Think about the last time you saw a photo that made you feel something. Chances are it wasn’t a snap of someone’s food, or of vacation photos. It probably wasn’t blurry or taken from far away.

The photo you’re thinking of popped right off the screen and made you cease your mindless scrolling. It was intimate, it was thought-provoking and it conveyed emotion.

If it had all these qualities, it was likely taken by a photojournalist.

Accurate and unaltered

Photography can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1839, in France, Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre came up with the first widely-used process of recording light. These photographs were called daguerreotypes. The first photojournalist was Carol Szathmari, a Romanian painter and photographer, who documented the Crimean War in 1853.

The term photojournalism was coined in the 1920s by Frank Luther Mott, a historian and dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. The term came about as a response to the rise of picture magazines such as Life and Look. These magazines popularized documentary style photography, the accurate and unaltered representation of a subject. It is often used to chronicle significant and historic events.

Quality photography is at the very core of journalism. Photos can provide clarity and understanding in ways sometimes the written word cannot. The American journalist and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nora Ephron wrote in her 1978 book Scribble, Scribble: Notes on the Media that disturbing images should be printed. “That they disturb readers,” Ephron wrote, “is exactly as it should be: that’s why photojournalism is often more powerful than written journalism.” It’s one thing to read about a major event; it’s an entirely different experience to see it.

Today, though, the omnipresence of photography makes it more difficult than ever to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary, to differentiate a routine Instagram post from a Pulitzer candidate.

Making a professional photo

Tara Mortensen’s work at the University of South Carolina confirms professional photojournalism’s value. “We see the world through pictures,” says Mortensen. “It’s incredibly important that those photos are being taken by professional photojournalists who are being as objective, as complete, and are able to tell the whole story.”

In 2018, Mortensen and Peter Gade of the University of Oklahoma published a study of the photojournalism and news presentation of the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald-Record, which laid off its entire photography staff in 2013. The aim of the study was to reveal the differences between professional and non-professional photography.

Nine attributes were used to determine the presence of journalism values, photography techniques and skills: emotional hierarchy, proximity, sphere, action, human element, conflict, timeliness, lens distance and photographic angle.

The researchers analyzed 1,503 photographs, 789 published in the paper before the layoff and 714 after. They found 897 photos that displayed photojournalism values. Of those photos, 55 per cent were identified as being taken by the staff of the Times Herald-Record.

“Professionals are much better at capturing emotion than everyday citizens.” says Mortensen.  “Citizen journalists take photos that are more posed; they’re contrived, they’re far away and are lacking intimacy.”

Professionals used to be the only ones who had the credibility to publish their photos; now anyone with an internet connection has access to an audience and can generate content for news outlets. “The reason photojournalists are seen as disposable,” says Mortensen, “is their claims to professionalism are crumbling.”

This de-professionalization has taken place in part because of the rise of social media platforms like Instagram. The hashtag #photojournalism appears on 4 million posts; it is unclear how many of those posts were made by professional photojournalists.

Photojournalists, of course, are showcasing their work to the platform’s one billion active monthly users.

Amber Bracken is a freelance photojournalist in Edmonton. She was a staff photographer for the Edmonton Sun until her layoff in 2014. She has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram.

Bracken says the main differences between a professional photojournalist and a hobbyist are intention and editing.

“A good photojournalist is thinking about what narratives are already out there,” says Bracken. “They’re thinking about the way we are already drowning in imagery, and they’re trying to be very conscious of what they’re adding to the conversation.”

Though Bracken doesn’t post frequently, she uses Instagram to post photos marking the anniversary of a story, to spotlight a social issue or to give an important story a bigger platform.

“I wouldn’t really have any following at all without social media.”

Ethical considerations

One of the key factors separating professional photojournalists from citizen photographers is adherence to ethical guidelines.

Crystal Schick, the president of the News Photographers Association of Canada (NPAC) and a staff photographer for the Yukon News says “you never know exactly what you’re getting from someone who doesn’t have to follow the same set of rules as a professional.

