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Interviews

David Campbell <br class="br_visual" />to reveal WPPh multimedia research

David Campbell
to reveal WPPh multimedia research

© Cécile Mella

April 2013

As the World Press Photo Awards Days draw near, CPN Editor David Corfield talks to Dr David Campbell, who has been leading a research project for World Press Photo investigating the emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling. Dr Campbell will be presenting his findings during the World Press Photo Awards Days at the Felix Meritis Centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 25 April…

It’s thanks to cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II that photographers began switching on to multimedia, and over the course of the last five years a culture-shift has been taking place as traditional techniques make room for a new approach to visual storytelling. Dr David Campbell, a former professor at the Universities of Newcastle and Durham in the UK, and now a freelance writer, researcher and multimedia producer, has spent the last decade examining the way photojournalists work and his findings open up a whole new debate on the future of reportage and documentary photography…

Canon Professional Network (CPN): What can you tell us about your research?

David Campbell (DC): In my previous academic research I wanted to engage with practitioners to find out how they worked, how they thought, how they made choices and how the final image made its way to the consumer. The photographer has never been more empowered and is now well equipped to capture and distribute images, and potentially influence opinion. But while this is a fantastic progress from a workflow point of view, we often hear the lament ‘ah, yes, but nobody’s getting paid, the traditional platforms are in crisis,’ and so on. This is part of the whole media revolution and that’s what has interested me since 2008, which provided the perfect background for this World Press Photo research project.

CPN: Are you finding photographers and media organizations are embracing multimedia?

DC: This really is an incredible moment for photographers, full of potential. One of the things we found out through this research is that people inside the industry understand all the potential multimedia offers and where the creative edges are. But in mainstream media itself, it’s still very early days. When you look at how most established legacy institutions are using multimedia they are unsure of where to do it, when to do it and how to do it. Not to mention how to pay people for it, and whether or not to put it on the front page of the online site, and so on. But to me that is actually a really encouraging moment because while inside the industry people are saying ‘OK, we’ve done linear video narrative now and nobody’s interested,’ actually I think these big organizations are only just starting to catch up to this. It’s the next five years that will be the really interesting time. You look at the story the New York Times did called ‘Snowfall’ and the structure of that is exciting.

CPN: So where are we now in photography and photojournalism?

DC: One of the conclusions in the report is that there is no such thing as traditional media anymore. A lot of this debate centres around how traditional newspapers do it one way, and one way only, and then there is this multimedia ‘thing’. Forget it. It’s altogether. It’s one environment, one ecology. There is barely an organization in Europe or the United States that you could call a newspaper now that has a print-only distribution. Print remains important, sure, and it’s not going to die tomorrow, but we’ll come to understand it is just one channel of many. And I’m keen to turn things around and really try and reposition a lot of debate through this research. We hope to have some practical things for people to think about but the most important thing is to reposition that debate.

This is the new media moment. There will never be a single business model for it. It’s happened – the future is here, now.

CPN: Do you think media companies have a vested interest in multimedia? Is it an opportunity for them to make more money?

DC: Media companies are commercial enterprises and they all want to make a profit. Good journalism never paid for itself directly – advertising pretty much funded everything. News was always subsidised. That’s one of the things we need to reposition the understanding of. Thanks to analytics we now know right down to the last page and paragraph who reads what, and that was never the case in the old days. How many newspapers would know who would read what in the days before Internet?

© Reuters

An example of the way in which multimedia content is being used commercially. The Wider Image app by Reuters has proved successful in bringing stills and video together into one effective package.

The Wider Image app by Reuters is a perfect example of how a business-to-business company can reach out to the consumer by using data to hone a product. Through the app they can show their clients exactly what stories the consumer is most interested in and refine their business model accordingly – this has never happened before now.

CPN: Does the ‘multimedia’ world take away self-expression from a purist’s point of view? You might have a great collection of black & white pictures but what if the way in which they are displayed through multimedia is disappointing? Does that then make the images lose their impact or credibility?

DC: I can see the worry. What it points to is the need for collaboration with other people, which of course is a work practice that is difficult for some to conceive. I would also say that the idea that through mastering the art of the single image they control their work is probably a misplaced assumption. Very few photographers would have had the capacity to submit to newspapers and magazines and control the story around it because the picture never appeared by itself – it always appeared with a story and they wouldn’t have influenced that or its positioning on the page.

CPN: So collaboration is the way forward?

DC: No one person can manage everything. From making the single image to coding in HTML5, you are going to have to collaborate. Everyone should have a sense of what’s there and what the possibilities are, and that means working as a team.

CPN: There has been some debate recently on image manipulation and enhancement. Where do you stand on this and is multimedia at risk of similar debate?

DC: Debate about manipulation is omnipresent at the moment, but does multimedia further exacerbate the problem? Well, to me the key is transparency. It’s about image-makers being transparent about their production processes. Personally speaking I’d like to see a bit more transparency but I don’t think we can set hard and fast rules. But we could have debates about what are the accepted industry standards, for example.

Processing has always been a part and parcel of photography, with the great photographers of old dodging and burning to their heart’s content. So it’s easier now and more widespread but for me the real transparency is image-makers talking about their production processes. Organisations like World Press Photo and others engaging in that debate is a good thing. And to me that’s what gives people confidence.

The background information is what a lot of people really want. If you provide good transparent background information you increase confidence in these things. If you pretend that you are an objective mirror to the world and your picture is fact, it will be talked about – and then you’re inviting trouble.

CPN: The truth is in the edit, then…

DC: Editing itself is massively influential. Narrative and the timeline involves cutting, selection and so on. Image-makers and multimedia producers need to talk about the process: how do you edit a 40-minute interview into a three-minute story, for example? You’re acutely aware that you don’t want to lose the story but you’re moving things around a timeline in a way that you wouldn’t change single images. And we need to talk about some of those things. We need to be transparent.

CPN: What are you hoping your research will say to people?

DC: I’m hoping my research will puncture quite a few myths and conventional wisdoms about what people think the world at large wants or desires from news and how the media has operated in the past.

Too much professional anxiety of the present is based on a mythical understanding of the past. The idea that there was a golden age, in which photojournalists pursued their own editorial projects in large numbers around the world, is just not accurate. That never took place for more than a handful of individuals at the top of the profession.

If we puncture some of those myths, what look like problems of the present can take on a different standing. They are challenges, and I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I think we can approach them differently. My research findings and the talk I will give on 25 April should be an opening statement for what I hope will be an ongoing debate and conversation. This is not a package that will contain answers on how to do something.

What I want to see now is how people can move forward and work in this new exciting multimedia world.

Biography: David Campbell

David Campbell

Up until 2010 David Campbell was a full-time professor in the UK. Politics and geography were his principle fields of study and he was particularly interested in how people and events were represented. This led him to spend a decade undertaking research on photojournalism as a dominant and important part of visual representation of people, places and events around the world. While retaining a number of academic affiliations and lecturing on multimedia journalism courses, he now works as a freelance writer, researcher and multimedia producer.