Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Citizen journalism way ahead for the media

Chatting with Perumal Venatesan, fondly known as Pee-Vee, an account director who also runs Bangalore Weekend Shoots, on citizen journalism and its future in the Indian media was an eye-opener.

Pee-Vee feels the future of any form of media -- online, social, print and even advertising -- is going to be 'crowd journalism'. "Citizens' contribution will give us much-needed variety of choice. We may not be able to get everything from professionals," he says.

I looked at Wipro's official website, which changes its homepage picture once every 10 days, and was impressed by their innovative, forward-looking initiative 'crowdsourcing'. Essentially, the company asks page viewers to decide on their homepage theme. Visitors to the Wipro Technologies homepage will be provided with an option to vote for their preferred homepage. The option with the maximum number of votes will be chosen.

Statistics on Indian citizen journalism show that four out of 10 educated people in India contribute to a citizen journalism portals across the globe. It does not stop there: a country that took to the tech-age much later than the USA or Europe also boasts of a large number of citizen journalism portals, for example Merinews.com, Whitedrums.com, Mynews.in, South Asian Citizen Reporters Network (Sacrn.com), Purdafash.com and Calcuttacentral.com. There are even rural citizen journalists who contribute to portals like Merikhabar.com and Janataadalat.com.

There are four ways in which citizen journalism has grown with the help of the blogging community. Apart from text, news aggregation and comment blogs, there's photo-blogging (on sites like Flickr), video-blogging (on sites like YouTube) and micro-blogging (on sites like Twitter).

Well, what is citizen journalism? It is news created by amateur reporters who were previously seen as the audience and remain so even now in the form of viewers or readers. The root of citizen journalism lies in self-printed pamphlets that were once distributed by the street-side. By enabling everyone to report without the interference of gatekeepers such as editors, social media has democratised journalism and enriched it by bringing in a diversity of views and voices.

The difference between Western citizen journalism and its Indian counterpart, according to me, is the fact that the former seems more attuned to neighbourhood and celebrity gossip, while the latter focuses on serious developmental issues such as climate change, health, science, politics, the environment or social problems.

Michael Zelbel, a content and visual citizen journalist from Germany, says, "Citizen journalism will transform social media interaction and distribution, which in a way will be through word-of-mouth online media and through a string of friends who inform and update."

Zelbel also feels that newspapers and magazines, which constitute the print medium, have to create space for citizen journalism efforts since this will build a community base, which they can cater to and build as potential long-term readers. Indian newspapers should develop dedicated citizen journalism pages - something that will put them far ahead of their counterparts in the West.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

War coverage - the ultimate challenge for visual journalists

The poem named War Photographer penned by Carol Ann Duffy is a testimony in itself for the hardships a war photographer fights within himself, with his peers at office, and the pressure of being kept away from the war front at the behest of close family members.
When I was asked to peg something on the city in my columns my thoughts raced back to a quote - "Photography is like music which as no caste, creed, religion, sex and above all it as no geographical area with which it sticks too". Photography has provided imagery evidence of places which are now being used by the human scientific community to research and land themselves on the planet Mars. These first pictures of the red planet were provided by NASA's Spirit Rover on January 21 2004.
Well, forget about going that far. Look at the various war coverages by many prominent visual journalists who put their lives at risk to provide their readers what they could not get to see. Many editors and quality writers of top leading newspapers across the world shy away from the battlefield for fear of coming in the way of a stray bullet. It is at these times that many photojournalists don the cap of a visual and text content provider for many an organisation which boast of big names who ink the canvas on the fly when it comes to table top writing.
Closer to home, during a meeting of crime beat reporters with the editor of a reputed paper to discuss their hits and misses of the week, of which I was a part too, I was dumbfounded when they appealed in chorus that a photojournalist accompany them as they "are scared of going alone on dangerous crime assignments", including riots and even cases like a murder, suicide or road accident, fearing they will be beaten up by the emotional relatives of the dead. This without the thought of how a photojournalist is going to help them from a murdering crowd in a riot situation. Well is the photojournalist going to protect the reporter from the stone missiles thrown at the media or is he going to concentrate on moving around to get the best image while risking his life? Many a visual journalist have given their lives to ensure that they get that one great picture for the world outside to see.
Late veteran war photographer Ropert Capa had said soon after the end of World War II - " I hope to stay unemployed as a war photographer till the end of my life," and also added, "War is like a ageing actress: more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic". What forced Capa to say these words is anyone's guess, as war is a fascinating experience, captivating to its audience and deadly at the same time.
A photojournalist comes full circle only after he/ she gets an opportunity to cover a civil unrest, a riot or a war. This makes them all the more potent, making them true visual journalists with a rare distinction.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hark! The age of the multitasker is at hand

