Tuesday, November 06, 2007
I was lucky enough to go back to the Eddie Adams workshop again this year as a volunteer. It was amazing to go back, it reinforced so many things that I had been thinking before, like where I want to take my picture taking. Here is a transcript from one of the best of the weekend:
Tom Kennedy - EA XX presentation:
Let me start tonight by offering four quotes that I think apply to
our situation as we find ourselves in a world where the use of
photojournalism and photography is in flux and the abilities of media
companies to find and keep audiences while keeping themselves
profitable is also in flux.
From one of my favorite philosophers Kierkegaard:
"Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forwards.
From the Canadian media critic Marshal McLuhan:
"We look at the future through a rearview mirror. We march backward
into the future."
From the psychologist R.D. Laing:
"We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up we
begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing."
From former attorney general Ramsay Clark
"Turbulence is life force. It is opportunity."
I am a real believer in the vision and wisdom of Marshal McLuhan as
he observed and commented on media in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's.
I studied him in college in the late 1960's as he was analyzing the
impact of electronic media on society, particularly television.
While he was analyzing broadcast media at the time, I actually
believe many of his observations apply much more precisely to the
current situation with the impact of the Internet on photography and
journalism. I am amazed that he saw 50 years into the future with
such clarity and described possible outcomes in a way that so fits
Among many things, McLuhan posited that electronic media was really
the fusion of two types of communication that existed at the dawn of
human history as primary forms – namely cave painting and oral story-
telling traditions. He saw them as being eclipsed by text when
Guttenberg invented the printing press. As those forms of media were
eclipsed by text as the primary form of knowledge sharing, the world
of man of humanity was altered.
Today, I think multimedia is offering a highly sophisticated
throwback as an alternate form of language to text. I think people
are hard-wired to receive it as a form of communication and I think
it offers us enormous opportunity to reshape the power of the
visually and orally based narratives as expressions of journalism.
We can transcend the limitations of literalism that so characterize
the use of photojournalism in so many print publications. We don't
have to slaves to the concept that our photographs, video and audio
are only good to literally illustrate a journalistic point being made
by some writer as a part of their journalistic observation. We have
the power to go beyond this iconographic use of imagery into a world
where visual story-telling can offer a full, rich narrative on its
I believe we need to embrace multimedia story-telling as an
opportunity to reinvent the language of visual/auditory story-telling
and in to doing so we can help the public to better understand our
Let me shift now to the fundamental questions of journalism which
photographers are required to answer with as much force and power as
their text-producing colleagues.
We all learned in journalism school that the fundamental journalism
questions are "who, what, where, when, why, and how."
Too much of our journalism deals with the who, what, where, and when
questions in my opinion. I believe we need to focus on the "why"
question much more often in our story-telling as the means to get to
the real truths underpinning life on this planet and the fundamental
truths of the human condition.
It is true that most editors view photography as only about the
specific, a collision of space and time that comes together in the
decisive moment that can only address what is happening before the
camera in an instant. Yes, it is true that cameras are uniquely
suited as instruments to catch the moment. But I would submit that
is the intentionality of the photojournalist that can enable those
specific "truths" to mesh with and also yield valuable information
about the underlying truths if the photojournalist is seeking to use
his or her observations to always address the why question as a part
of the story.
We live today in a world being driven mad by fear and anger. We live
in a world where people in authority or people seeking to address
grievances on behalf of the powerless would use this fear and anger
to imprison us all. I believe photojournalism can be the force that
instead offers information so citizens aren't so angry, afraid and
fearful of each other. I believe it is our duty to produce content
offers our audience information that enables them all to lead richer,
happier, more productive lives, in part through the stories we tell.
In thinking about how best to put this idea into practice, let me
talk for the remainder of the time about the "4 R's" – roles,
responsibilities, risks and rewards implicit in being a
photojournalist or photographer.
Let me start with roles.
As I see it photography is about changing how people see the world
around them. It is also about communicating information that builds
bridges of connection. When we photograph our subjects, we validate
other peoples' stories and by extension we reaffirm their fundamental
worth and dignity. To me, this act of affirmation is almost
sacramental in concept. It involves a delicate exchange of trust and
it is a ballet that can be transformative for both parties. To me,
story-telling is a sacred gift, both to the subjects and to the
audience who would receive the wisdom and truth contained in the
story. When we photograph or build multimedia stories or shoot
video, we act as interpreters of experience. We also act as
historians, transmitters of culture, and extenders of knowledge and
wisdom. All of these actions matter. Ideally, we transport people
beyond the boundaries of their lives and around the barriers that can
emerge as mechanisms of control imposed by those in power positions.
Our work can put people in touch with the fundamental truths of human
existence in new and profound ways, thus providing an antidote to
madness and fear I mentioned earlier.
