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Published on June 23rd, 2014 | by EJC

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Questioning, Not Answering: Photo-Journalism

Article originally written by Sailendra Kharel for www.mydreamsmag.com on 26 April 2014. Reprinted with kind permission of DREAMS Magazine. Copyright Infinite Dreams Media (UK).

The above photo was taken by Sailendra Kharel: Devaka Khadka of Surunga, Jhapa district, came to Foreign Ministry, Kathmandu, Nepal on March 25, 2012 to claim insurance for her husband Kul Bahadur Khadka who died in Qatar eight years ago. Everyday more than 2000 people migrate to work and three dead bodies arrives from gulf countries and Malaysia. © Sailendra Kharel.

In 2004 I was appointed the first regional Nepali photojournalist for Kantipur Publications at Nepalgunj. It was during the Maoist insurgency, when press censorship was really high after the royal coup. I spent 18 months travelling and reporting from extremely remote villages of Mid and Far West.

Significance Of Photojournalism

One hot summer day I met a beggar. He would come to our regional office at Pushpalal Chowk and spend all day at the gate. After passing by and smiling at him for a few days, I became curious about this person. One day when I was going for lunch, I saw him reading both Nepali and English newspapers spread on the floor, and it captured my attention.

What’s today’s headline? I asked him. I don’t know, he replied, I can’t read. I was surprised, and asked him what he was looking at. He smiled at me and innocently replied that he was looking at the pictures.

I then talked to him for almost an hour about pictures, trying to understand his perspective of seeing, getting information, and telling stories. I was inspired to see him successfully reading pictures, though he could not read and write. And that was the first practical knowledge I got from a reader about the power of photojournalism.

Visually, it may be interesting to observe the situation from a distance, but to engage your readers you have to get close to your subject. And it’s always your responsibility to respect your subject. Before pointing the camera in anyone’s face, first we have to learn and understand the situation.

A photojournalist is a messenger who witnesses a situation and uses camera as a tool to express about the situation. He reports not just about what he likes to report, there is also the discipline and responsibility to follow the story and present facts in an interesting way through pictures. You have to learn to work in any condition and situation, depending on the nature of your story. Your picture has to move and inspire people to create a dialogue for change.

Current Scenario Of Photojournalism

Currently, print media is dying in Western countries due to the boom in online media. People are more interested in instant news and sharing. Today, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and most people can access internet and sites like facebook and twitter where one can easily share information through text, pictures, and video. In 2013, everyday 350 million pictures were uploaded in Facebook, 55 million through Instagram, and 3.5 million through Flickr. The figure is expected to increase by 1 trillion by 2014. Amid such mind boggling statistics, the world’s largest photo agency, Getty Images, decided to make 35 million of its pictures (almost a quarter of its entire archive) freely available for non-commercial purposes. This has not only threatened small agencies and professional or freelance photographers, but also started a serious debate for the future.

But the good news is that print media in Nepal is expanding day by day, and so is online business. Almost every month a new online news site is launched. This has definitely brought a lot of opportunities in digital journalism. Digital camera, though very common today, is still seen as a symbol of pride rather than a medium of expression. But it has also helped attract a generation to photojournalism and commercial photography, an about turn from a decade ago.

Photojournalism In Media Houses

Before reaching readers through a newspaper or any other outlet, journalists, photographers, designers, and everyone else work in a team. But photojournalism is still treated as a second class profession in traditional newsrooms. I will call it ignorance where reporters are given more importance than the photojournalist.

Photojournalists of various media houses have shared with me how their work is controlled by night desk editors, even though they have photography department with a photo-editor. The position seems just a front, since photo-editors find it hard to justify their role when it comes to power play. This may come as a surprise, but this is the reality.

If anything newsworthy happens at a remote location, the photos used are mostly taken by local correspondents. This brings up a lot of questions. Why wasn’t there any professional photojournalist on the field? Why don’t newspapers hire regional photographers across the country? How are we practising Photojournalism then?

What Needs To Improve

Be there at the right time, click at the right moment from a distance, file it, and get published. This is how we are practicing photojournalism, basically implementing the philosophy “What you see is what you get”. Visually, it may be interesting to observe the situation from a distance, but to engage your readers you have to get close to your subject. And it’s always your responsibility to respect your subject. Before pointing the camera in anyone’s face, first we have to learn and understand the situation.

The three elements of a photo—Headline, Picture and Caption—should build the reader’s curiosity for the story, not give away the entire information. If you pick any local daily or magazine, of any circulation, you can clearly see how often they use pictures: from the first page to the last. And often, the four different elements (headline, picture, caption, story) give the exact same information. Pictures are not about giving answers, but about asking questions.

Payment Of Photojournalists

Recently, I met a friend in Denmark who works for The New York Times as a contributing photojournalist. He informed me that before joining his office, he was made to sign eight pages of terms and conditions, and he has to follow their work ethics and terms of use and distributions. But that is not the case in Nepal. On the contract you will not find clear information regarding institutional ethical goals, how they will protect your content i.e., photo, text, video, and how they will pay you for your work.

I have no doubt that photojournalists in Nepal follow events and news responsibly, but when it comes to business they fail. When they start working as a staff photojournalist, they make big investments on camera, lenses, bike, etc. But none of the media houses are serious about investing on or paying photojournalists for professional content. Stealing pictures from each other has become a game for all kinds of media—big and small. Local photojournalists who lack awareness of copyright are the victims of this most of the time.

I am not an activist, but last year, on World Photography Day, the culmination of such incidents encouraged me to found “Pay Nepali Photographers for Their Pictures”. It was a facebook campaign to support, educate and encourage local photographers to report on theft or lack of payment. We regularly updated the page with the news on copyright practice from across the world. We also help them get free legal counseling through media lawyer and experts. Now the campaign has become well known among photographers. It’s a movement to let the public and professionals know that stealing pictures is a crime, and if you need pictures, you must learn to pay.

I think all photojournalists need to think and debate on this issue, which will help establish responsible practices and create opportunities. When it comes to business, it’s very important to know your work and learn how to market it. Don’t give your picture just for a byline, but think about your investment and time. Don’t be the cause of your own victimization. Learn where you want to stand and how you want to express your voice.

Current State Of Freelance Photojournalism

A picture is a reflection of a photographer. It’s about how close you are with your subject, how you express the subject, how you engage your audience, and how you make them see what you see. The important thing is to be honest, make mistakes and learn through your mistakes, and go beyond and express the voice of your community, people and country.

Freelance photojournalism is increasing compared to the past, but the quality of the work still does not meet requirements, which is because freelancers have little support. They spend months or years investigating issues, but it’s very hard to find grants or funds from organizations for their work. If you publish your work in a newspaper, the payment is very low. That makes continuing in the profession tough for freelancers in Nepal.

We can take lessons from international publications or agencies that work with limited staff but large number of freelancers. This method is fast and easy, and good business for both. This will inspires photographers to work on investigative stories that they can market to both local and international clients.

About the author:

Sailendra Kharel is an award winning photojournalist from Birgunj with more than 10 years of experience in photojournalism. He is currently studying International Photojournalism Program in full scholarship from Danish Ministry of Education at Danish School of Media and Journalism in Denmark. His works can be viewed at his Facebook page.

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