The best discussions are had over a mug or two of the cold brew — or in my case, a cold lemonade. A few days ago a group of us were taking stock of the lessons the recession taught us. They are myriad, and many will be acted upon, while others are swept under the rug only to emerge the next time it’s pulled from under our feet.
Journalism in all its garbs has been badly hit by the global downturn. Newspapers shrunk, TV channels got all fluffy to fill time slots, and the Internet? Well it just chugged along as usual.
If there’s one lesson that towers over all others, it’s that the second decade of the 21st Century will be the Decade of the Multitasker (men are going to have hard time). Gone are the days of specialization. In journalism especially, you’ve got to now know how to do a number of things: Reporters should be able to edit, Editors should be able to design pages, page designers should be able to write, and photographers should be able to do all of the above.
Having said that, we still haven’t seemed to have got the message. In my field, for instance, photographers still believe that their only job is to take a picture. They’re wrong. Not only must they now be able to take a picture, but their caption must put it in context, and they should be able to write a report if required.
This is also the decade where specialized journalists will battle for their places with citizens, and those from other fields (many copywriters can give today’s journalists a run for their money, as can creative photographers).
It’s all down to calculations. Am I getting bang for my buck? As advertising revenue shrinks and staff strengths whittle down to lean mean machines, the question of sending a photographer specifically to cover the five days that comprise a test match takes on a whole new answer. Can I afford to spend Rs10,000 on the assignment? The photo editor must ask himself. Or would I be better of using wire pictures, or a cheaper freelancer?
However, if my photographer can not only take photographs but also file a copy from the stadium then the answer’s a no-brainer…I’m going to send my man.
With the clamour, around the world, for visual journalists, it is also imperative that photographers visualize their photograph on a page, and be able to design that page if need be.
No longer can Indian journalists be content to do their jobs, and only their jobs. Across sectors knowledge is beginning to rule. The knowledge to do more than is expected of you; the knowledge to fill in across job profiles; the knowledge to write, edit, photograph and design (or at least three out of four).
Indian journalism is about 12 years behind the West. We watch now as their print industry crumbles. Ours may too, unless we heed their warnings and learn from their mistakes. We must look to the Web, whip our journalists into shape and expect only excellence. If we want to thrive than nothing less will do.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

In photography, it’s all about the rules of the game

Sports photography is arguably one of the hardest disciplines of the art form. It takes an immense amount of patience and practice to follow and focus on a ball through 90 minutes of football, 70 minutes of hockey or an entire day’s play on the cricket field.
In fact sports photographers require to practice as much as the athletes they photograph do. First up knowledge of the sport one is covering is paramount. Without that knowledge getting the perfect photograph that epitomises a day’s play is virtually impossible. You need to recognize the key moments in a game, who the star players are, and also the standing of the game in the grand scheme of things. This knowledge will enable you to make sure that your camera’s at the ready seconds before a major event takes place during the course of a game.
The photographer needs to have the know-how to realize that a spectrum of passes from the right wing to the left and back to the centre is going to result in a goal for a particular team and should ensure that he follows the so that he gets the all-important moment of the goal being scored.
During a cricket match the photographer must realize that a bowler who has taken two wickets in the space of four overs, and is bowling to a new batsman, has a good chance of picking up another wicket. Time to get that camera ready.
Sports photography is also one of the more rewarding types of photography. Due to the sheer pace of the action, it is more difficult to master. The photographer is left with milliseconds in which to take into account angles, emotion, and even on which players he plans to focus. This is what sets it apart from other forms of photography where the shutterbug has minutes, if not hours to ponder composition, lighting, and allows him to plan a shot.
Sport stirs the soul – for millions of fans, watching their favourite teams fight for victory, even if they end up in defeat, inspires them in their day-to-day lives. Your photos can have a similar impact. Imagine a parent’s delight when you present them with a picture, through your newspaper, of their child scoring a goal in a nail-biting game of school hockey, it will affirm their dedication – and yours – and inspire them for many years to come.
Even as I close this weeks piece I would like to wish our readers a happy “Twenty Ten”, in the hope that the coming days will bring it a wealth of stunning imagery, for you and for me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The hunter, the cook, and the photographer

