Photojournalism is also media design

16 maaliskuun, 2012  |  Published in UP-TO-DATE


Column on the website of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 published March 15, 2012:


In the brand market of the media, design is a currency ranked higher and higher, but what does the management of media houses, and the photojournalists themselves think about design?

When a design desk was founded at the Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily of Finland, last year, Mikael Pentikäinen, the responsible editor-in-chief declared in his paper: ”Our goal is to make the Helsingin Sanomat the best in newspaper design. With this crowd, it is a realistic, if highly challenging goal.” (HS 15/3/2011)

In his pompous world domination mission, by the crowd he mentioned, Pentikäinen meant the 3-people management team of the design desk, and all the paper’s layout and graphics experts to be collected under them. However, Pentikäinen chose not to mention the photo desk of HS.

According to Markku Niskanen, manager of HS photo desk, the photo desk is its own, separate desk, which concentrates on producing graphical content. Isn’t photography, more specifically press photography, newspaper design like graphics? Does a photograph become the raw material of the design desk’s wow layouts?

Photographers create their own photojournalism design with their photos and photo editors with their use of photos. Photo editing is an inseparable part of media design and the brand of the paper. Or can you imagine quality magazines like HS Kuukausiliite, Suomen Kuvalehti, Image or National Geographic (not to mention lifestyle and special magazines) without impressive photo reportage, portfolios, and portrait galleries?

Media design is built of text, graphics, and photographs, and above all, of persistent teamwork, where competent professionals are respected. In the best scenario everyone is familiar with the paper’s own visual style, but also with each other’s individual views and ways of working.

I thought that the regard for photojournalism would have increased in the 2000s, but it looks like the opposite is the case. The development layer of media houses reminds us in their key notes that while visuality is important, in practice, however, the number of press photographers has been reduced at many papers. The confrontation between different employee groups emerge as the media competition accelerates.

The local visual look of the Finnish provincial papers has faded, and the reason is not that they’ve become more tabloid-like. In their renewal projects, the media conglomerates have forced their papers into inflexible concepts, which bind the layout specialists into predetermined layout solutions. The opportunity to enjoy original media design is becoming increasingly rare.

Outsourced assembly layout of papers is found to be tempting during tight economic times. At worst it is like a cheap copy of a quality product. The essence is missing. Old paper making patterns must also be consciously broken. Even though an external freelance is useful, and can sometimes see things from a fresher angle than the regulars at the office, excess subcontracting of photographers and illustrators can lead to superficial visuality.

Media philosopher Vilém Flusser was right when he claimed that we live in a world where visual and verbal periods take turns. At worst, the visual abundance of our time may be overwhelming. Many papers could use a photo editor at the office to help structure their photo offering.

A photo editor who manages the visual field supremely has got a photo brain, which they use to create an individual look for the paper by using photographers and illustrators who are good for a given shoot. A photo editor makes bold and value setting photo selections, with which they even reflect the changes in the society. This cannot be done with semi-free wannabe visualists or image banks who dump the prices of photos.

The facial operations of the Finnish press will start next year when the major dailies turn into tabloids. And what about the all-purpose tablets (table computers)? Do they offer a solution for the next generation of photojournalism? Mere innovations in publishing technology are not enough. Quality journalism cannot be done without quality photojournalists.

If styling and tuning up have become part of the citizens’ everyday language, wouldn’t it now be time for media people to finally seriously talk about the design of photojournalism. After that world fame seems far more likely.

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