Photojournalism, a story worth telling

In an interview with CNET, photographer and videographer Dan Chung shares his thoughts on photojournalism, the shrinking industry and the importance of storytelling.

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Dan Chung

Everybody says photojournalism is dead.

Newspapers are laying off photojournalists in droves. Reporters are expected to snap photos with whatever tools they have. Citizen journalists can publish news and reports from the frontline as fast as anyone has ever done before thanks to social media.

Even photojournalists themselves are bemoaning the end of an era. Dan Chung, a photographer and cameraman working for mastheads such as The Guardian, was quoted in 2012 as saying there was no future in photojournalism.

"That was probably the biggest misquote of my career!" Chung explains as we meet in Sydney. He is in town for a few days to deliver a talk on storytelling and photojournalism.

"What I actually said was photojournalism as a profession is pretty much dead. And I still believe that. If you think that you can leave college, go into a career as a photojournalist and live till you're 65 and retire -- that's just never going to happen."

Even if the traditional path is now closed, Chung is far more optimistic about photojournalism's ongoing existence as an artform. He says that while there is a large body of excellent work still being produced, there are probably fewer people getting paid to do it than before.

"What we're looking at is if you want to be a pure photojournalist and just take still photos, go around the world -- you had better have some other way of funding that."

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Dan Chung/The Guardian

The key seems to be diversification. For Chung, that's involved starting a blog, NewsShooter.com, dedicated to using SLRs and large sensor cameras for news and documentary purposes. He has also helped pioneer acceptance of mobile photography as a legitimate reporting tool for large-scale events such as the Olympic Games.

In 2012, Chung covered the London Games for The Guardian using an iPhone, accompanied by a set of commonly accessible tools such as binoculars. Nestled in a pit of fellow photographers with their full-frame SLRs and telephoto lenses jostling for position proved to be an interesting experience.

"It wasn't an immediate sell," Chung says of the initial pitch to his publisher.

"I went to The Guardian who I was working for at the time and said 'Can I shoot the Olympics on an iPhone?' and they said 'We'd quite like you to do it on a regular camera, but why don't you go do it for a few days and we'll see what happens'. By the end of a few days they put it on this blog and it was getting a huge amount of traffic ... and they went with it for the whole Olympics."

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Dan Chung/The Guardian

The resulting photos spread far and wide across the world, offering a different perspective to the traditional angles that the sports photographers in the pit were capturing.

All the images were created on the iPhone, which is still Chung's preferred mobile tool of choice. Lately, he has been experimenting with an underwater case, filming some of Sydney's iconic beaches on the Apple handset at 120fps.

To Chung though, the iPhone is just another tool in the bag. "Samsung Galaxy, LG, the new Nokia ... they all look great. I personally love the iPhone because of the infrastructure and the apps. It's not just about ultimate definition. The colour science is really good [and] I kind of just like how the iPhone draws the world."

Chung is a self-confessed "gear junkie", who is constantly experimenting with new camera tools. At the time of writing, his main camera for video is mainly the Canon C300, but he also carries around a Panasonic Lumix GH4 and the Sony Alpha A6000 with a Canon lens via adapter.

To cope with the intensive workflow of 4K footage, he runs an iMac with a G-Raid dual-drive RAID storage system set up.

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On the road in Mongolia, Chung's MacBook Pro, G-Drive EV Drives and Canon 1D C. Dan Chung

But he's adamant that budding photojournalists don't need to spend thousands of dollars thanks to the democratisation of the craft via mobile photography.

"The bottom line is if you really can't do it now with the tool that everybody has, you shouldn't really be pursuing it any further!"

Telling video stories

One of the ways in which traditional photojournalists are retraining and reinventing themselves is through video. Rather than a traditional photo essay, the story now involves a full spectrum of moving images and sound.

Though it might seem like transferring your skills from shooting still photos to video would be a natural progression, Chung advises that it's not that simple.

"I think it's really tough. All the workshops that I've done kind of stress that not everybody can do it. Just because you're a really good photographer doesn't mean you'll be a great video person," he says.

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Dan Chung/The Guardian

"Storytelling is more important than ever. Anybody who is a visual storyteller probably has a future if they're good. Just because you can operate a camera technically is not going to give you a job anymore. Everybody can do that. Everybody can pick up an iPhone and take a reasonably nice photo. The bar to entry for taking nice photos is now pretty much anybody and everybody. Technology is not a problem."

He also warns against getting too caught up in worrying about colour science and image manipulation, especially for those just starting out. For video shoots, Chung tries to get everything to look as close as how he wants to in-camera.

Grading comes later, if there's time. "If I know I'm going to be able to take it back to the studio and mess around for hours, I'll shoot it flat, low contrast and try to retain the maximum detail," he says.

Even though it's easy to get excited about cutting 4K and HD content, Chung says the reality is that if you're on deadline and filing on the road, it usually ends up goes out in standard definition. That said, you still want to be creating in the best possible quality output in all respects -- not just in terms of resolution.

To make the best quality content, the conversation comes back around to the importance of storytelling.

"People who use visuals to tell stories who are good at it -- whether that's fictional, factional, documentary, music videos, whatever -- if you're good at telling a story I'm pretty sure you've got a reasonably bright future ahead of you."

As for aspiring visual storytellers, Chung has some practical tips to offer.

"I say go watch a lot of TV!" he says with a laugh. "It makes lecturers' heads sink when you go into a class and say 'your homework tonight is to go turn on the telly and see what you do and don't like'."

"To understand the medium you have to consume it quite a lot. Then don't copy it, but take it on board, look at the visual language, look at how people do it. I'm amazed at how many professionals don't look at the way things are done in other related mediums."

 

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