Photojournalism looking for solutions

The iconic photograph of Durga Thapa, 22, as she leapt up during a victory rally on 9 April 1990 to shout “Long live democracy!” Photo: MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA

In the four decades that I have been a photojournalist, the technology has changed so much and made photographs so easy to take and disseminate that everyone with a phone is now a photographer.

Just a few decades ago, the film rolls in which I took photographs with my analogue camera had to be processed, the negatives turned into positive, and scanned into zinc blocs to be printed in smudgy newsprint on letter presses.

We are in the age of citizen photojournalism. Online platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Tiktok and others have levelled the playing field, offering anyone and everyone the opportunity to post pictures and videos online. The mainstream media is no longer the sole purveyor of photography.

There has been a tendency to strive for hits and likes, manipulation and deep fake imagery, but the technology has also aroused public interest in photojournalism. Enrolment in media schools and training institutes in Nepal have jumped, as many want to graduate to learn more about the techniques of professional digital photography. There is even a retro trend of re-discovering film processing in dark rooms.

With all this technological advancement, it is easy to forget about the purpose of photography. What is it all for? Does photography have a higher calling to spur reform and promote social justice? Or is our job just to visually capture what is out there, and let the chips fall where they may?

In my career, I have learnt that photojournalism can be a powerful catalyst of change — usually for the better. One photograph I took during the 1990 People’s Movement, by clambering up an electricity pole for a higher perspective of student activist Durga Thapa leaping out of the crowd with a victory sign, became an iconic image of the pro-democracy struggle. I would like to think that it helped raise awareness in the public about democracy.

Photographs of flash flood survivors have done more to show the public the impact of climate change than thousands of thousand-word articles. Photographs have warned us about the seriousness of the pandemic, and also spread public awareness of the need to protect ourselves with vaccination and masks.

Pictures by citizen journalists from Kabul airport this week, posted live on social media, brought home the desperation and fear of the Afghan people, and will be seared in the public memory for decades to come.

We are also reminded that photojournalists are by definition on the frontlines of events, no matter how dangerous. This is why there is such a high mortality rate among us, with the death of Reuters' Danish Siddiqui in Kandahar on 16 July being just the latest tragic example. There is also increased risk now from state control even in supposedly democratic states, from police, and from having to risk getting infected with Covid-19 while covering the pandemic.

We also have to accept that photojournalists do not have a very good image in the public. Paparazzis are seen as nosey parkers, they have been called ‘vultures’, or ‘wolves’ who hunt in packs. We are accused of being invasive, aggressive, and not respecting the privacy of people who have just suffered tragedy.

As in all other forms of media, photojournalism also suffers from a ‘negative bias’. It comes from the very definition of news: that it has to be something out of ordinary, absurd, or sensational to be newsworthy. This makes some of us focus on disasters, zoom in on suffering, and portray the worst human qualities, cropping everything else out.

In some ways, that is the nature of the beast. The news business is built on negative bias. But in these cynical times, does it hinder or help? Does it just reconfirm our worst fears about a nightmarish future, underline the futility of tackling climate change or working for peace, and paralyse us individually and as communities from taking action?

Fortunately there is now a trend among media educators and editors to promote ‘solutions journalism’. Not to whitewash society’s problems and misery, but to present it in a new light that restores hope in the future, builds solidarity, and encourages constructive action.

The World Press Photo Foundation is also helping to promote a Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative so that photographers do not just dwell on difficult issues and dire situations, but use in-depth field reporting to photograph them taking action to solve those problems.

Many Nepali journalists are already doing this, and we must continue to push this kind of photography at a time when disasters, instability and societal breakdown are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies because of an exclusive focus on how bad things are. There is a better way.

On World Photography Day on 19 August, I wish my colleagues in the profession personal fulfilment and self-satisfaction in their work.

Min Ratna Bajracharya was a staff photographer for Nepali Times and Himal Khabarpatrika and past president of the Nepal Forum of Photo Journalists (NFPJ).

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