What's in a name?
Pros debate whether labels in photography are outdated

John Stanmeyer takes a self-portrait of his reflection in a mirror.
The way image-makers describe themselves in 2020 is constantly changing – John Stanmeyer, for example, refers to himself as a visual storyteller. As skillsets become more diverse, have traditional labels in photography become outdated? © John Stanmeyer

There was a time when you could tell the type of work a photographer did from the label they went by. A photojournalist shot news. A wedding photographer shot weddings. A landscape photographer shot landscapes. These labels gave us a shared shorthand for a particular style of imagery – but not anymore.

In 2020 you'll find wedding photographers shooting in the candid, surreal style of a street photographer. You'll find photojournalists for whom stills is just one tool in an approach to storytelling that encompasses video, sound and text. You'll find former documentary photographers who now reject the idea of objectivity, claiming that fiction offers a more authentic path to truth. You'll find professionals with cameras who use terms such as 'lens-based artist', 'image-maker', 'multimedia storyteller' or 'visual activist', rather than photographer.

So where does this leave us? Are the old labels still helpful or should everyone working with photography be free to choose their own based on what they feel best reflects their unique hybrid style?

For the past three years, Canon has invited students from all over Europe and the Middle East to the Visa pour l’Image festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France, to join its Canon Student Development Programme. Selected students can develop their skills with industry leaders, enjoy guided exhibition tours, attend evening film screenings and have their portfolios reviewed by inspirational editors and Canon Ambassadors.

At the 2019 festival, on the Content Creation Programme – a practical workshop in which a small group of students developed projects under the mentorship of Canon Ambassador Daniel Etter – two of those students, Sille Veilmark and Lukas Kreibig, invited seven photographers to take a self-portrait and join the debate.

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"We are all storytellers. Everyone has been and always will be"

John Stanmeyer, visual storyteller, USA

"The term photojournalism is too simple: we tell stories of indisputable truths. The photography is not about us – the narratives connect and unite us all. Our ancestors, using stone tools and pigment to create petroglyphs, were the New York Times and Der Spiegel illustrators of 20,000 years go. Technology invented the pen, paper, the brush, the wet darkroom, the dry darkroom and the powerful means to communicate through the act of self-publishing that we call social media. We are already embracing VR and there will be more to come.

"Do not be concerned about anything other than a lack of interest in being fascinated by all possibilities. We are all storytellers – everyone has been and always will be. We should let go of these terms that limit our scale of being and allow ourselves to be captivated by the greater purpose of why we exist. Create something visually, in words, moving pictures, in sound or in silence. Tell me something I don't know, so it expands and leads us towards a greater awareness of what is before each and every one of us. Whether you are a potter, banker, farmer or photographer, this is all that matters."

A self-portrait of Magnus Wennman.
Magnus Wennman describes himself as a visual journalist. He believes that releasing photographers from restrictive labels allows them to decide for themselves which aspect of their work to highlight. © Magnus Wennman

"The most important thing is being true to the story"

Canon Ambassador Magnus Wennman, visual journalist, Sweden

"Photojournalism is a completely different profession from when I started 23 years ago. Back then, 50% of the profession was about being able to create and develop a photo. Today, you need to be a journalist first, rather than a photographer. You have to be able to create stories, and think about the best way to tell that story so people really understand it. If video is the best way, I'll do video; if the story is told better with photography, I'll do photography. Maybe someday I will only work with sound. The most important thing is being true to the story. What we see now is a new generation of visual storytellers. The young people I meet are much more focused on telling stories in different ways. If you want to work in journalism, it's going to be very hard to just be a photographer."

A still from a video self-portrait of Neoza Goffin. She is lying on grass with colourful ribbons in her hair.
Neoza Goffin, who describes herself as a psychedelic explorer, believes photographers should always be striving to do something different. "Your style and your way of doing things has to stand out," she says. © Neoza Goffin
A self-portrait of Mathias Svold.
Mathias Svold says his title changes depending on where his work appears, which raises the question: are labels determined by the photographer or by the outside world? © Mathias Svold

"Across society, things are getting more blurry"

Neoza Goffin, psychedelic explorer, Belgium

"In storytelling you always have subjective factors: you choose a frame, a particular setting and a moment in a lifetime – and all those things are subjective, even when you want to make an objective documentary. I try to show how I experience a moment. I communicate the way I feel – and that's also showing the truth. People tend to put everything in boxes, like sexuality – but everybody has their own sexuality and photography is the same. The 'documentary' and 'conceptual' boxes are disappearing; the lines between them are dissolving. It's the same with a lot in our society – things are getting more blurry.

