The camera eats first: Q&A with Kyser Lough

Assistant Professor Kyser Lough teaches in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications’ photojournalism program and studies visual communication, with an emphasis on photojournalism, as well as solutions journalism. In this interview, Lough discusses the continuing role of photojournalists in an age of ubiquitous imagery, and how he teaches his students to navigate that landscape. Read more about his research here.

How do you describe photojournalism research?

You can think of it several different ways, and the first is looking at the images themselves: What are the images telling us? How are they chosen? What’s being left out? Who is in the image? What kind of effects do these images have on people? That’s a big question surrounding conflict photography especially—we need these photos to see what’s going on, but what kind of toll is it taking on us to constantly see images of conflict?

What we often forget about is there’s a person behind the camera making these pictures, and that person has to physically be there. During the pandemic a lot of reporters were stuck at home; they were calling their sources and having Zoom meetings. The photographers had to go to these places to make these photos. So there are a lot of questions surrounding access and embodiment when it comes to being a photojournalist—how they have to use their bodies in the act of photography, not just to maneuver to make photos but also in negotiating for access to where they need to be.

It’s also fascinating to dig into photographers’ minds and ask about their process. How do they look for things to photograph? How do they decide what, who and when to photograph? When you combine that with talking about access and embodiment, it gives us a deeper look into the images.

As a visual communicator, what your thoughts about how the media world we live in has changed over the last two or three decades?

It’s definitely changed how we think of images. We toggle back and forth between seeing images as pure, unadulterated reality or pure, unadulterated fiction. It’s something we have to consider when we think about modern-day news literacy. In being worried about misinformation and disinformation, we need to really look at images. Part of that is putting the focus back on the image creator and the image owner. Just like we try and vet news sources, we also need to vet image sources and understand that many different things could have happened between an image being captured and us seeing it.

With deep fake video technology and ever more sophisticated photo-editing software, how are we going to determine the truth of an image in the future?

There is fascinating work being done on this right now. Part of it is news literacy and training us to have a healthy dose of skepticism when consuming news. But on the other end, there are computer scientists developing algorithms to analyze and detect alteration in images and video.

From the professional side, there are organizations and people working to prevent it on the creation end. So instead of trying to detect a fake image, it’s about providing a certificate of authenticity: “This image is real.” The Content Authenticity Initiative is probably the biggest one right now, where they are working with Adobe and other folks to essentially create a uneditable chain of edits and history on a photo. You can see the date and time the image was taken, but also see that it was loaded into Photoshop and these different edits were made. If that’s widely adopted—and the problem is it has to be adopted—then we can use that to vet images before they are out there and manipulated.

Dr. Kyser Lough Assistant Professor, Journalism
“We toggle back and forth between seeing images as pure, unadulterated reality or pure, unadulterated fiction. It’s something we have to consider when we think about modern-day news literacy,” Lough said. “Just like we try and vet news sources, we also need to vet image sources and understand that many different things could have happened between an image being captured and us seeing it.” (Photo by Jason Thrasher)
On a more positive note, all this changing technology and media affords a lot more possibilities to photojournalists in how they create and publish and share their work. What do you teach your students about how to leverage that to their advantage?

We start with the core foundation that storytelling matters, first and foremost. It has to be a good story. It has to be a good moment. We have to be people-focused. We start there, and then we can think about the platforms we use to tell this story. It’s so easy to get lost in the shiny new thing and forget we have to start as good journalists and good storytellers.

Now that everyone has a camera in their pocket, do we still need photojournalists?

That’s such a great question. In 2009, an airplane landed in the Hudson River in New York, and one of the first images to spread from that was not taken by a photojournalist—it was taken by a man on a ferry with a cell phone. He uploaded it to Twitter, and within minutes it was all over the place. Of course, now that’s commonplace. We know when something’s happening, and we’re not just seeing pictures posted—we’re seeing people livestreaming from their phones.

It’s very important for society to have that ability, for us to be able to witness and surveil as private citizens. On the other side of it, however, I firmly believe it’s still important to have photojournalists and trained storytellers out there because of the ethics and sensitivity surrounding a lot of the stories we’re trying to tell.

Journalism should be independent. There should be no conflict of interest; the journalist covering the story should not be involved in the story. The journalist’s images, while not being completely objective, are still representative of an independent observer who has been trained in how to be fair and how to cover the story and how to skillfully use the equipment. We still need journalists to tell these stories and uncover instances where power is being abused, and especially to protect the vulnerable.

Are your students more sophisticated about visual communications, having grown up with Instagram and Twitter and all of these new media?

I like to think so. It’s hard to think back to a time when we didn’t have a camera in our pocket, although it hasn’t been that long when you think about it. The biggest shift has been in the visual literacy students have in how the cell phone camera has allowed them to regularly observe and document their daily life. Once on a study abroad program we sat down to dinner, and the students brought out their phones and took pictures of the food. The phrase they taught me was: “Phone eats first.” And I love it. There’s no shame in it. I mean, when else in history has it been this easy to just snag a picture of anything and then go back and use the photo as a memory device?

