Report by Mat Gallagher:
The results of this year’s multimedia category of the World Press Photo awards which we reported a couple of weeks ago have once again sparked a lively debate. We asked some of our regular contributors for their reactions, including Duy Linh Tu, head of Digital Media at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, DJ Clark, director of Multimedia Journalism at the Asia centre of Journalism and course leader on the MA International Multimedia Journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Sharron Lovell, multimedia journalist and lecturer on the MA International Multimedia Journalism at the Asia centre of Journalism, Jonah M. Kessel, multimedia journalist for the New York Times in Beijing, and our very own Dan Chung.
First prize in the Online feature category: Too Young to Wed. Executive producer, photographer and additional videographer: Stephanie Sinclair, VII Photo Agency. Director and cinematographer: Jessica Dimmock, VII Photo Agency. Production supervisor: Alina Grosman. Production assistant: Tesfaye Almnew. Translator: Simengnish Yekoye
What did you think of the winners; the overall quality, the technical quality and story?
Jonah Kessel: There’s no real difference between the online story and the feature story, apart from duration. Even then, the features are a minute longer, two minutes longer. Dreams of Freewheelers (third prize in the online feature category below); that one is actually a little different. The other five winners are all a formula. You don’t see any live action. It’s literally an interview – half the time a single interview – followed by representative imagery. It’s a very basic formula and, to me, that shows almost no originality or storytelling.
I can go to Vimeo any day of the week and find much better productions from independent filmmakers or do-it-yourself filmmakers, people that aren’t even filmmakers. They opened the door this year, which was really great. They allowed for content that didn’t have to have stills. But they are obviously favouring productions with stills. The formula is, ‘Okay, lets interview somebody on video but then show still pictures of things because we’re actually still photographers and we’re being forced into a multimedia world and it’s easy for us to turn on our camera and record a conversation’. The visual story doesn’t segment; there’s no sequencing. There’s one scene, in ‘Dying for relief’, where we see a guy take a puff of a cigarette then put the cigarette on the ashtray. In the first five videos, that’s the only time where I saw a sequence, and for me that doesn’t show thought. If we’re just seeing random pictures, and hearing words, it’s like an audio slideshow.
Duy Linh Tu: First, it’s always great when visual journalists are honoured and recognised for their commitment to the craft. It’s obvious that the winners in all the categories are first-class photographers. They know how to make pictures. However, I come from a narrative documentary background, so seen through that lens, these pieces do fall short in terms of story. Many of these pieces rely too much on the very stale technique of interviews covered by great photography or b-roll. These pieces lacked scenes and true narratives; I saw no change over time, no drama, no reveal, no resolution.
DJ Clark: The overall quality of the winners is better this year. There is still clearly a long way to go for photographers to match their documentary film counterparts for video technical quality and story, but they are going in the right direction.
Sharron Lovell: I think WPP’s multimedia awards are still in an awkward stage and position. As a practice, multimedia journalism is fairly simple to define – using multiple media to convey stories and information. As a project or package things get trickier. With the exception of the interactive documentary section, the WPP awards feel like a multimedia award targeted to a generation of traditional photojournalists who also shoot video with their cameras. Categories need further clarification and participants need to be drawn from wider disciplines to drive quality and make the awards really credible.
In terms of the aims set out by the category awards (news value, storytelling and narrative and strong visuals) winning entries came in a mixed bag. The online short winner “Into the Shadows” had strong visuals but little else. I liked the shorts second place “Living with a Secret” for its original, interesting topic, which was thoughtfully relayed. However, for me it did miss the crucial voice of the main character to really take it to the next level of my understanding the issue. “Too Young to Wed”, the online feature winner, is fantastic; I can forgive less than perfect video technique for intimate insight into an important story. There’s depth and intimacy, and a candidness of interview that only comes with a lot of hard work; this story has a nuance and respect that blasts through the usual stereotypes. “Bitter Pill” was also a favourite; again, the topic was really newsworthy and, even though it’s not entirely new, it was told in an original way that for me had impact.
