The World Wide Web has been heralded as a medium that provides new ways to explore the world and communicate what one finds. Unfortunately, very little of the anticipated paradigm shift from conventional journalism to an alternative, multimedia practice has so far occurred. Writers have not done it and neither have photographers.

Why? There are several reasons. Conventional media companies have poured money into setting up their “brandname” presences on the Web but for the most part have attempted to do what they always do, transferring the same words and pictures to the screen from the page and, whenever possible, not paying contributors any more to do so. They have seen themselves as traditional broadcast outlets, encouraging readers to gather round their site and discuss what they have read. The longer they can keep the viewers attached to their site, resisting the impulse to go elsewhere, the more advertisements can be displayed.

Of course one cannot only criticize—there is little if no financial incentive at this point to create new projects, new displays, new ways of understanding the world.

It is also difficult for people trained in certain media conventions to consider abandoning them, or even to know how to go about doing so, to create new strategies. It has been remarked how difficult it is to go from a career in print publications to television; it is much harder than that to actually go about envisioning a medium that allows a multiplicity of media that can meld together at different points (e.g., photography becoming video). The Web also allows reporting to be produced both in real time and periodically, as well as interactively and non-interactively while using both linear and non-linear narratives.

From the viewpoint of a journalist working independently, the economic disincentive to set up a Web site and troll the Internet for readers and then look for advertisers is certainly compelling. But here, too, there is more to it than that, since so many universities and other institutions do provide free or inexpensive access to the Internet. With all the available talent and energy in journalism, it is dismaying how few interesting experiments have been attempted to tell the story of today’s world in different ways.

One of the difficulties is that being a freelancer usually involves providing information to some institution, and the “provider” often has neither the experience nor the skills in the fragmented world of news collection and dissemination to publish themselves either individually or in groups on the Web or elsewhere. And it is certainly difficult to travel the world and then come home and build a complex Web site.

Furthermore, our society trusts the reliability of corporate news “authors,” however uncertain that trust might be, more than it trusts the reports of unknown individuals who are more easily labeled subjective.

But still one wonders why it is that with thousands of freelance journalists roaming the world—almost all of whom would feel that their work is under-appreciated—few have created Web sites, and even fewer have done so in ways that depart from traditional media. Particularly in the case of photographers, whose work seems to be tailor-made for the screen and can be easily scanned in and presented, the almost automatic response when working on the Web is to create a one-picture-at-a-time series, as if the Web was some sort of a gallery. Rather than try to reinvent the photo essay for the digital environment and explore situations with more complexity, the apparent prestige of a pseudo-gallery is chosen.

Again, few still photographers work well with the addition of text, sound or any other media; few have extensive experience editing and sequencing their own imagery; and the difficulty of removing oneself from the “taking” of the pictures to have the perspective on how to present them is not to be under-estimated. Perhaps more importantly, there are few editors or photographers who understand that putting photography on the Web is not like putting it on a page (the Web “page” metaphor is seductive in its mediocrity), but when comparing it to conventional media is at the very least more like creating a branching film that utilizes a sort of collaborative montage.

Right now, rather than enhance the role of the photograph on what appears to be a visual, TV-like medium, the photograph on the Web has lost much of its power without making many gains. Again there are several factors. Whereas many conventional publications use photographs to support the point of the writer, entwining the images with the text in different sizes so as to attract readers with the pictures’ vividness and reassure them as to the authority of the report, now the restricted size of the computer screen usually encourages a single small image (in part to decrease download time) so that the photograph seems to dangle from rather than support the text.

But more importantly, the photograph, a mechanically derived image that appears to “fix” the chaos of our visual environment, “stopping” time while keeping the focus sharp, is much less convincing in a digital medium, which is based upon the malleability of 0’s and 1’s. On the Web one cannot hold a photograph in one’s hands. The image is not permanently positioned on paper, but rather it becomes transient like a television image and malleable like anything digital. Rather than reassuring by its mechanical stability (“the camera never lies”) it is now a floating chimera.

This, of course, can also be a great opportunity. Rather than an image which is singular and insufficient on paper, one can use the screen image as a translucent window onto the world (taking into account the inevitable subjectivity of the photographer and the limitations of the photographic process itself) but also a window onto other points of view and additional information. One can “map” an image so that depending upon which part of it the reader clicks, other images, sounds or words appear amplifying upon what one has already seen, exploring other interpretations of the event depicted, providing much more than a caption could ever show in terms of additional information as to what led up to the event, what the photographer felt as she was taking the picture, or what transpired afterwards.

To accomplish all of this one must stop thinking of the photograph as definitive “proof,” but rather as an initial and inevitably insufficient attempt to interpret events. Rather than the impact of the photograph being within the frame as it so often is in print media, it must just as well concentrate on what is outside the frame and encourage readers to continue assessing what has not been shown, and perhaps link to other documents that help in the quest to understand the situation. This is not only a rethinking of photographic “objectivity” but of the authority of our news media. It is also a healthy admission that we are no longer in the mechanical age where we thought of machines as reliable, but in the digital age where pixels help to provide what Marshall McLuhan called the “messages” that help to establish our sense of reality.

For example, when I worked with the photographer Gilles Peress to construct the Web site for The New York Times, “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” we attempted to allow the reader to accompany the photographer on his voyages around and in Sarajevo, to select pathways on the Web just as the journalist had to select them in physical space, and to try together to come up with a sense of what was happening. Rather than rely upon the journalist for the answers, the reader would understand some of the real-world difficulties of ever really knowing what is going on. We constructed the site so that from any of the photographs, texts, audio interviews, videos, maps or archived articles, one was never more than a screen away from one of 14 full-scale, energetic and at times vitriolic discussions about many of the aspects of the conflict and the potential peace. In the November/December 1996 issue of Print magazine, Darcy DiNucci wrote: “Clumsy as today’s low-bandwidth presentations must be in some particulars, the site indeed pioneers a new form of journalism. Visitors cannot simply sit and let the news wash over them; instead, they are challenged to find the path that engages them, look deeper into its context, and formulate and articulate a response. The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant.” (Interestingly, The Times nominated the site for a Pulitzer Prize in public service, but it was disqualified by the Pulitzer board for not being on paper.)

In other words, when we stop thinking of photographers as mechanical scribes “capturing” events with their cameras while supporting the points of editors and writers, but instead as interpreters attempting to engage both readers and the world in a dialogue (and many of the best now think of themselves in these terms), photography will be an appropriate medium for the Web. Not photography as a fixed image on a rectangle, but a more dynamic photography that is closer to its original meaning, “writing with light.”

Fred Ritchin, Associate Professor of Photography and Communications at New York University, is finishing a book, “The Eighth Day: Reinventing Ourselves in the Digital Age.”

Most popular stories from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment