Drowning in pictures

Image copyright bbc

At the BBC we can receive more than 8,000 pictures from the news wire agencies each day. Add to that the photographs sent in by our readers, pictures sent on spec from freelance photographers and independent photo agencies, then... well let's just say we see our fair share of pictures.

You could argue whether we really need any new photographs. Have we reached saturation point?

In news terms the simple answer would be that each new story, each new event brings with it a need for new pictures. Yes, at times we might feel that we have seen it all before and on some days the photos seem to blur into each other and are little more than illustrations of the text.

But that would be to miss the point, there are plenty of occasions where pictures lead the story, where a good still can can convey something that draws you into the events and leads you to want to know more.

So the question is, how do photographers get their work to stand out in such a crowded market, especially on the wires where if you blink you'll have missed it?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Image overload was not an issue in 1935

Like the majority of news organisations the pictures that form the basis of the BBC News website are provided by a number of news picture agencies, specifically: AFP, AP, Getty Images, PA and Reuters. Their photographs arrive via ftp into an internal system that can be accessed via the BBC intranet.

The wire pictures contain metadata that form the catalogue entry and provide the keywords and text for our system. This allows journalists at the BBC to search by terms and story slugs, as well as just browsing the latest pictures. Obviously we can also access each agencies' collection via their websites when required.

Yet on big stories the volume can be overwhelming.

I asked Tony Hicks, the Regional Photo Editor for Europe and Africa at Associated Press, to explain how their photographers work to get their pictures in front of editors in a timely manner.

He said: "Compared to 20 years ago the volume has increased by a factor of about 30 due to the ease of rapid digital transmission of images and is also a result of broader editing by photographers in the field. Previously analogue transmissions meant stories had to be summarized in just three or four photos.

"Taking images on a digital camera, editing and transmitting them has become a far simpler process. Allied to this is the need to feed the 'insatiable internet beast' which means the rigid deadlines and constraints of the past are well and truly over.

"Now stories can be told in multiple images, allowing for a broader view of stories as well as more choice for the end user. This also means that there is more room for a variety of image styles and aesthetics ranging from the straightforward hard-hitting news image to more creative and thoughtful approaches.

"The Libyan story for example offers two main approaches; the government-controlled press trips in Tripoli where creativity is often needed to make what can be dull scenes visually more interesting, and the fighting in the east, where straightforward combat photography is more in order.

"In either case we strive for original, eye-catching images capable of distinguishing themselves from the hundreds of images delivered to our customers every day."

But what about the relationship of photographer and subject, has the need to file more pictures changed this?

Image copyright AP

Tony said: "Constant, real-time internet deadlines combined with satellite transmission technology mean that it is both desirable and possible to transmit images quickly.

"The photographers must use good judgment as to when to keep making pictures and when to peel off to transmit. Sometimes one photographer on a story is asked to file their images early, allowing others to spend more time with the subjects. We always strive to be 'first, right and relevant'; get great images that are relevant and accurate and deliver them first. So there is pressure to file early, however there's no point getting inaccurate, irrelevant photos sent in record time as they'll get lost within hours if not minutes."

Finally what do you see as the photojournalists' role in the chain of production? By that I mean AP's pictures could appear in a wide range of outlets over which you have little control, do you feel the "honesty" of the pictures still comes across or can that be lost in the process?

Tony said: "Honesty is key. There is no room for manipulation of any kind, whether in Photoshop or through the photographer's intervention and influence on the scenes they witness. We strive to be unbiased observers. AP photographers understand the importance of credibility to our mission an our captions strive to give the correct context. While we have multiple subscribers and customers of varied political persuasions they all know that what they get from the AP is accurate and truthful - our reputation depends on it."

For those photographers working as freelancers or looking to document a story in longer form, then they will often take a different approach. Their pictures need to offer an alternative view to those on the wires. Sometimes this is about content, in terms of shooting in a different way, perhaps using film rather than digital, or medium format, or just using shorter focal length lenses, and at other times it's more about packaging the story in a different way. By that I mean offer us a whole piece, with more detailed captions, full background notes and ideally quotes from those in the frame.

To do this many freelancers will move in behind the wire photographers, as they move on to new stories the freelance will come behind the news teams and start to work on in depth projects, exploring the subject, living in the space and in the best cases be able to present compelling stories and features that explore deeper issues.

Mashid Mohadjerin works as a freelance for magazines such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, De Standaard, Knack and de Volkskrant. I asked Mashid about her work and what techniques she uses to ensure her pictures catch the eye of pictures editors around the globe:

Image copyright Other
Image caption One of Mashid's portraits in a series exploring the lives of families of migrant workers left behind in Tajikistan

Mashid said: "Most importantly I think that the role of the photographer has changed: it is no longer a hard skill to master in terms of technique and thus I think that our vision as photographers, our "eye", has become more important than our technique. I think that serious photojournalism is going beyond that which is on the news.

"When I think about the changes in photography today, I can't help but notice how many good images are being made as well as how many fantastic new photographers are out there. It has become easy to get access to all kinds of images; therefore photographers face a greater challenge to stand out in the digital world. I personally like to use digital photography for news but still prefer and use medium format for my portraits and slower paced photo essays."

We recently published a series of pictures by Mashid that explored the lives of sub-Saharan migrants in Libya. The photographs show how successfully Mashid has entered the lives of her subjects, something which requires time and dedication. Her simple, straight on framing also ensures we are allowed to explore the frame without too much interference. There are no gimmicks or odd angles or tricks, the pictures show something of the lives of those depicted and combined with the text offer a us a taste of their dilemma. From here we can choose to find out more or move on.