Dan Chung: I wouldn’t want to take away from what the winners have achieved; there is some great work. Especially the interactive category. I’m not saying the other work is bad, far from it, but I find it incredible to believe that in the great wide world out there, that this is the best. I think technically there are major issues with most of the pieces, if not all of the pieces.
Does the technical quality of the video matter for this award? Should WPP be awarding work that has mediocre video?
Jonah Kessel: At a certain point, it doesn’t matter if your video is technically sound; you can still make an impactful video. However, as a society rewarding multimedia pieces, it does matter.
A multimedia piece given an award should have excellent story, excellent technical ability, it should be creative, everything should be there. Leaving out the interactive stuff for now, these six pieces are, technically speaking, not so hot. They all look super digital, there are overexposure problems, the audio’s crap, I can hear the camera moving sometimes. All the shutter speeds are up at 1/2000th half the time, there are no ND filters used. Does this matter to the audience? To me it makes them not look like film. It’s taken me years as a visual journalist to get to that point where I really see a difference in videos, where people are actually using the 180 degree rule, where people are using techniques that make the 5D useable. These people aren’t paying attention to the technical stuff. Why are these winning? They all have merit for sure, but are they the best in the world? Not even close!
In every example all we see is someone doing an interview and later in time piecing it together, except for the Chinese production from Southern Weekend (Dreams on freewheels). This was by far my favourite and a lot of it was because you felt like you were there. You see the coach talking to the people, then you combine that with interviews, and you show these characters. It was the only one which had a narrative, it was the only one which had sequencing.
Duy Linh Tu: “Multimedia” is a funny word. It has been co-opted by many to mean photos mixed with audio and sometimes video. But for the average viewer, when they hit that “play” arrow, they expect video. Viewers don’t make distinctions about what cameras were shot, what techniques were used, etc. They expect a video that plays with audio and motion images. WPP should have paid more attention to the video aspect of these productions. In many cases, the shooters were still making classic HDSLR mistakes such as shooting everything at F/1.4. But a bigger crime, in my opinion, was that these moving images did not add up to meaningful sequences or scenes. In most cases, they were merely extended stills; i.e. photos recorded for many seconds instead of a moment.
DJ Clark: World Press Photo has always existed to support, showcase and reward photojournalists. Increasingly photojournalists are being asked to shoot video, as well as or instead of stills, and many are finding the transition difficult. In that context I think it is appropriate for WPP to award photographers who are making a go of that transition. As for the video quality, it’s difficult to call without seeing all the entries.
Sharron Lovell: Yes, the video work does seem poor and quite disappointing. I think multimedia productions, of the type WPP are aiming to award, offer opportunities for shooters to break out of traditional news video moulds and to be more creative and experimental. However, we are seeing a lot of tradition breaking but little of anything thoughtful or crafted replacing it.
Dan Chung: There are clearly rules by which you win the WPP photography competition, which require, not technical perfection, but an understanding of the aesthetics; an understanding of position; the understanding of the significance of your subject and their story, and its place in the world; and the fact that you’ve conveyed that in a way the audience responds to. Those criteria are not met when they move it into the multimedia space. So, certainly the video element is quite often not aesthetically verging on perfection. It’s not journalistically, in terms of storytelling, verging on perfection. It isn’t necessarily of the moment, in the way the spot news categories of the World Press are. I didn’t see any significant moment in time or in multimedia – a little in the Chinese piece – and I think if you pull all of that together, what you end up with is a competition that doesn’t celebrate, in multimedia, the same ideals that the competition celebrates in photo. Technical ability or at least recognition of elements, such as composition, light and shade, and everything else we talk about as photographers, are supremely important in the World Press. Occasionally they award a great bit of citizen journalism but on the whole the winning entries, most of them, are really good sound pieces of creative photography, and that’s just not true in multimedia. I fail to believe that it doesn’t exist. It does; we look at it every day. So the question is either how is it judged or who is entering? And if they’re not entering, why not?