Ask someone to list three art forms and the answer will invariably include at least two of the following: Painting, Dance and Music. Of course, world cinema may scrape in alongside sculpture and literature. But the likes of Hollywood blockbusters, graphic art and graffiti are left by the wayside, as is photography.
When photojournalism emerged in the late 1920s it was broadly defined as a spontaneous and topical photographic narrative of human events. Over the decades the narrative flowed, almost to a standstill as motion picture grabbed the baton and sprinted to the finish line. Then, in the 1950s, photographers looked to the fine arts for inspiration and found it in composition, lighting, and of course emotion. These so-called value adds were leapt upon by newspaper editors, and the photojournalism as you know it today, was born
The 50s and 60s was also the golden age of Indian photojournalism. The greats like the TS Satyan, N Thyagarajan, Kishore Parek, S Paul and Raghu Rai, to name a few, brought images that melded informative content with emotional impact, even as they stuck to the journalistic values their artists embodied. These ethics held pride of place over aesthetics.
These great photojournalists put the use of perspective into practice. They gave their photographs a makeover using lighting, new angles, off-center frames, and had their subjects look away from the camera, rather than staring into it like they would in a rogues’ gallery. These greats also raised the bar for all the photojournalists that were to follow.
Photography and its informed criticism is still a nascent discipline. Technological advancements have meant that the study of photography has become a lifelong venture, rather than one that can be mastered in just a few years.
Museums and art galleries in this country have yet to recognize, and give prominence to the works of Indian photography and photojournalism masters. Unfortunately, in India we only tend to recognise the rich talent our country had, has, and will have, only after critics from the West have discovered them.
Like the father of modern photojournalism Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Actually, I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In a digital world, the oyster is no longer a delicacy

A visual journalist will be far more knowledgeable about photography as an art form, than any of his predecessors

It’s a strange feeling when you bump into long-lost friends while on assignment and they ask you what you do for a living. My stock reply is that I’m a photographer working at a newspaper. The word ‘photographer’ in itself has morphed over the past decade into the ever-so-slightly presumptuous ‘photojournalist’. Now, as we approach the end of the first decade of the third millennium, the latter term is changing.

The tweens will be dominated by the ‘visual journalist’ or the ‘visual reporter’, and these sound a tad more apt with imagery taking the Indian newspaper industry in its stranglehold.

A visual journalist will be far more knowledgeable about photography as an art form, than any of his predecessors. He will be equipped with tools that will enable to carry out his duties with speed, accuracy a digital élan; he will move beyond the static and into a dynamic world where images break into molecules, each telling a story.

Digital technology has levelled the professional photography playing field. Photographers are no longer bound by newsroom hierarchies. The internet and sites like Flickr and Facebook means that they can get their pictures to the public without battling a interpersonal minefield.

The future photography department will have professionals in specific areas in the field, like sports, conceptual, entertainment, and portraiture, to name a few. While the numbers of photographers increase exponentially with advancements in technology, the rush to fill slots in newspapers will become a crush. And for photo editors, the so-called gatekeepers of a newspaper’s visual element, the job will take on an intensity heretofore only bragged about.

As with any field, a quantitative rise does not necessarily translate into a qualitative one. Photo editors will have to sift through the imagery looking out for those diamonds in the rough, and believe me the rough will be overwhelming, but the gems will shine so much brighter for it.

Journalism, however, will remain at the roots of photography, but the imagery will be broken down into pixels. The primary colours will serve to highlight the graphic lure of each composition, just as writers use each letter to manifest a phrase that conjures thought.

The visual journalist of the future will also be equipped with additional knowledge of the computerised pagination processes, web design, and digital workflow systems thus ensuring that the newsy, stylistic and aesthetic perspective will have never looked better.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bright are images of the future

When I joined DNA in August of 2008, the launch was still four months away. I knew little of the organisation that had just sprinted into the leading pack of the country’s newspapers with fervour in just a short period of four years.

But as the launch approached I knew that the editor would ask the photo department to pitch in by putting out a picture page to keep cheques balanced till the advertisements started to flow into the newspaper. Then, or so I presumed, the ‘much-vaunted’ picture page would shut shop with a sign on the front door, saying, ‘no space’.

The design process was set in place, and the name ‘Pic Me Up’ suggested by a former senior editor. And the rest, as they say, is history. Visual themes, photo essays, and news in pictures, would run six days a week. The sign stayed firmly in the box.

Of course the page has had its fair share of hiccoughs, as is to be expected when you are trying to up the ante in terms of quality on a daily basis. But for Indian journalism a daily photo feature page was pathbreaking, and the readers stood up in their support of the initiative.

In September, 2009, Pic Me Up launched the i-Pic, a daily space where readers could send in their photographs, and win a prize. I take this opportunity to thank them for the great response we received, right up until the competition closed on November 15. We received more than 1,000 entries.

But if you were to ask me what Pic Me Up epitomises…it’s the spirit of the team. This page would have been impossible without the tireless efforts of DNA’s photographers, and it is a testament to their resilience and their talents.

As I sign off, I humble request the picture-loving readers of DNA’s Pic Me Up to keep watching this space as we enter another year. This page is yours, and the future is going to be brighter than ever.