Picture This

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Videojournalist PF Bentley and Gulfstream during Drew Carey’s Sporting World shoot in Germany. (Gulftream is not Bentley’s).

There is a red herring swimming about claiming that VJ is a code term for 23 year olds with no experience and small cameras.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Meet PF Bentley.

White House photojournalist for Time Magazine for more than 20 years. A string of photo books to his credit and access to some of the most powerful people in the world. Bently has been there in the Oval Office alone with Presidents. He walks the halls of Congress like a United States Senator, and is on a first name basis with most of them.

In 1992, Bentley was one of the first people to take my VJ bootcamp and transit from photojournalist to video journalist.

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He brought with him his extraordinary eye, and a way of working that was very different from traditional television cameramen.. or reporters. Camera crews are disruptive. They dominate the room. They set up the lights. They tell you to sit here.. or here.

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Bentley’s trade is different. He is like a cat. He prowls the room. He is unobtrusive. He is always there but works quietly. That’s how he gets such great access, and intimacy. That’s why he is trusted by everyone in power. That is why he is on a first name basis with every President since Carter. Walk the corridors of power with him and the great run up to shake his hand. But look at his work, and understand how he has married video and still.

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There is a great deal of discussion these days as newspaper still photographers begin to move into video. They try and ‘ape’ their television cameramen counterparts, albeit with smaller gear… smaller tripods. Smaller light kits. They make a mistake. There is a unique opportunity here to invent a new video grammar – the one that made photojournalism so powerful in the first place.

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All the former great institutions of photojournalism have fallen by the wayside, but now the web presents a whole new marketplace for talent. Bentley is one of those who has made a successful transition. In the shot at the top of this story, you can see him on the road as we (he) shot Drew Carey’s Sporting World, a series we did for Discovery, (and also turned in 6 days – see below). Bentley brought to it the same eye and the same discipline that he brough to a lifetime of work for Time.

You could do worse than to follow his lead.

ps. all photos by PF Bentley, (except the first, I did that one).

10 responses to “Picture This

  1. You write:

    “There is a unique opportunity here to invent a new video grammar – the one that made photojournalism so powerful in the first place.”

    This raises questions. From the viewer’s perspective (most important) and our perspective, photojournalism and video journalism are apples and oranges. Still images capturing one frozen moment cannot be literally compared to video. So while it is interesting to read what you wrote, it is difficult to understand the comparison.

    Looking at a photo can take one second, or it might last for minutes. The person looking at the photo has the choice. The photograph is one dimensional. The content it conveys can be powerful. But the image is frozen.

    Watching video demands a time committment. A video story might be one minute, or one hour. It contains different dimensions (time, moving images, sounds, edits, narration, etc…) What the video journalist does within that time frame (Craft, editing, writing, producing) has an impact on the viewer, beyond what the content provides. So the video journalist’s skills, talents, work has a tangible effect on the viewer, beyond content, on different (if not more) levels than the still photojournalist’s does.

    There are more dimensions to videojournalism, for better or worse.

    As for “inventing a new video grammer…the one that made photojournalism so powerful in the first place…” I am not sure I get it.

    Video journalism HAS in the past provided many powerful moments….captured many powerful stories. You seem to imply that video journalism sits lower than photojournalism in some ways. They are different. Does there need to be a new grammar? If so, what is the current grammar missing?

    Videojournalism, I believe, involves content, craft, committment and creativity. Certainly, the web allows for more relaxed time contraints. No longer do stories need to be formatted. Pushing creativity is perhaps easier on the web, since “norms” are not enforced by management or public pressure. Content is not affected by the change in technology, because content is autonomous. Content is independent, separate from the craft. Content is content, whether or not we are there capturing it with a camera, theoretically. The committment to video journalism perhaps is different than still photojournalism in some ways, and the same in other ways. And the craft of producing a video story is different than the craft of shooting still photos.

    I will be excited to see the new video grammar develop. If it does. But I am not sure which area of videojournalism you are referring to….the content, the craft, the creativity or the committment? Is there an area I am missing?

    I have seen many examples of poor quality composition, poor audio, poor use of light, unfocused storytelling, poor editing, too long stories with un focused content. Is this the new grammar?

    Here’s an idea: Shoot a person’s life, all of it, from beginning to end. Non stop. No editing. THAT would be new video grammar for video journalism. Or would it? Is simply shooting someone’s life – journalism? Sure it would give insight into many things. Sure, it would be different. This example makes my point….that video journalism takes a time committment by the viewer in ways photojournalism does not. How the video journalist edits makes a difference. The only “new” grammar….would be an un-edited complete presentation of someone’s entire life. Because everything else we do…is bits and pieces, affected by the journalist. (Too deep?)

    Some believe that simply pointing a video camera amounts to video “journalism.”

    Start by defining journalism.

  2. Eric
    this is the beginning, I think, of a very long discussion; one that will go on for years. However, in a very basic sense, let me make one or two points on this:
    1, television journalism tends to be very invasive. We jam the reporter into the story, and as a result end up often capturing more about the reporter than about the story itself. the same holds true when narration drives the story and the pictures become little more than wallpaper. Photography has always been about the subject and almost never about the photographer. As we move into video journalism (as opposed to television journalism), we can drive more toward the aesthetic of photography as opposed to TV.

