March 4, 2010

Photojournaling: Completing the Picture

By Michael R. Jeffords

Webster defines photojournalism as the “photographic presentation of news stories or stories in which a high proportion of pictorial presentation is used.” I could find no definition for photojournaling as I believe I’ve concocted the word to apply to a new artistic endeavor. We are all familiar with the various ways nature photographers and nature writers present their work.

Great photographers provide great images, mostly with short captions or identifying text and an accompanying essay by a well-known writer. The captions often interpret what is viewed within the image. Upon occasion photographic books have images accompanied by excerpts, quotes, and other text from the historical literature. These are meant to inspire by the use of both types of imagery.

Nature writers who rely on only the written word to describe nature and natural phenomena must enter into great detail, describing colors, shapes, relative positions, and overall landscape elements that would be readily evident in a photograph. In this instance the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is likely to be true. It simply takes time and words to “create a picture” in the reader’s mind.

So, what exactly is photojournaling and where does it fit into this overall picture? Photojournaling, if I had to define it, is somewhere between all of the above and involves visual images that enlighten, depict, and portray features and organisms in the natural landscape, but fail to complete the entire “aesthetic picture” the individual seeks to portray. The images should be strong enough to negate the need for much explanatory text, yet benefit from the written observations of the photographer. These images basically originate from a “clear mind,” one free of the need to create lengthy descriptive text on what has already been portrayed in the image. In short, these observations can serve to complete the imagery began in the photograph, can even serve to anthropomorphize the subject matter, or create a complete aesthetic picture of an image or series of images.

As a scientist, I have been taught to steer clear of any kind of anthropomorphizing in my research and written words about science, but I’ve found as a photographer, relating what may be viewed as stark nature to the human condition can instill a sense of wonder and enjoyment in the viewers. We all know this is the first step toward developing an engaged public and is the first and perhaps most important step in developing a conservation ethic.


By Michael Jeffords and Susan Post

We have not seen the great, massed migration of wildebeests and zebras of the Serengeti, struggling to cross the crocodile-infested Mara River, but we hope to. The legendary march-out of tens of thousands of juvenile flamingos from the famous soda lakes of east Africa has eluded our gaze. We have failed to experience the watery migrations of massive humpback whales along the eastern shores of the Pacific or even the great salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest. The mosquito-ridden northern migration of the seemingly endless caribou through the endangered Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is, sadly, also not on our resume of great animal spectacles. Nor can be boast of having stood among the sights, smells, and black and white grandeur of penguin colonies sprawling across a rugged, gray-white Antarctic summer. The colossal seaside colonies of walruses, seals, and the millions of seabirds that call the rocky coasts and islands of the north and south Atlantic home are just hoped-for visions. We do, truly, plan to see all these great worldwide phenomena, someday. Having failed in all of the above, what then can this essay be about? What can we be attempting to depict in something entitled Numbers . . . without including these most famous manifestations of the earth’s biodiversity? Our answer lies somewhat outside the realm of “the rich and famous,” somewhat, but not exclusively “off the radar” of the seekers of amassed Nature. However, what we have chosen to depict is no less spectacular, no less important, no less beautiful than the massed wildebeests, penguins, and caribou of the world. Some images definitely require a closer look, some a trek to a well-known spot but with a different perspective, some, well, are just pure happenstance.

We have hiked into the heat of a Sonoran desert summer and experienced the linear migration of sphinx moth caterpillars; climbed desert sky islands to find multitudes of lady beetles; seen the fly-outs and fly-ins of sandhill cranes in a cold, darkening Indiana fall; observed legions of yellow trout lilies tumbling down an east Tennessee slope in spring like so much golden lava; marveled at the white-on-green spectacle of great white trilliums clinging to an Appalachian mountainside. These, and a host of other experiences have made up a significant portion of our adult lives together. They have inspired, awed, even cowed us with our own attempts to portray these natural wonders.

While some reoccur on an annual basis and provide multiple opportunities, some occur only sporadically, and others may even be once-in-a lifetime events. When this happens, the pressure is on! If we fail to somehow capture these marvels of nature, they may become part of our rich treasure of personal memories, but pale when they surface among the ‘life stories’ we all tell again and again. Without some sort of physical manifestation of what we have seen and experienced, we ultimately fail to ‘communicate nature.’ And if we fail in this, we run the danger of having few people know about, understand, or care about nature and its conservation. What follows represents examples of a lifetime full of observations, some subtle, some not-so-subtle, some miniscule, but all, important manifestations of nature and the natural world.