Snapshot of the Future  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2002

Snapshot of the Future   

Programs helps photographers adapt to new mediums

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


Platypus. The name is weird, but it gets the point across, at least to those who know zoological history. It's the Australian aquatic mammal with a bill and webbed feet like a duck, whose discovery 200 years ago confounded scientists attempting to classify it. In the lexicon of Dirck Halstead, well-known photojournalist, former senior White House photographer for Time magazine and founder of the Digital Journalist online magazine, a platypus is a new breed of visual storyteller, one with expertise in still photography but no longer confined to the printed page.

Halstead's Platypus workshops teach newspaper and magazine photographers how to add digital video, sound and narration to documentary projects. Since Halstead started the workshops in 1999, he says Platypus graduates have sold 11 stories to ABC's "Nightline," proof not just that they're evolving but that the marketplace is ready for them.

"What we want to do is create a new standard for photojournalism, in that we want [photographers] to take responsibility for their projects in the widest possible sense," Halstead says. "That includes responsibility for not only going out and photographing a story, but looking at how that story can be developed in its fullest aspect and ultimately displayed. What this means is we turn photojournalists into producers."

For photojournalists, particularly freelancers, the benefits to these skills are both economic and artistic. Shrinking space in magazines and newspapers and diminished news budgets mean fewer places to publish and less money for photo features. At the same time, online technology now allows a hybrid form of storytelling--using stills, video, audio and text--not bound by the restrictions of space and time that limit print and broadcast.

And lightweight digital video cameras allow a single photojournalist unobtrusive access not possible using a traditional news crew, says "Nightline" Executive Producer Tom Bettag. Bettag estimates the late-night program has run about 50 such stories in the last few years, including a series on North Korea in early June. "There's an intimacy to this [kind of storytelling] that is much more like the intimacy of radio...the intimacy of NPR," Bettag says. "The way NPR does a story and the way TV networks do a story are so different. The difference is wading in with four people and a ton of equipment versus one person with a microphone. It changes the environment."

Most younger photojournalists, those just coming out of school, have already learned video storytelling. It's the older generations, those who learned developing in darkrooms, who are Halstead's clients. At Platypus workshops, held at various sites, the average age is 40. Attendance is limited to 30 students. Photojournalists each pay $1,500 tuition, not including meals and accommodations. Companies such as Sony, Apple and Canon underwrite the workshops and supply equipment.

Gail Fisher, senior photo editor for projects at the Los Angeles Times, exemplifies what Halstead is trying to accomplish. Fisher, 48, knew she wanted to do a project on what happens to foster kids when they reach 18. And she knew she wanted to incorporate video. "I was real interested in taking photography to another level, with technology and multimedia," Fisher says, so she attended the spring 2000 Platypus workshop. The Times paid Fisher's tuition, but she used vacation time for the 10 days. "It was really, really intense," she recalls. "We would have lectures, we would get assignments, go out in the field, shoot, come back and get critiqued, get edited." Days started at 8 a.m. and finished up at about 4 a.m.

With Times writer Phil Willon providing the copy, Fisher, using equipment her brother bought her, produced "Crashing Hard Into Adulthood," which has won numerous awards. It was published in the paper as a page-one special report with five inside pages, and online with stills, video and audio. During the yearlong course of shooting, reporting and editing, Fisher got periodic help from a Platypus instructor who had produced pieces for "Nightline." He took a short rough cut to Bettag, who agreed to run a three-part series (which had yet to air as of mid-June). Payment will go to the Times.

Meanwhile, Halstead recently joined the faculty at the University of Texas School of Journalism, where he'll teach visual journalism. He will still run The Digital Journalist (digitaljournalist.com), a monthly online magazine he started in 1997 that he describes as "a cross between the old Life magazine and the Sunday [New York] Times magazine and American Photo." Each issue features a 30- or 40-picture essay with text and an on-camera interview with the photographer, who explains what it was like to shoot and report the story. He's hoping to turn The Digital Journalist into a nonprofit that would subsidize visual journalism projects that the recipients could then sell to television and other outlets, much like the Pew International Journalism Program. Halstead would operate the workshops separately.

"I think that this particular model is really going to be the path to salvation for photojournalists," Halstead says. "The days of finding a magazine with space like Life or Look are gone, and they're never gonna come back."

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