Coming at photojournalism from a different angle
Ciara Leeming is a Manchester-based journalist with a background in local newspaper reporting who freelances for publications including the Guardian and the Big Issue in the North. After discovering photography a few years ago she joined the online MA in photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication as a stepping stone to working with words, photographs and multimedia. Her recurring subjects include urban regeneration, Roma migrants to the UK and Britain's own Gypsy and traveller communities.
Here in the fourth part of a series of posts by guest bloggers, Ciara talks about how and why she has made the leap from words to multimedia.
"It's funny how quickly the bug can take hold. Until three years ago I'd barely held a camera, yet now here I am, trying to gain a foothold in an industry many say is as good as dead.
"I'm coming at photojournalism from a different angle to many 'emerging' photographers in that I already have the journalism part sorted, having spent the past six years as a staff and freelance writer for newspapers and magazines.
"I attracted a bit of flak when I first picked up a camera - a few photographer mates protested loudly that I was 'yet another scribbler' trying to earn extra cash at their expense. It's an attitude I've never held with: any freelancer worth their salt should be working up their own stories - that's the way I've always operated as a writer.
"Photography, early on, was simply a creative outlet. Quickly though I tired of snapping single images and it was a natural step to start visually documenting my own stories, which often relate to social exclusion. It did not take long for me to be won over.
"Today I almost always sell both words and images: while my first love is definitely photography, I doubt I would survive financially without the writing. Some days this dual identity feels empowering - allowing me to take control of my own projects and giving me something of a unique selling point. At other times it feels like an unsatisfactory compromise with the potential to weaken my overall product.
"I have to flip between two quite different mind-sets while working - deeply involved as an interviewer, yet hanging back and observing as a photographer. The only way to do this is to work slower, so my income has dropped. I increasingly think visually but am still pitching to print editors because I'm unsure how to approach picture desks.
"As I've observed the industry I've noticed several things. There is simultaneously more camaraderie and more backbiting in the photographic community than between writers. There is too much naval gazing - where photographers seem content to produce work which only interests other snappers.
"I feel too many photographers are seduced by the exotic and the foreign, and increasingly believe the most important projects are those close to home. It's more challenging to find visual stories in your own back yard - especially in northern England, with its frequent poor weather and flat light.
"Finally, I've concluded that many who call themselves 'photojournalists' (a term I personally dislike) are sorely lacking in journalistic rigour and thinking.
"I'm most inspired by the kind of photographers for whom the story is everything; the camera just happens to be the tool they've chosen to communicate with. The likes of Ed Kashi, Joseph Rodriguez and Brenda Ann Kenneally are practising the kind of honest, in-depth journalism I aspire to. I love the fact they stick with their subjects for many years.
"Other inspirations include the young American photo cooperative Luceo Images, for the way its members balance personal projects with assignments, and pretty much everything which comes out of London-based agency Panos, whose whole ethos and aesthetic I love.
"This is a hugely exciting - and unsettling - time to be working in the media. It's no coincidence that the photographers I admire most are embracing new forms of online storytelling in the quest to get their work out to a wider audience. It was Ed Kashi's multimedia pieces that first opened my mind to what could be achieved by marrying audio with still photographs and, sometimes, a little video. A weekend of training with UK photofilm producers, Duckrabbit, gave me the basic skills to start to develop my own voice.
"Maybe my odd sideways route into this industry means I have fewer hang-ups than some of my colleagues about what photography should or shouldn't be. For me, multimedia feels like the ideal way for photographers to dig deeper into their stories, to help their subjects' voices be heard and to - hopefully - break out of the photographic 'ghetto'. Those who care more about storytelling than their images are the ones who I think get it.
"The way I operate as a journalist today is poles apart from how I did even two years ago. Instead of taking down interviews in shorthand, I'm now routinely recording audio - which must be transcribed and sometimes edited - and, of course, taking photos. Print stories must still be researched, then pitched and written. Everything is far slower, everything is now personal and self-funded and some is published only on my own website.
"I'm both enthused and a little nervous about what could happen from here, but I'm finally beginning to escape the editorial treadmill and find my own voice."
In the final part of the series tomorrow photographer David Rochkind talks about how he has funded a number of recent projects through grants and ways in which this has altered the resulting body of work.
Michael Kamber on photojournalism today
David Campbell on photojournalism in the age of image abundance
Adrian Evans on future funding of photojournalism
Photojournalism on a wider platform