Sad and tragic stories, and photojournalism

I don’t want to start an argument, but I do want to see a discussion.

Yesterday while grading some critiques by students, I watched Jessica Dimmock’s three-year project, The Ninth Floor. It’s not the first time I’ve watched it. I’ve got no question that it’s great photojournalism and has great production values. It’s real, it’s edited well, and it’s damn hard work to create something like this. I’ve got nothing but admiration for the work, the effort, the skill, the talent.

My question stems from how people feel about the story. It’s horrible. It’s depressing. These images show people at their worst, and you’ve got to wonder why they do this to themselves. Granted, Dimmock has structured the story in a way that leaves us some room to hope, at the end. But what stays with me is the ugliness, the awfulness. And when students critique this, their reaction is similar: This was so hard to watch.

It’s my impression, after years of viewing many, many photo stories, that these are the stories that photojournalists and photo editors most want to tell. Stories of depravity, of the worst side of humanity, or the saddest side — illness and death. And it’s what wins prizes too (surely there’s a connection).

I fully acknowledge the value in taking us where we do not want to go. We need to see scenes of poverty, death on the battlefield, victims of natural disasters. This is the duty of journalism, to take us there.

But I’m having a problem with stories about sick people, people with cancer or leukemia, and addicted people (also a sickness) that just take us down a hole and leave us there. I also think that far too many stories by student photojournalists are focused on these subjects. I start to think, “Oh, no, not another sweet little child with cancer …” when the slideshow starts.

Shouldn’t we be looking for other stories? What does anyone in the audience learn from seeing yet another child with a disease, and the grieving parents, the valiant fight? Effort be damned — what is the value to the public in these tragic tales? Is this what journalism is for?

18 Comments on “Sad and tragic stories, and photojournalism

  1. I believe photo students are taught early on that dramatic, depressing photos are the ones that win contests. So they naturally gravitate to that. The photo profession, more than other areas of journalism, I believe are trapped in a bubble of telling stories more for themselves rather than the public at large. I’ve seen so many over-the-top artsy, abstract, figurative photos from photojournalists, I’ve often wondered if their photos belong in an art gallery or a newspaper. I have nothing against Photographers or photos; I believe photos are crucial to storytelling. But years of treating photos as simply a way of adding illustrations to a story I think lead that part of the industry to find their own identity, more on the artistic side.

  2. The job of a journalist is to document the world as it is and not as we want it to be. It is not our duty to provide morals to stories if they are not there.

    Through watching movies, we have been trained to accept a particular structure for stories. When someone throws a wrench into the mix, we are thrown off.

    The journalism that takes us down a hole and leaves us there is the type of work that calls us to action.

  3. @Mark Gould – Playing devil’s advocate, I ask: What action should I, could I take regarding children who get cancer?

    I don’t crave a moral to the story. I’m fine with loose ends.

  4. @Mindy

    It would be whatever action you are moved to take by viewing the piece. (Donate money to a charity, share the story with a friend, resolve to learn more about the issue, etc.) I believe that if a balanced story can evoke strong emotion within you, regardless of the emotion, then it is a successful story.

    These types or stories are still informative, regardless of whether or not they are easy for us to watch.

    What do you think?

  5. You might be surprised to hear this, and it’s a great compliment to Jessica Dimmock: In my first ever class on photojournalism this was demonstrated as an example of great photojournalism.

    Why? Because it’s morbidly captivating throughout. I wouldn’t like to say what the public get from such tragic stories but, journalistically, they do portray a section of society, an effect of society, not seen in an everyday life.

  6. Thanks for writing this post — it conveys the same sense of doubt I sometimes have about these topics. While I don’t deny that they can be important and thoughtful, the stories about the worst or saddest sides of humanity, as you put it, also seem disproportionately common in photojournalism. And, like you said, there’s often little to nothing that viewers can do about the people in these stories.

    Mark is right in that a journalist’s job is to document the world as it is, but there is a lot more to the world than drug addicts, sick children, and other people who probably don’t need a camera’s lens in their faces.

  7. Mindy,

    To Jeremy’s explanation of why depressing photojournalism is so popular, I would add that the impulse that drives some people to watch difficult, depressing matter is the same one that drives photojournalists to document it — voyeurism.

    Much of the “world as it is” is mundane. Journalists or storytellers would never consider documenting that which doesn’t elicit some kind of strong response — be it emotional or intellectual.

    Good photojournalism can inspire a call to action, as Mark says, or at least reinvigorates a sense of humanity.

    I think what you are picking up on, with regard to “The Ninth Floor” is the bad taste of exploitation.

  8. @Anthony Salveggi – I would beg to differ on this point. I am as voyeuristic as the next person when it comes to strange-but-true stuff, even if it is distasteful or ugly.

    The thing about dying-people stories, and sad homeless and/or addicted people stories, is there is nothing strange or unusual about them. There are dozens of them in every PJ contest. Except for the individuals, they are not very different from one another.