"It depends on the context"

Mathias Svold, documentary photographer, Denmark

"I've never seen myself challenging the traditional ways of photojournalism on purpose. I take pictures I like, and that I think can make people reflect on a topic. Making photos with feeling is what interests me, but I follow all the journalistic rules: I don't set things up, I don't manipulate. It's more, 'how close can I get to real life?' I don't limit myself to newspapers. The label depends on the context. If my photos are shown in a museum, I'm called an artist and that's fine. If the same story is published in a newspaper, I'm called a photojournalist. I see a lot of change because of new technology, but I use old technology. I aim for a slow, poetic style, and I usually shoot in 6 x 7 medium format. I call myself a documentary photographer because I work on long-term projects with less of a news angle than photojournalism."

A still from a video self-portrait of Camilla Ferrari.
Camilla Ferrari believes technology is having a huge impact on the profession, and that viewers are getting more sophisticated. "The bar is getting higher because we have more visual knowledge," she says.

"We're shifting from the universal to the individual"

Camilla Ferrari, visual storyteller, Italy

"I thought I'd be a photojournalist or work in a reportage kind of way, but the more time passes, the more I realise that photography is a form of self discovery – it's almost like a portal to something else. Maybe I should say 'storytelling' rather than 'photography' because I combine photographs, videos and sound. I'm interested in how emotions shift people's perception, and this relates to time, memory and presence.

"We now understand that there are different realities depending on who the photographer is, the weather, the mood of the photographer, the mood of the subject, and the photographer's beliefs. It's interesting to live in these times where we can see things from different perspectives. Another shift I see is that of self-reflection and the importance of experience. It's shifting from talking about the universal to the individual, you talk about your story, your community, what you know, because that's your lived experience.

"It's important to have your own style, but I don't think it's the end goal. Photography is a tool to communicate. When someone finds their own style it's because they've found their own way to express themselves – and when you're honest, people feel it."

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"It is time to rethink the definition and role of a photographer"

Turjoy Chowdhury, photojournalist, documentary photographer and multimedia artist, Bangladesh

"The landscape of photojournalism and storytelling is getting both diverse and complicated. Many different kinds of stories are being produced, but at the same time, photojournalists and storytellers are struggling globally. On one side, we have the advancement of technology; on the other, there is the politics of suppression and lack of freedom of expression. We are flooded with visuals from smartphones, we are all taking tons of pictures and telling stories in our own ways on different platforms. These are great things, but there are concerns regarding the credibility of these stories. In this era, we see high amounts of fake news, propaganda and hate speech.

"It is time to rethink the definition and role of a photographer or storyteller. Photojournalism to me is all about raising questions and provoking thoughts. It is a way of communication that has an impact on psychology; it is a form of resistance against any kind of injustice. The idea behind the storytelling is the most important thing to me.

"It is essential to have your own style, but style is an identity rather than a visual gimmick. Having my own style means knowing myself properly – what I want to say and how I want to execute that in an impactful manner. Storytellers decide what to show and how to show it. But if anyone claims this is the way to give a voice to the voiceless, that's ridiculous. Photographers just help connect people through our work."

A self-portrait of Turjoy Chowdhury.
Turjoy Chowdhury defines himself as a photojournalist, a documentary photographer and a multimedia artist. He believes the complexity within photojournalism – and the rise of the smartphone – has changed the meaning of storytelling. © Turjoy Chowdhury
A bunch of dead flowers placed on a rock face on the Norwegian island of Utøya. Taken by Hubert Humka.
Like Turjoy, photographic visual artist Hubert Humka thinks photojournalism is getting harder to define, and prefers to focus on story over style in his own work. © Hubert Humka

"This change may bury photojournalism as we know it"

Hubert Humka, photographic visual artist, Poland

"Photojournalism has been slowly changing in the last few years. Modern storytelling expands its borders and definitions, diluting strict rules. Artists are looking for new ways of telling stories and reaching audiences. Modern technology is changing our habits of story consumption and there is a diversification of sources from which we derive knowledge about the world.

"This change may bury photojournalism as we know it. It's getting harder and harder to define what photojournalism is. Different stories need different ways of communication. Nothing should be more important than the story and 'style' should not distract attention from your point. I don't trust 'photojournalist cowboys' who travel the world shooting images, collecting people's dramas. For me, that belongs to the past. I am looking for a deeper perspective.

"Technology has always shaped the face of storytelling. But also future needs and bold ideas force technological progress. It's a circle: traditional tools are replaced by new ones, and then new ones become traditional ones. We are living in this revolutionary period now."

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton, Sille Veilmark and Lukas Kreibig

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