Are all Editors Visually Illiterate?

Ladakh Photoessay for Centurion Magazine (sanjay austa austa)

Thankfully the editors picked this image as the lead photo for the Ladakh Photoessay. It was my choice too. 

Celebrated Indian Photographer Raghu Rai has often said that newspaper and magazine editors are visually illiterate. He should know. Rai spent much of his photography career working for newspapers and magazines. I started my career as a journalist too and never understood the importance of photography in a paper. I especially did not understand why my newspaper would spend so much money sending a  photographer with me on travel assignments.  He just has to press the button I  thought.

Actually the photographer they sent with me did just that, ‘he just pressed the button’. He most definitely did not help dispel my indifference and contempt for photography. We would reach our location and he would hurriedly take a few pictures and head to the nearest booze-shop and  nag me to hurry up so we could  return home.

But had I continued  my journey as a print journalist and reached a position of authority in a newspaper or magazine,  you can imagine what a disaster I would be in terms of selecting images for printing. Unfortunately most editors reach their high offices this way  and as Raghu Rai put it ,are  ‘visually illiterate’.

Ladakh Photoessay for Centurion Magazine (sanjay austa austa)

But I do not understand why this image deserved a two page spread?

The trouble is that the decision on what image goes for publication is not taken by photo-editors but by the ‘visually illiterate’ editors or increasingly now by the design team.  The photograph is often selected not on its merit but because of how it  fits in the layout. So if you have a great vertical image it won’t be used if the layout demands a landscape image and vice versa. . Some great images never make it to print just because the newspaper designer thought it did not have empty space in it to fill in the description. So  mediocre images are regularly pulled up and published.

More often there is a preconceived idea  hatched up in  office of what image they would use even before the photographer has taken his first image out there in the streets. So when he submits his photographs  only the image which  fits with their idea makes it to  print.  More often than not the image has to conform to the text than the other way around.

Some years ago I was hired by a prestigious publication that specializes in illustrated books to photograph books of Indian Monuments for them. I realized to my horror that the publication  did not have any photo-editor.  All my images were to be selected by a team of sub-editors who knew as much about photography as I knew about sub-editing.

During my stint as a full time journo I remember our Managing Editor goading the  photo-department to emulate Outlook Magazine’s photography.  Looking back, its easy to see why Outlook held the standard for media houses in India. Those days photographer Prashant Panjiar worked with Outlook  and was  high up on the pecking order just after editor Vinod Mehta and managing editor Tarun Tejpal.  The photographer’s opinion was clearly valued in the magazine and it certainly showed.

Photo-essay on Aging Sex Workers (sanjay austa austa)

Get a lot of queries for my Aging Sex-Workers essay  but newspapers eventually pick my `life-style’ or travel stories. 

I think what’s worse is when editors continually pick out the obvious or the ‘easy’  images from your submissions rather than the nuanced and layered photographs which may not be ‘beautiful’ but may be  powerful in what they convey.  This practice only encourages photographers to shoot  ‘safe’ pictures which  they know will certainly make it to the print. Avoiding risks and going for the the conventional, I feel, only blunts the photographer’s vision in the long run.

Two years ago I photographed Cricketer Virat Kohli for a lifestyle magazine. I had seen millions of studio photos of Kohli. Naturally   I did not want to rehash the same stuff. So I shot Virat in his home in West Delhi doing the regular things any 22 year old would do when the guard is down. I took a picture of him fixing his gelled hair. Playing with his dog. Laughing and doodling with his mom in the kitchen. However the editor called and said do I have some more photos please. The editor was being polite. He actually meant these photos are crap so can you send me the regular photos of Virat?

 I   posted Virat’s  photos on my blog with a small write up on the shoot.  The post titled `Virat Kohli in his Den‘   gets an average of  300 visitors each day. Has over 230 comments and growing. (I am not counting the personal calls and e-mails I get from Virat’s fans each day). The pictures are often  refereed to in countless Virat Kohli interviews and TV shows where Kohli is quizzed on his dog and his cooking skills.

Of course Virat Kohli was not really cooking. But when we asked him to pose with his mother he gamely helped her with a few tea-spoonfuls as she made tea for us. (Sanjay_Austa)

One of the pics of Virat Kohli I shot that went viral on the internet and was subsequnetly picked up by the mainstream media. 

What’s even more worse and alarming  is when the editors choose photo-stories that are ‘glamorous’  over  those that have a point to make. I get regularly contacted by the media for two of my photo-essays. One on the plight of the Aging Sex-workers   in India  and other on the Second Generation  1984 anti-Sikh riot victims. The journalists contacting me are usually young and  idealistic who still believe that  media is an agent of change and is supposed to reflect the realities of the world.  But often they get back  to me saying that while they  personally liked these two essays their  editors think they were ‘too stark’ for their sunday readers and could I rather given them something on life-style or travel  please?

This is indeed an era of  life-style journalism and serious stories  seem to find no place in it. The new Press Council of India Justice Markandey Katju’s recent utterances on the media may seem  harsh but he does have a point. The media has indeed pathetically dumbed down but thats not just an Indian problem. I think its a  global phenomenon. Remember Naked News where female anchors read the news while delicately removing their cloths until  they were fully nude?    But  that’s  another story for another time.

16 Responses to “Are all Editors Visually Illiterate?”

  1. Kshama Rao says:

    I swear…when i started out even i would wonder about the photo department but thanks to the good hearted and talented bunch of photogs at Mid-Day i gradually realised how important they are..ever since have always held them in great regard, often ‘fought’ for the right picture to go with atleast my story…always appreciated their contribution, without them our 1000 word ‘features’ and ‘newsstories’ are of no use….

  2. Raju Bist says:

    The late Kishore Parekh would often lament, “Khushwant Singh can comment any way he wants on my photos. But I cannot change even a single comma in any of his sentences.”

  3. Lovejeet Alexander says:

    I am in total agreement with you. And it’s not only with the Indian publications, international publications are equally equipped with such visual illiterates. I witness that a lot many times…

  4. Nusrat Jafri says:

    Hey, nice article, agree with you on the way photo’s and photographers are used by the print media.

  5. Kunal Bhatia says:

    Well pointed out. No wonder the photography in most publications is so uninspiring. Which are the current publications, in your opinion, that stnad out in terms of the photography that they publish? I quite like the way in which TimeOut Mumbai uses photography to complement articles or as stand-alone pieces.

  6. Great article Sanjay, didn’t know about the decision making process in print media for photographs. Its astonishing, but I guess media in general is on a weird trend these days. Focusing on sensationalism rather than actual journalism. I wrote an article on my blog about it a few days ago, would love your feedback on it but I have to warn you, it wouldn’t be as good as you.. 😀

  7. meenu says:

    surely not all editors Sanjay?

  8. kalpana says:

    Could not agree with you more , have been through this and it is a helpless situation!@ You have documented this well and i had a good time reading it. More so, many querries which i had are now answered in your aticle! i am sure it will enable readers here and others too to judge and understand the fact that NOT ALL PRINTE PHOTOS ARE GOOD!.

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