“Non-professionals sometimes share images that are altered, or composite images, without saying they are doing so, which can be deceiving to the viewer,” says Schick. “A professional photojournalist would never do that.”

The (U.S) National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) code of ethics is the leading ethical code for photojournalists in North America. The NPAC website offers it, along with codes and guidelines of several Canadian news organizations. NPAC doesn’t have its own code of ethics.

The NPPA code of ethics is intended to “promote the highest quality in all forms of visual journalism and to strengthen public confidence in the profession.” It lists 17 ideals that visual journalists should “uphold daily in their work.”

In comparison, a regular person with an Instagram account only has to adhere to the Instagram Community Guidelines. These guidelines list six ways users can foster an “authentic and safe place for inspiration and expression.”


The question is can people tell the difference between professional photojournalism and citizen journalism?

Sara Quinn’s work for the National Press Photographers Association shows people can. In 2014 the NPPA asked Quinn, currently a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, to conduct research into how people look at photos. At the time, she was working for the Poynter Institute. Using eye-tracking technology, Quinn studied how people see photographs across media platforms.

The study included 200 photographs, half taken by professionals and half by members of the public. Fifty-two people viewed the photographs. The pictures were shown in no particular order and retained their original captions. Viewers could click through as many photos as they wanted in 30 minutes.

Quinn asked the likelihood of viewers sharing the photograph, on a scale of 1-5, and whether or not they considered it a quality image. “People asked, ‘Oh, what do you mean by quality?’ and as a researcher I just shrugged my shoulders,” says Quinn. “I wanted them to talk about what they felt.”

Quinn also asked if the study participants thought each photo was taken by a professional photojournalist.

She spent two months following and documenting the eye movements of each participant. Pairing this with the responses, she reached a conclusion: 90 per cent of the time, the participants could tell whether a photo was taken by a professional.

Quinn says that, like writing, photojournalism is a craft. “The ability to give context, knowing what a story is and how to cover an event, comes through in professionally-taken pictures. I found that people can perceive that in a pretty big way.”

A 2017 study published in Visual Communication Quarterly found three types of people who seek out photojournalism on Instagram: the feature lover, the optimist and the newshound. The study was conducted by T.J. Thomson, now an assistant professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, and Keith Greenwood, an associate professor in the doctoral department of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It showed that while people do use Instagram as a source for news, they are more likely to comment on or “like” feature photography than straight news photography.


Changing newsrooms

As newsrooms continue to shrink, photojournalists are often the first to go. There have been several layoffs of entire photography staffs at prominent newspapers and magazines in both Canada and the U.S. in the last six years, including the Chicago Sun-Times in 2013, Sports Illustrated in 2015, the New York Daily News in 2018, and the Brunswick News chain in New Brunswick, Canada, in 2014.

Yet many news outlets are now turning to Instagram to showcase photojournalism and attract more readers.

With this switch to social media comes a new role in the newsroom.

A social media editor (sometimes called an audience development editor or an engagement editor) can have different responsibilities in different organizations. Some create content specifically designed for social media, or provide training and resources for colleagues to improve best practices and storytelling on social media. Others focus entirely on engaging with readers.

Tamara Baluja, the social media editor for CBC Vancouver, says the common thread among social media editors is that they are all journalists first. “We are not marketers, we are not public relations professionals. We are journalists, and our platform happens to be social media.”

While CBC Vancouver occasionally posts user-generated content, it mainly uses Instagram to showcase newsworthy visual content.

“If you’re scrolling through post after post of a pretty sunset, water, a nice lake,” says Baluja, “and suddenly you see a photo of a striking young activist with ‘how dare you’ painted on her face, I think that stands out on its own.”

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About the author

Dominique Amit

Dominique Amit is a journalism student at the University of King's College. She hails from Stellarton, Nova Scotia. She's interested in politics...

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