Looking at photojournalism on the web

Last year I spoke at UXCambridge about how photography is treated on the web, my frustrations as a photographer and looked at a number of powerful photo-stories that have not conveyed as well on the sites they have been published to.

I’ve begun to rewrite my talk with the hopes of presenting it to a few crowds this year. In doing so I have rethought what it is that frustrates me with how photography is presented online, and my view is shared by many photographers from all sides of the craft whether it is photojournalism, fashion, portraiture or landscape.

The aim of an illustration is to elucidate or decorate a story, poem or piece of textual information by providing a visual representation of something described in the text.
Definition of Illustration

Big news sites such as The Guardian, BBC, or Time, all suffer from the fact that they treat photojournalism – creating a narrative through images alone as illustrations for text-lead pages.

It means that the art, and industry itself of photojournalism is struggling, and has been for some time.

Web designers are part to blame for this. We have a number of trends which have emerged in the last 5 years which have greatly impacted the value and usage of photography within web design.

With the revolution of web typography services such as Typekit, Fontdeck and Google Fonts, web designers are having a type renaissance, and rightly so. The existence of these services has resulted in accessible and beautifully laid out type on pages for the first time in the web’s history.

But whilst web designers have been toying with whether to use Adel, Proxima Nova, or Avenir, they’ve often forgotten the other mediums being presented through the format.

Then of course in the last 12 months we’ve had this explosion of what is being dubbed by some as ‘Editorial’ pages, the combination of full bleed background video loops, photographs, things sliding in and out as you scroll down and the kitchen sink all working together to blow your fan to death with their immense browser overheads.

Sites like Pitchfork with their Cover Stories section, and the New York Times with posts like Snowfall, where it all really started, and most recently The Guardian’s Firestorm piece are all stunning to look at. But just because they’re making full use of the browser pane doesn’t make them any more photojournalistic, quite the opposite, instead what we’re seeing is new ways to migrate magazine styles to the web – which is how a lot of magazines are looking at this – could it be the saviour for their needed transition into the digital realm?

The frameworks being built for sites are not considering the context of the media they’re displaying. Take a look at the BBC GEL guidelines and you’ll see that it dictates all images to be displayed in 16:9 placeholders. What’s the problem here? Well, not even your recent iPhone 5 with its 16:9 bloated screen shoots photographic stills at 16:9. All Cameras shoot 3:2 images by default; this is based on the original 35mm format and producing average prints of 6x5cm.

BBC's GEL guidelines for images.
BBC’s GEL guidelines for images.

This means that every photograph a journalist takes for the BBC has to be cropped and that has a risk that the story being told in the image misses an important part of the scene out – we don’t take pictures by placing the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame 100% of the time.

So design isn’t helping, but then again, neither is content production. Sticking with the BBC for a moment, if you take a look at the BBC News In Pictures section you’ll come across a strange situation where many of the many of the stories (especially those that get surfaced up to the main news page) are largely text based. It’s a real mixed bag for sure and may be one of the few sections of the Beeb that has a full-width layout template available to it, but even this is sparsely used.

Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Last year Exposure.so launched to tackle this exact problem. I have completely fallen in love with it’s simple premise and easy tools for creating your own stories. You could consider it the photographic equivalent of Medium and certainly has some leanings towards similar styling but the objective is clear. Telling stories with photography.

As long as services like Exposure, Tumblr, or even Storify, continue to exist I know we will have platforms for artists and journalists alike to be able to share their stories with the rest of the world. I hope we see more consideration going into the value of photography as a story telling tool of its own as we begin the steer away from full bleed site design.