Visual Storytellers Open New Horizons

January 15, 2013



Enviro journalism taps tools like camera phones, SLR video, data visualization

Virtually every journalist interested in the environment recognized that 2012 was the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — the groundbreaking book of investigative reporting on environmental issues. The year also saw a lesser-known anniversary of investigative environmental journalism. W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay on mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, appeared in Life magazine in June 1972, under the headline “Death Flows from a Pipe.”

Smith’s photos documented the Chisso company’s dumping of mercury into the ocean and the resulting poisoning of residents in the village of Minamata.

Illustrator Emily Coren at work on location; utilizing CamScanner software in her smart phone, she can upload PDF files of her completed work to her blog while still in the field. Photo: Courtesy Emily Coren.

Like Carson, Smith was attacked for his work, in his case, physically. During a meeting scheduled between victims of “Minamata Disease” and executives from the company, men under orders from Chisso savagely beat Smith. His left eye was impaired for the rest of his life, and his injuries likely contributed to his death six years later.

But his essay’s influence on visual storytelling far outlasted his injuries. The photographic building blocks of Smith’s essay – scene setters, details, expressions, sequences, action and reaction – remain the foundation of photo stories and essays today.

While some aspects of visually reporting on the environment remain the same, much has changed. Visual storytellers have a much broader range of tools than they did in the days of Smith’s black-and-white photo essays, and the ability to show information in ways that the photographers at the Life magazine of old never dreamed of.

Reporting with a camera phone

Most notable is the fact that just about everybody has a camera with them all of the time. The ubiquitous cellphone camera has chewed away at the livelihood of photojournalists who lived only by the creed “f 8 and be there,” – the visual journalist’s equivalent of Woody Allen’s quote “80 percent of success is showing up.”

Today when a photographer arrives at a breaking news event, there are often dozens of cellphone cameras already aimed at the action. But the fact that someone has Instagram on their cellphone doesn’t make them a good photographer, any more than knowing how to type makes someone a good writer. Reporting with a camera requires the ability to develop relationships with subjects, compose storytelling elements, and capture the “decisive moment,” just as it always has, and there’s no app for those tasks.

Yet, in the right hands, even cellphone cameras can make important images. Dennis Dimick, National Geographic’s associate editor for the environment, cites “A Grunt’s Life,” a photo essay of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan shot with a cellphone by New York Times photojournalist Damon Winter. In Dimick’s view, the advantage of using the cellphone to make those photos was that it helped the photojournalist remain unobtrusive – he was just another guy making a cellphone photo – which allowed him to capture moments that would have vanished when faced with a huge DSLR camera with a big lens.

For many journalists – both those who work regularly with visuals and those who do not – a camera phone can make a photo of an interview subject or document a fleeting scene, and those might be the only images they require, or may be a valuable addition to other multimedia content. Writer Hillary Rosner was surprised recently when an international magazine called her asking to publish a photo from her blog she had snapped with her cellphone of one of her interview subjects.

Photographers becoming filmmakers

While the photographic technology in cellphones allows almost everyone to take pictures and video, new technology in digital still cameras has allowed photographers to become filmmakers. But if cellphone cameras help the imagemaker become unobtrusive, the gear required to make cinematic video with DSLR cameras – the digital version of the SLR cameras that have been the primary tool of photojournalists for decades – can make the photographer look like a cellphone tower.

Audio with DSLR cameras is notoriously poor, and no amount of beautiful imagery will keep people engaged with a video that has subjects who are difficult to hear. So good external microphones, and, occasionally, additional audio recorders are a must for making video with DSLR cameras.

Shaky video can also put off viewers, and the elaborate rigs required to stabilize the smaller cameras make them as big as old-school television cameras. Photographers used to shooting everything hand-held are often frustrated by the amount of time they need to use a tripod when shooting video. And when a DSLR camera is shooting video, the viewfinder on top is inoperable, so the shooter must focus and compose using the LCD monitor on the back, which is often inadequate, so the most precise DSLR videographer will use an external monitor — a small computer screen attached to the camera.

