If we think in terms of the changing landscape for disseminating images, it’s very exciting to be able to transmit news in real time—and for the public to learn of events around the globe without delay. Photojournalists can make use of traditional distribution platforms, but also all of social media and beyond. But if we go back to the previous question, here’s where credibility is really important and where trained journalists can be essential. Sacrificing accuracy for speed of dissemination is very dangerous. Instantaneity should not trump getting the facts correct. And as far as iconicity, an important question is whether it is harder today for an image to become iconic—not because those powerful images aren’t taken by fantastic photographers, but because the staggering volume of images created and seen can overwhelm some of the would-be iconic photos. But in the end, I think it’s most valuable to consider how best to work with the evolving dynamics of a shifting digital terrain, because it’s not going away. So we should embrace new productive possibilities while fostering the important discussions that explore potential setbacks.


As in previous years, Kaptur is a proud media sponsor of the LDV Vision Summit. On top of advance previews of speakers and panels, we offer our readers 25% discount pricing.  Act fast, there are only 10 tickets available.

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Photo by THE Holy Hand Grenade!

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.

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