    2. By the same token, as we gravitated in television journalism toward making the reporter the ‘star’ of the ‘movie’, we placed the audience in the curious position of third person in the room invisible. Thus, when we do interviews (for example) in television news, we are careful not to have the subject look into the camera (and thus make eye contact with the viewer). Instead we shoot the subject talking to the talent, and the viewer becomes a kind of fly on the wall. In photography the eye of the viewer is also the eye of the photographer – hence, what the photographer sees, the photo viewer sees – thus is photojournalism the more powerful and more direct experience.

    The reason for that is that in television, the editorial ‘center’ of the story has been the reporter, but the eye of the camera was never in the reporters hands – thus this kind of editorial paralax; whereas in photojournalism, the storyteller and camera are one in the same.

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  4. Michael,

    I agree with you. Your “general assessment” is right on the money. Generally, a new video grammar is being developed.

    As a TV “Photog” for more than 20 years, it bothers me when most of what I do is exactly how you describe. I appreciate the power and value of video journalism – without the middle man. Yet television news managers/producers (one in the same) in general, depend on the cliche TV reporters, live shots, graphics, teases, talking heads, press releases, unimaginative, simple content storytelling. Sure, some of that is needed. But I am all in favor of visual storytelling that is personal, powerful, and direct.

    In a general sense, you have painted a good picture of TV news. However, there are instances, and have been instances throughout the years, of true, one person, unobtrusive video journalism done….by television “photographers.” The “move into video journalism” was being made by a number of TV photographers decades ago. It did exist. Unobtrusive, powerful video journalism is not totally new and unique to the VJ model. It just has been smothered to some extent by cliche “producervision.”

    Now, the VJ approach is taking flight. Technology has created the tools. But there were instances of tv “photographers” doing video journalism before new technology made it possible for anyone.

    Generally speaking, I agree with your assessment. It drives me crazy to work in TV news for the reasons you stated. Yet, I know that once in a while, TV news does transend its faults. Once in a while, the reporter is not the focus. Once in a while, video journalists – who work at TV stations – with big cameras – do produce video journalism. The NPPA has over the decades, recognized such story telling. So, that is why I agree generally, but want to also point out that video journalism is something some people “moved into” decades ago.

  5. Eric,

    I agree with Michael response on this topic – If a still shooter applies many of the same principles to shooting video (ie; capture what is occurring, be as unobtrusive as possible,etc) then yes, Video Journalism does have the opportunity to become something greater than capturing a momentary instant in time – it becomes something more – but ONLY if the shooter has the presence of mind and skill – along with honed instincts, to utilize what they have to create something powerful.

    The idea of time commitment to watch something is no more an issue than a photo /written package – yes photo’s are great – but without captioning, without a written story to go with said photo’s, they are nothing more than eye candy. Putting a photo story in a narrative sequence is, in itself, a form of video journalism – they have to make sense from beginning, middle and end. If people want to be informed, they will choose to make the time to Watch/Read/Listen. Reading a print copy of National Geographic story with images is no different than watching the same story as a video production downloaded to a video iPod or other device. Each has it’s advantages and disadvantages – but Video, I feel, is more compelling – if it’s done well enough. Video allows its viewer to engage in a way that still images and print do not.

    You never see the photographers face in a photo documentary project – they are the observer – not the observed (unless they are a part of the story itself, which is something I did in the early 90’s for a photo documentary project I did). And yes – watching, waiting, and then capturing the decisive moment is photojournalism. It’s a moment that can never be repeated again. That is the very essence of what reportage is.

    You make mention of poorly shot, poorly exposed footage as the new photojournalism. The old adage of reportage/photojournalism, “f/8 and be there”, still applies today for video journalism. There will be instances of less than perfect footage in a technical sense – this is usually a result of breaking news that happens with no time for setting one’s camera to expose correctly (hence auto exposure is useful at this point) – but that doesn’t make the content any less compelling – if the content is newsworthy in the first place. But it’s also the responsibility of the shooter to acquire the skills necessary to be at least technically proficient in the mechanics of good composition, operation of your video camera, audio settings, etc. for stories that give the time needed to do this.

    Michael’s perspective has brought new meaning for me of critical thinking of what is currently given to the public as video based news. With it’s perfectly coiffed and stylishly dressed news anchors, perfect lighting, and whatever else is manipulated to present a perfect image of the so called “star” of news – to somehow instill confidence by showing pretty eye candy news reporters, I find myself using critical analysis more and more to what is being presented – and why.

    In conclusion – If you have to be sold the news by making it’s presenters visually pleasing, something is seriously wrong…

  6. “something is seriously wrong ok…my wife made me sit down with her and watch the 10pm local news last night…something i hadn’t done in 6 months or so.

    i couldn’t take it.

    no wonder folks are leaving and not returning.

  7. Eric,
    There are many very skilled storytellers among the ranks of tv photogs. Many of my most successful VJs started as photogs. Take a look at Mike Kraus from the BBC, for example. (You can see his Looking for Love in London at http://www.rosenblumtv.com under videos). Or Kyle Majors at KGTV in San Diego. I have links to Stewart Pittman who falls in the same class, but was not one of my VJs. Many who became news photogs were drawn there because of their affinity for visual images.

    If anything, the VJ movement should and can free them, if they can get over their anxiety about it.

    I personally was inspired by Jon Alpert from DCTV who shot is own stories for TODAY for many years.

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