    Therefore I ask, what is the point?

    Nothing new = not news!

  9. Mindy,

    I think you ask an excellent question relevant not only to photojournalists but to all journalists. So often we are attracted to the stories of “the underclass.” And yes, those stories must be told; I still believe part of our mandate is to “give voice to the voiceless.”


    Many if not most of our readers live in the great gray middle, that daily slog through life. They are trying to navigate huge economic and social change while keeping themselves and their families afloat. Can’t we best serve them by:

    1. Telling THEIR stories?
    2. Helping THEM better navigate their lives?
    3. Keeping their leaders accountable?

  10. By the way, I have seen the piece — and I loved it. It offers a window into lives that few of us, thank God, actually experience. So I’m not at all critical of the project. I’m just questioning our almost reflexive attraction to such stories.

  11. I think journalism as a profession carries a heavy responsibility. I think the true pros who practice it understand this. As is pointed out in this article by Jay Rosen over at, it’s not just the responsibility of the journalist to report the world as it is, but also to analyze and evaluate what’s being reported on in a balanced and responsible way. In other words, to report the truth. I also think it should be the responsibility of journalists to report on possible solutions, or at a minimum to go the extra mile by providing info to enable their audience to further understand or even to act.

    For example, news consumers obviously do not have the resources or the time to go to Iraq, so reporters tell them what’s happening there. It’s the reporters responsibility to filter the various spins, propoganda, and media manipulation to result in a truthful story about what’s really going on. It would also be good if some info could be provided about what to do about it. Viewers could decide their own level of action or inaction.

    The same could be said for cancer stories, or homeless, or domestic violence. I don’t think it’s enough to just report the world as it is, and in fact, this could even, and I emphasize, IN SOME CASES, be seen as exploiting difficult or tragic circumstances. Consider Hurricane Katrina coverage. Could not even more info have been given about how to donate, volunteer, or otherwise help?

    Even a story on a bus wreck or house fire could include info on how to donate to funds to help the victims or support the first repsonders. This is especially true in the age of Web 2.0. Viewers can easily get involved to help, if they just know how.

    Today’s journalists should take on the responsibility of going the extra step to provide info to their audience regarding further research, greater involvement, and even direct help regarding their story subjects .

  12. I agree. Tragedy comes to each of us in its time. We all recognize it. It feels like exploitation for financial gain or career points to always put the camera in the middle of it. If the story needs to be told to draw the world’s attention to a genocide or an untold crime then, yes, tell the story but tell it true.
    I loved the story of the farmer and the suburbans. It was real. It was thoughtful and it required honest digging to get at the true story and a light touch to bring it home.

  13. From a nonprofit standpoint, you never tell a story that is 100% sad. Why? Because nobody gives money to a sad homeless guy. They give money to a sad homeless guy who’s turning his life around. Or they see a story of one hopeless person who inexplicably escaped addiction or an abused/abusive history, and they realize that there is hope in helping the next one.

    I don’t know about journalism for telling the world the way it is. Like you say, not new = not news, but isn’t much of what we do every day not new? I assume that the news I read is biased, because I assume it was written by a person.

    I agree that there are too many stories consisting of nothing more than a “sad homeless” person.

  14. Mindy,
    Although this story is very well documented (great access/trust)and well produced by top professionals (music; audio, blank slides, text, help tell the story)
    I’ve thought the same thoughts as you for years. As a photojournalist for over 25 years, I’m trying to move away from stories of desperation unless I feel I can show some kind of solution..or hope of solution/resolution. I also think it’s easier to get stories of despair because these are people at their most vulnerable. My goal is to try to find important stories with different themes, now. Yes, I’ve covered ALS (Lou Gehrig’s to its bitter end, Cancer, AIDs, other rare diseases) I just think to sustain readership..we have to find more uplifting stories that celebrate life & death rather than bury us alive. With so many younger people working at newspapers, these sad stories are new to them. I think it’s important to be careful how we teach photojournalism. I had one student say to the class during a presentation, if you want to win the World Press Organization Photo competition, you basically have to go to a warzone or a third world country where everyone is starving and shoot depressing pictures in black and white. This is their impression. And, frankly, they’re right. Personally, I’d rather shoot for Conde Nast! Because pretty places are newsworthy, too.

  15. Inspire. Inform. Entrust. In that order. There’s a shift of attention that takes place, that captivates, something unexpected, surprising. Then the message is delivered, and then you let it go. The viewer has final say.

    Taste. You can only report what you see. Ira Glass sees more than most, asks more intelligent questions. His talk at the Gel Conference

    admits that his staff are people of taste, choosing topics and approaches that will resonate with subjects. Season Two of TAL DVD (via iTunes as well) pulls much out of the mundane or unnoticed. It’s just harder to see.

  16. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Moving away from sad and tragic stories

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