Other discussions are over whether the Aleppo Battleground piece, by Jérôme Sessini of Magnum Photos for Le Monde, should win given that it shows a photographer taking clear risks. Are WPP right to do that?
Jonah Kessel: I don’t have a problem with photographers taking risks. I have a problem with them awarding this piece. I can show you ten other examples of multimedia done there that are better and show a greater understanding of the issue. We all know that that as a photographer in a war zone, you’re putting yourself at risk. That’s not new, that’s not news. Strapping a GoPro to your head, it’s a one button operation, and maybe you’re going to photograph your own death but that’s it.
This is the point of the contest – to show multimedia, and how it’s making the world understand things differently and better. This helps us understand the journalist’s job, and maybe you can say that’s part of it, but I think it’s almost insulting to the other journalists in Syria, to give an award like that.
Duy Linh Tu: I think this piece was great in that it showed exactly what a photographer sees and goes through. The story was one about war photography, not the war itself. So, I think it was fine for WPP to give this piece the award.
DJ Clark: I would have fought against this decision, had I been on the panel. I don’t think the WPP awards should be about the photographer.
Sharron Lovell: I think photojournalism awards have, in general, evolved and encouraged photographers to take risks in conflict zones, particularly younger photographers trying to make their mark. Maybe we don’t usually see the back story in such a clear light as in this production but the seduction is still there. So, in that context I don’t see this award as any more worrying than any others.
Dan Chung: I have an ethical problem with it. We are supposed to be encouraging journalists, photographers and cameramen to act responsibly in these situations. Whilst we all realise that stuff like that goes on, that particular video shows the photographer basically doing everything we are told not to do on a hostile environment course. Nobody on any of those courses is going to tell you to go and stand in an exposed position where people are getting shot at by snipers with nothing in front of you. There’s clearly no barrier in front of him because the GoPro is strapped to his chest and he’s not hiding behind anything. So he’s at least up to mid-level with no cover. It may be the only way to get that shot but then a) should newspapers, magazines, websites, be encouraging people to do that? and b) surely we’re encouraging more people if we award people doing it?
First prize in the online short category – Into the Shadows. Photography, direction and camera: Pep Bonet. Producer, script and interviews: Line Hadsbjerg, Remarkable World. Sound designer, music and multimedia editor: José Bautista, KanseiSounds.
WPP seem to be awarding work from teams, less individual work. Is that the right way for them to go?
Jonah Kessel: I think that’s probably a good thing. As a team you have the ability to do things you can’t as an individual, however, there are plenty of individuals doing solo work that is better than this.
I don’t know that making categories based on the size of team would work. I think an individual can do something a team can do and I don’t think you should be penalised for having a big team. Look at all the big contests open for multimedia – POYI, BOM, WPP. You’re seeing much better content coming out on Vimeo than in any of these contests: story-wise, technically speaking, all across the board. The problem with all of these contests is the categories. I made 40-odd videos last year and logistically I was only able to submit three of them for BOP – the others didn’t fall in to a category that wanted them to be there. If you’re running a contest and you think what a broadcast journalist does and what a paper/multimedia person does is at all similar, you’re wrong. I mean look at the products.
Duy Linh Tu: I come from a long-form, narrative documentary background and I am very comfortable working in teams. In fact, I think my best work comes from working with others with a shared vision. Obviously, with economics being a factor, not all projects can afford to have several people working on it. I think WPP should award the best project, regardless of whether it was produced in teams or solo.
Sharron Lovell: A single operator would be a valuable category, but I don’t see why teams shouldn’t be a main part of the general awards. May the best work win, whether created by a team of single operator.