But the larger sensors in DSLR cameras combined with their fast lenses can make video with narrow depths of field – very selective focus with heavily blurred backgrounds – that are similar to the images produced by full-sized movie cameras and are far more dramatic and help the filmmaker home in on storytelling details.

For many photojournalists, particularly those working on environmental and science stories, those advantages are worth the cumbersome equipment required to give the cameras adequate audio, stability and monitoring. And while the technology is complex, the addition of video to DSLR cameras has also brought more of the traditions of Gene Smith, and the Life magazine photo essay, to the world of video.

The artist’s touch

Yet for some subjects, no amount of high-tech photographic equipment is going to make appropriately storytelling images. For things like concepts, subjects that are too small, large, complex or rare, or those that are difficult to make visually exciting in a photograph, sometimes an artist’s touch can make all the difference.

Illustrators can show species so rare a photographer might never make an acceptable photograph of them. An artist, working with pencils, paints or programs, can create humorous narratives with simplified images like you would find in the comics of a newspaper, diagrams that show how machines or processes work, or renderings so lifelike and detailed, they seem like photographs.

Illustrations can often convey visual information that cameras can’t capture — Emily Coren’s cut-away view of the major organ systems of the redback spider (lactrodectus hasselti). Illustration: © Emily Coren, while still in the field. Photo: Courtesy Emily Coren.

Emily Coren, a science writer and illustrator based in Santa Cruz, Calif., finds illustrations useful to show views not visible to camera, such as the complexities of the universe or the details of microscopic chemical reactions. Coren finds that artistic renderings can highlight specific information and details about a species, or create an idealized, generalized picture of it or tell stories about it.

While Coren relies on paint and pen rather than the computers many illustrators now use, new technologies still play a big part in her work. Using a smartphone and a CamScanner, Coren can upload her art from remote locations as she completes it, and even allow viewers online to watch her work come together.

One of the greatest impacts of digital technologies on environmental journalism may be in the ability to visualize data. Using a computer, a graphic artist can create informational graphics in a few minutes that used to take hours or days by hand. Far from being the pie charts and bar graphs of old, these graphics incorporate beautiful, storytelling photographs and illustrations to make their information more engaging and easier to digest.

Online, info graphics can be inter active, or run as animations. During the 2012 SEJ conference in Lubbock, Dimick created a dozen beautiful informational graphics in just a few hours using Keynote – Apple’s version of PowerPoint. Non-fiction, a Dutch company, creates data visualizations, such as air traffic, stream flows or electricity demand, over videos. Using DBPedia, a site that brings together public databases of information from around the world, and the computer language SPARQL, Non-fiction can create visual representations of information from thousands of datasets and combine it with videos, photographs or animations.

Bringing it all together

With all of these visual media able to run online, projects are increasingly combining still photography, documentary video, illustrations and data visualizations into interactive, online journalism.

“Bear 71,” an interactive documentary project created by Jeremy Mendes, Leanne Allison and the National Film Board of Canada, incorporates videos, still photos from camera traps, animated mapping of the travels of dozens of animals, and even its viewers’ computer cameras into a digital map that they can navigate while following the life and death of a grizzly bear in Banff National Park. (Okay, the talking bear may not meet most journalistic standards.)

One of the most ambitious projects in online environmental journalism, the University of North Carolina’s “Powering a Nation,” has incorporated still photographs, videos, informational graphics and animations ever more seamlessly into its annual look at energy, and now water issues.

The series’ most recent installment, “100 Gallons,” anchors its homepage with an ingenious concept video in which viewers can click on various points in the timeline to dive into written stories, interactive graphics, more in-depth videos and even a quiz.

Chad Stevens, an assistant professor for visual communication at UNC who is producing a documentary on mountaintop removal mining and advising the “Powering a Nation” project, sees the new technologies bringing a renaissance of visual coverage of environmental issues.

“It really is an exciting time and space to be working in right now,” Stevens says.

We can only imagine what W. Eugene Smith would have done with this ever-expanding array of visual storytelling tools.

Michael Kodas is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist, reporter and writer, author of the bestselling book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. He is currently working on a new book and multimedia project, Megafire, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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