What does the Time breastfeeding cover tell us about photography?

time breastfeeding cover Jamie Lynne GrumetWhen I saw this cover mentioned on TOP I wondered what it told us about photography (the actual cover is not pixellated). This photo of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old reminds me that photography can be an artistic medium (i.e. making a photo when the primary intent is to create something that is aesthetically pleasing), a tool used to achieve an end (e.g. when a photo of a cracked engine part is made), or both.

In this case photography is being used as a tool, i.e. it is intended to sell magazines by creating a lot of talk on the internet and catching eyes on magazine stands: any artistic component is secondary to that purpose. The function of this photo reminds me of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and of newspapers that put large photos of crash scenes above the fold. This Time cover is a variation on “if it bleeds it leads”.

Journalism is not neutral or objective, it is coloured by the world view of the writers and is often overtly pushing a certain set of beliefs. You could argue that Time is using photography as a tool in an attempt to change generally accepted standards of decency, and/or to foster acceptance of fully exposed breastfeeding in public places, and/or to promote attachment parenting, but it would be very difficult to prove such intentions.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with using a photo to sell magazines, I’m simply saying that this photo is a tool and that when looking at a photo it is helpful to discern whether it is intended to be aesthetically pleasing, to be a tool, or both. Why is this helpful? Well, one of the interesting aspects of making a photo is that it is possible to manipulate the minds of almost all the people who look at that photo. Sometimes that manipulation is as simple as causing viewers to lock onto a certain part of the scene (directed attention). Emotional manipulation is also part of the art, e.g. this shot and this one. Emotional manipulation can also be a tool, and is commonly used in advertising. At other times photographers are trying to push an agenda: a common example of the latter is publishing a photo of an accused person standing in court which makes that person look mad or bad, and in such situations it’s good to identify what’s happening and decide whether or not you want to go along with it.

What does this magazine cover tell you about photography?


A technique with no name

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Jeff & Penny Vann

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The photos in this post show a technique that I’ve never seen a name for, and the nearest I can get is to say that it’s a form of photojournalism.

The couple that you see in these photos had been pastors at my church for 11 months and were about to return to the USA. I was taking photos of their final service, which was an emotional occasion for them and for others. I saw Jeff and Penny holding hands and realised that the words of the songs fitted beautifully with the visual display of relationship so I moved in behind them. I prefer the right hand shot because the lower camera position reduces distractions and as a viewer I’m seeing what the subjects see. The foliage behind Penny’s head is regrettable, but if I’d moved the camera to the left you, the viewer, wouldn’t have been looking along Jeff and Penny’s line of vision. Moving the foliage was not an option in the middle of a church service :(.

For me these photos hammer home a simple “rule”: always maintain situational awareness. To put it another way, avoid target fixation and be aware of what is happening in the vicinity. I find that it’s all to easy to focus on one subject or on getting one shot and thereby miss out on other photo opportunities. I have to make an effort to pull away from the camera and look around me, because doing so often results in seeing something else that will make a great photo.

I don’t regard these as great shots but I love the way that the words sounds like Jeff and Penny speaking and connect the subjects to their environment. I also like the way that the photos transmit a combination of visual and textual messages.

I’m going to have to think of a name for this technique. How about “environment-subject connective method”? Yes, a snappy name like that is bound to catch on.

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