Dan Chung: I think ultimately you should just reward on merit and how good the finished piece is. As a competition though, it clearly isn’t fair to have somebody with no resource, no money, up against a team. In the photo competition the stills camera is a great leveller. As long as you’ve got to the place, and somehow funded your way to Aleppo, it doesn’t matter whether you work for Time magazine, or Newsweek, or off your own back. Your chances of winning are really just down to that moment – and yes it takes money, but not as much as much as it takes to put together a five person multimedia team, or a ten person team with a sound man. There’s nothing wrong with having pieces that do that but pitting them against the solo team is a dilemma and I would probably steer towards having a category for solo or two person productions.
Are we basically saying multimedia that wins awards needs heavy production? Should there be room in WPP for simpler works? less narrative?
Duy Linh Tu: I think these awards actually need to be judged on an even higher level. I’ve judged other multimedia contests and I see this phenomenon over and over again: photojournalists who shoot photos, record some interviews, and then throw the two together and try to sell it as a narrative. I don’t think pieces need to be Hollywood-quality to win at WPP. But I think WPP really needs to separate the multimedia prize from the stills categories. Stills capture the moment, or a series of moments. Video should tell a true narrative. The photo world might see “multimedia” as “photo + audio,” but the world sees it simply as video.
DJ Clark: I understand they need to reward the best productions out there but I wish they had a place for the individual photographer covering daily news assignments. I would guess 90% of multimedia assignments carried out by photojournalists are done alone, in the space of one or two days – shot, edited, published. There simply is not an economic model for most publications to make the long form piece created by a team viable. Without this category they discourage the vast majority of photographers to enter, and in doing so lose the magic of the all-inclusive WPP Awards. When I questioned them about this, they said that was the purpose of the online short, but few people had entered as solo productions.
Sharron Lovell: Again, I think there’s room for everything, with clearly defined categories and I think single operator categories would be valuable. Multimedia journalism is produced both by single operators and teams and both can be fantastic. If WPP awards are to be in tune with the reality of MM working practice they should include both.
Dan Chung: Is this an award for the multimedia that photojournalists create or is it an award for multimedia of a certain genre, as defined by World Press? It turns out that, certainly from my conversations with World Press, it’s the latter. So quite often it’s those large teams working at newspapers and agencies to create something that honours the photo more than anything else and is quite often not technically perfect in other ways. That’s basically what the WPP seem to be awarding, as opposed to recognising the trends, certainly amongst newspaper photographers, like myself and Jonah, who are multimedia in the fact that we shoot multiple mediums on a specific job. Our actual finished product is normally one or the other – either moving or its still. The two are not generally intertwined. We are multimedia journalists, shooting multimedia on assignment, as photojournalists, and that’s the big difference I think. That’s not what this is seeking to award.
Should the works have to feature photos? Or should WPP be about the kind of work photojournalists do? Many shoot video-only assignments
Jonah Kessel: If they want to have an audio slideshow category, fine, but it’s stupid to try and mix it with video. Almost never do I put a still photo into a video unless that video happens to be about the still photograph. It disrupts the flow and makes the video worse. There are a couple of instances where it can be appropriate but usually, as in these cases, they are doing it as a crutch because they don’t have the video.
Duy Linh Tu: Awards are designed to celebrate great work, but they are also equally responsible for setting the agenda. WPP is photo-centric, so that’s why these entries feature still photos. But, if they are to really reflect modern photojournalists and their audience, it would be wise for WPP to acknowledge video-only assignments.
DJ Clark: They took out the rule for there needing to be photos, but still most of the winners included stills. Was that because of the way the panel was briefed, or pushing from photographers on the panel or were the video-only stories not as good as those with stills? Only someone who was there could answer that.
Sharron Lovell: No I don’t. If entries have to have still pictures, then I think the awards will serve a tiny, bizarre, elitist niche that stifles rather than promotes creativity.
Dan Chung: There is great multimedia that includes photographs and there’s room for celebrating that. This is WPP’s competition and it is up to them what they want to award but let’s make it clear – this is an award for multimedia that puts photos at the fore, and does not celebrate the multimedia done by the majority of photo journalists asked to do video. But please, at least ensure the other stuff is technically at a level that video people would expect. Just because the photo is the focus doesn’t mean the video work is inconsequential.