The digital revolution is heralding unprecedented change in virtually all industries. Perhaps not since the industrial revolution began over two centuries ago have we seen innovation that has been so rapid, transformative, and, in the eyes of some, so dangerously out of control. This is particularly true of this revolution’s effect on journalism, and photojournalism, where traditional models of working, dissemination and financing have been rendered almost completely obsolete in a matter of little over a decade.
Many commentators and theorists discuss this revolution much as they would an act of god, as an unstoppable force which cannot be reasoned with or steered, but at best understood. Most ask ‘where are we going?’ but very few ask the far more important question ‘where do we want to go?’ Fred Ritchin is a rare exception to this, and his latest book Bending the Frame is a much needed examination of the massive changes that have occurred in journalism in recent years, and more vitally an attempt to suggest how we might use a combination of new technology and new working practices to change journalism and better carry out it’s mandate in the future.
Across six chapters Ritchin explores a wide range of topics pertinent to the state and future of the industry. For example in The Useful Photographer he examines photojournalism’s traditional values and roles in wider society, how these are being affected by change for better and for worse. In counterpoint to cynics like me who tend to assume that journalism’s ability to tell or show the ‘truth’ and thereby enact change has been completely undermined, Ritchin makes compelling arguments for ways that new technology can actually reinforce these very traditional journalistic functions, not erode them.
In another chapter, Other Alliances, Ritchin turns his attention to the use of images by competing and contradictory factions as part of a global image war which is ‘so intensely visible it is difficult to perceive’. He examines how imagery has been used in the global war on terror, where acts of violence are planned with their appearance as press images in mind. In the second half of the chapter he investigates the use of imagery by non-governmental organisations, an increasingly important source of financial and moral capital for journalists struggling to find traditional editorial outlets and backing for their work.
Every chapter is peppered with useful, real world examples of photographers employing innovative techniques to approach familiar and unfamiliar subjects, and tackle problems old and new. Simply as a catalogue of photographers using novel strategies in their work it’s an exhaustive and exhausting text (I spent a sizeable amount of time just looking up the names and projects I didn’t recognise). Ritchin also suggests many innovations of own invention, from embedding extensive contextual information within images to playing photographs off against each other. He notes an attempt of his own to temper the anger of 9/11 by juxtaposing a photograph of the ruins of the World Trade Centre with one of the ruins of Kabul, already ravaged by decades of war.
Ritchin is a rare exception to most writers on these topics, a theorist not a fearist, he acknowledges the bad but always in the context of positive counter-points and potential solutions. Equally he is neither utterly hostile to old fashioned photojournalism as some writers on photography are, nor is he blindly protective of its tenets and traditions for their own sake, as many in the photojournalism industry. For anyone in this field, but also for anyone who is interested in the evolving nature of photography and it’s many possible futures Bending the Frame should be considered absolutely essential reading.