As practitioners of journalism, we have the fundamental requirement
to treat everyone with dignity and it matters that we invest the time
to truly understand the narrative arcs implicit in our subjects'
lives. We need to invest the time to understand them and respond to
them as people who have something to say and share. Our role, in
part, is to bear witness and to make the act of witnessing the basis
for a kind of story-telling that can express meaning in appropriate
ways to those who would be our audience. This can take five
minutes, an hour, days or even months. But it is crucial to make
the investment, both for the sake of our communities and our own
This brings to me to responsibilities, which I again see another
delicate balancing act. We have five fundamental obligations: to
our subjects, to our audience, to our organizations, to ourselves as
journalists and creative artists, and to those around us who would
act as our support structure in grounding us and providing succor
when the dark times of doubt and uncertainty may set in. We need to
balance these responsibilities in everything we do, making the effort
to try to arrive at a state of harmony and balance that enables the
full power of our witnessing to find expression. I think it is very
easy to get out of balance. If we neglect our own development, we
fail to develop the skills necessary to grow creatively. If we treat
our subjects badly, then they will never open up enough to tell us
the truth of their lives. If we shirk our obligations to those who
hire us to be photojournalists and story tellers, we sow the seeds of
commercial failure for our companies as our work may not find the
audiences necessary to make the businesses succeed. If we short-
change our audiences, we lower the standards of public discourse and
maybe even fail to provide the fuel necessary to safeguard democracy
as a political system. If we neglect our support structure, we can
sow the seeds of personal destruction that I put in the category of
We live in an age where celebrity culture seems to rule; where power
and money can seem to buy unlimited amounts of freedom and
privilege. This reality can infect organizations and individuals
alike. Our work requires strong egos to deal with rejection and
failures, but we cannot be so egotistical that we come to think the
world and our subjects as our personal play toys and canvas to show
the world our own brilliance exclusively. Selfishness and insularity
can collude to perpetuate unclear thinking, stubborn egoism, and
creative blindness. Acting as if we must know everything to be in
charge can block the very power to change and grow toward a fuller
release of our own innate creativity.
Another kind of risk comes when we refuse to accept mature criticism
of our own work, and instead, we use a variety of weapons to defend
our own creative decisions and the type of journalism we may be
practicing in the moment. Those weapons can be denial, sarcasm, and
anger, borne out of a fear of failure or a fear that we stand to lose
everything we have worked to attain if we are seen to be wanting in
some way. I have spent a lot of time studying Zen Buddhism as an
adult and I love the analogy of some monks that liken this kind of
reaction to hunkering in a cave wrapped in our beliefs and ideas and
defending those at all costs rather than venturing forth into the
cold world of uncertainty where things are continuously and
We have to let go of the desire to defend our caves and realize that
in a world of permanent, constant change, it makes no sense to try to
resist change in this way. When we let go of our fear-based
egotistical reactions, we don't need to defend against the ideas and
reactions of others. We can listen and try to understand them, while
trying to reveal as clearly and positively as possible our own
feelings and ideas. It is that kind of creative exchange that needs
to underpin all our professional activities, particularly in relation
to the organizations and individuals within the organizations that we
work with most closely.
Each of us is a vehicle for something in daily life. Our choices of
values determine how we move through life and how we relate to each
other. We can choose to see ourselves as vehicles for something
greater than ourselves and it is in that essence that I think we find
the final "r" of rewards. I think it should be our aspiration always
to have the ability to act, even in difficult circumstances, to do
something of benefit to others on a daily basis.
If we can act of the basis of self-confidence that comes from knowing
who we are at any moment in time and what we stand for as
photojournalists and visual story-tellers, then we can be comfortable
with the ambiguities and chaos that is bred by continual change and
we can give the gift of fearlessness to each other. If we stop our
struggle to use total control as the only viable antidote to fear
bred by uncertainty, then we can dissolve our own fear and take it
away in others as well.
A while ago, I spoke about the delicate dance of trust that we must
develop with our subjects in order to tell their stories
effectively. Acknowledging the need for their help in arriving at a
place of understanding can be a powerful weapon in the face of fear
driven by uncertainty. We need to be able to have the humility to
ask for that kind of help at times.
This brings me to another Zen question. Are you willing to wear the
white belt of a beginner again and again as you proceed on the path
of mastery. To be a life-long learner, you have to be willing to
regularly accept the pain of being a novice, even if it means
appearing temporarily as a "fool" to others. To develop creativity,
you need to cultivate a state of emptiness that allows room for new
things to come into being.
I love the story of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, who asked his
students to bury him in his white belt because he saw death as the
moment of ultimate transformation and the exact moment at which we
are all once again beginners.
I'd like to close with a couple of other thoughts and I want to take
the time to read them exactly from my note card because if you take
nothing else away from my talk tonight, I'd like you to remember
If we look back and reflect on lost opportunities, we will regret the
If we look ahead and feel we have few opportunities left to us, we
will regret the future.
Time is not the basis for our lives. Life emphasizes no-time. It
emphasizes now. Put your life in the present moment. Let the entire
world live in your present activity.
To have only regrets about our entire life means we have lived our
lives only encircled by limitations (emotional, physical, or limits
about the perception of time).
We need to live with no regrets, even as we acknowledge, learn from
and grow as a result of mistakes. For myself, I would say that all
my best learning has come from mistakes and that in turn has bred my
best successes professionally.
Going back to the Kierkegaard quote, our spiritual path will be
inevitably a journey without a map or fixed destination. We can
never lose sight of our own possibilities for creative growth and
development and we need to recognize that our own path is truly our
own. No one else can live it for us or walk it for us. It is ours
The real work of our lives is to know who we are, to see beyond
unknowing into knowing, past misunderstanding into wisdom, so we can
live completely, and authentically in the now. That way we can
fulfill all our obligations as professionals and citizens in this world.
Thanks a lot.