Dr. Kyser Lough Assistant Professor, Journalism
Despite all the new technologies in photography that have emerged over recent decades, Lough teaches his students that basic principles still apply when it comes to photojournalism. “Storytelling matters, first and foremost,” he said. “We start there, and then we can think about the platforms we use to tell this story. It’s so easy to get lost in the shiny new thing and forget we have to start as good journalists and good storytellers.” (Photo by Jason Thrasher)
What’s the best photo you’ve ever taken?

Recently I haven’t been able to do as much photography as I have in the past, because my priorities are research and teaching. But we take our students out into the world as much as possible to get experiential learning, so I like to try and turn the camera around on them and those have been my favorite recent photos—the pictures of my students photographing. I’ve really enjoyed documenting the process as they grab their cameras and go out and do things. When I’ve taught study abroad, I took pictures of them photographing, and at the end of the program I wrote them a note and gave each one pictures of them out making photos.

The other answer to that question would be the times that I haven’t taken a picture. This is something that I usually wrap my photo classes with, this idea that just because we can doesn’t mean we should, especially in the day and age when we all have a camera in our pocket. I challenge my students to think about when to take a picture and when to simply use your five senses to really sit in that moment. Not everything has to be photographed.


The above feature was originally written and posted by UGA Research, and can also be round on the UGA Research website

 

Photojournalism research reframes way visuals are used

In a culture that is increasingly reliant on strong visuals in digital and print media, new research shows that photojournalism continues to evolve and reframe why specific pictures should be used.

Kyser Lough, an assistant professor in journalism at Grady College, recently published two research papers: one studying how environmental photography could be more effective and the other examining feedback from photography competition judges and how their decisions impact media narratives.

In the paper “Journalism’s visual construction of place in environmental coverage” published in Newspaper Research Journal, Lough and his co-author, Ivy Ashe, a doctoral candidate in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, studied 1,330 images on the front pages of 45 national newspapers representing a year’s worth of coverage. They examined the way the environment is visually portrayed.

Lough explains that while most examples of environmental photography stereotypically focus on wide, expansive geographic pictures that provide a sense of place, this may not be the best approach.

“Photojournalism needs to have people,” Lough said.  “People are our community and if we are covering our community, we need to include people. People are a very important part of the environment and environmental photos because they provide scale—for instance, looking at the size of mountains or trees in the Redwood Forest compared with a person.”


“More importantly, people add humanity to pictures which help encourage more impact,” Lough said. 

The researchers studied the images various ways, looking for different visual characteristics. One of these involved assigning the photo to one of four tiers in an emotional hierarchy from basic to complex: informational, graphically appealing, emotionally appealing and intimate.

As an example, a wide-angle picture of a mountain range would be a graphically-appealing picture whereas a picture that is a close-up portrait of someone suffering loss in a wildfire, is classified in an intimate tier.

Most of the photos evaluated were informational photos, but the goal is to have photos that are at least graphically-appealing emotional, if not intimate.

The research by Lough and Ashe indicate that photo editors should consider environmental pictures with people, such as the photo on on the left, compared with wide-angle pictures like on the right. Environmental pictures with people  show more scale and add humanity to visuals. (Photos: (left) Ivana Cajina, Unsplash; (right) Luca Barbo, Unsplash)

Lough explains it is hard to get an intimate photo of the environment because they are traditionally associated with tight portraits of people conveying a story. However, with more encouragement from photo editors, photojournalists can be encouraged to take more environmental pictures with people to make a connection.

Another implication is to aim for a more human-focused connection that prompts people to take action. Previous research has found that many people support protecting the environment, but not many act on this support. Emotionally-appealing photography could change this.

A second recent study by Lough examined the discussion between judges during deliberations at two national photo competitions: the Best of Photojournalism competition sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association which is headquartered at Grady College and the Pictures of the Year International competition through the Missouri School of Journalism.

In the paper “Judging Photojournalism: The Metajournalistic Discourse of Judges at the Best of Photojournalism and Pictures of the Year Contests,” published in the Journalism Studies journal, Both competitions open their judging rounds to the public, so Lough studied hours of this deliberation about what judges deemed as award-winning photography.

Discussions were divided into three main categories: thematic conversations where judges talked about photojournalism as a profession; discussions that focus on the photographer and his/her process; and a category that discussed the image, including story-telling qualities and composition.

Lough explains that some of the most insightful conversation took place when judges talked about the photojournalism profession. In one exchange, judges were discussing final images in the news category. The final images all represented death or suffering of people of color and the question was whether that was how we think of news and issues.

Lough continues: “I thought it was surprising and refreshing that the judges were talking about topics like that.  and that the judges were asking ‘do we want to reward this’ and ‘what are the implications of us elevating this photo?’ That’s the whole thing we talk about with journalism awards—what message does this send to current and future photojournalists about what they value and how they should behave ethically and otherwise? I liked that there was that self-awareness there.”

This provides more insight and implications for photo editors, especially, in deciding what pictures they choose to print.

Lough appreciates the value of these discussions and what it brings to the education of the students who serve as volunteers at the competitions.

“The students can witness these conversations and learn a great deal,” Lough concluded. “That’s where the education is.”


Editor’s Note: Links to the papers can be found below or by emailing Kyser Lough at KyserL@uga.edu.