A review of Picturing the World’s News: News Photography, Cultural Production, Thomson Reuters and the International Process of News Making, by Jonathan Ilan.
What is news? Which events make headlines or shape and shake global communities? Scholars in the field of global media studies and global history, such as Terhi Rantanen and Oliver Boyd-Barrett, have tackled these questions in the recent past. Focusing on global news agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, and the Wolff Telegraphic Bureau, they have analyzed primarily the written word. The global news image, by contrast, has remained mere subtext which frames and illustrates the text. Yet, as this dissertation shows, news pictures are news and are newsworthy in themselves. In Picturing the World’s News, Jonathan Ilan examines the cultural production process of news pictures at Thomson Reuters’ news agency. Employing participant observation, in-depth interviews, and intensive archival research, Ilan ably examines what constitutes news in photographic form and what makes it newsworthy in today’s globalized news world.
The dissertation will prove helpful to those interested in the contemporary processes of constituting and determining “news” through the photographic lens. Through his methodology of participant observation, Ilan offers incomparable insights into the work of photographers and news agencies on the ground, and is able to trace a picture’s biography from the moment it was first conceived as an idea to its final form as a news picture. His work shows the process of producing a news picture as an open system of intricate interrelations between producers and audience, as well as a circulatory system between photographer, image desk, and newspaper. On the one hand, the dissertation uncovers the forces and manipulations at play within powerful media institutions which “produce” news; on the other hand, it makes visible the interplay of local, national, and international structures.
In Chapter 1, Ilan introduces his theoretical and methodological background and critically evaluates the ethnographic approach to his topic. Through participant observation and in-depth interviews, the author aims to get “as close as [he] could” to the social world of his observed population, i.e. the photographers, picture editors, and managers of Reuters. However, the methodology of participant observation, in particular, has its challenges, depending on whether the researcher wants or needs to be “in” or “out” of the picture. Ilan is highly aware of the problems of keeping a certain distance from the observed population and in his analysis he continuously questions his own role in the process of observing the making of news pictures.
In Chapter 2, “Literature Review,” Ilan explores the various research trends that play into his own research design, such as commercial photography and news production within the context of the production-of-culture perspective and Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s “culture industry.” Basing his theoretical foundations in the political economy of communications and cultural studies, Ilan uses both theories to explore cultural production “from below” (p. 43). Consequently, he locates his analysis of the production of news pictures within the specificity of their “socio-historic context in a particular institution at a particular time at specific places and spaces,” in addition to the different stages, sites and key moments involved in the process (p. 44). In the end, it is important for Ilan to show that the structures and processes of making news pictures have always been “in a hybrid state – constantly floating between the private and the public, the national, and the international, the ‘local’ and the ‘global’” (p. 87).
Chapter 3, “The Wire and the Empire,” explores the history of Reuters as a news agency with a particular focus on its news picture service. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, Ilan shows the intricate relationship between the establishment of Reuters’ news and picture service and new technologies, such as telegraph cables, telephones, computers, and satellites. For the news picture service in particular digital cameras and laptops changed the working structure and speed of photographers. Ilan further argues that Reuters’ entry into the picture market through the establishment of its news service during the 1980s helped the agency to “build a strong business and technological model at a point when new models were necessary.” Moreover, it became the basis of Reuters’ multimedia business (p. 115).
Chapters 4 and 5 describe the production process of Reuters’ pictures and need therefore to be seen in conjunction. While Chapter 4, “From Story to Product,” deals with the process at the local stages, Chapter 5, “From Product to Story,” traces the various stages of a news picture before it gets published. In Chapter 4, Ilan describes his work following a Reuters photographer in Jerusalem through the linear and yet circular process – the story, the photograph, and the product – of producing a news picture. The problem of deciding what is newsworthy is already negotiated between photographer, Reuters as an organization, and the buyer. A photographer may therefore find himself in a non-news scene and still recognize an image opportunity. According to Ilan, the idea of a “good picture” is a “constant struggle between the photographer, his artistic eye and the news organization he is working for” (p. 156). In Chapter 5, Ilan illustrates the important processes behind the scenes at Reuters’ global pictures desk. He describes how the picture desk functions, how, for instance, key words are developed, and “altered” pictures discovered. In particular, the section on the “picture kill” illustrates how strongly Reuters’ editors regulate news pictures. As Ilan explains, news pictures at Reuters fall into two categories, regular pictures and top pictures. “Top pictures,” which become “the most valuable representational texts of world occurrences,” are usually based on big stories and therefore also need to own a certain global representativeness in contrast to regular pictures covering “small stories” and rather local events (p. 220).
Chapter 6, “An Analysis of Significant Events and Their Coverage,” is the highlight of Ilan’s study. Using four case studies, Ilan shows how the various modes of production, norms and routes, struggles and conflicts inherent to the production processes of news pictures come into play in the coverage of particular news events. He vividly narrates the photographers’ pressure to get the best shot possible facing competition from other photographers present, TV teams who stand “in the way,” spatial and time restrictions, as well as professional pressures of objectivity and timely production for an international market. In particular, the images produced in the aftermath of two different attacks by suicide bombers illustrate how strongly the artistic eye of the photographer influences the political message of the image. Both images show a line of kneeling soldiers as they scour the ground for the body parts of their dead fellow officer. While one image shows a straight line of soldiers with gloves and equipment, the other shows a group of Israeli soldiers crawling in the sand, trying to pick up the remaining pieces with their bare hands. The first image conveys the notion of orderliness and a functioning Israeli army, while the other loads the imagery of the undisciplined movement of soldiers in sloppy uniforms with a sense of defeat (pp. 329-30). Overall, the four case studies are vivid examples of the circular and linear processes involved in producing the “one” news picture that we “read” in our morning newspaper.
Taken together, Ilan’s Picturing the World’s News is an important contribution to the field of Media Studies. Through the methodology of “embedded research,” i.e. participant observation, Ilan offers unique insights into the processes of production of news pictures. He shows that the production of news pictures is highly complex and influenced by local, national, and international structures.
Assistant Professor for North American History
University of Freiburg
Archival research at Reuters Archives (London)
University of Westminster. 2012. 391 pp. Primary Advisor: Jean Seaton.
Image: Photo by Author.