September 15, 2015

Geekfest, and the Blurry Lines Between Commercial, Documentary and News Photography

This past weekend, I attended an event called Geekfest, which is a yearly meetup of photographers that has been taking place over the past decade or so. Quite a few of the participants had been news photographers but are now freelancers as editorial positions have disappeared. Not that many are shooting news anymore though. And, to the extent many of the participants are doing documentary work, it sounded like, more and more, the shooters were pursuing stories in tandem with, or in between commercial work. As many of the presentations were purposed for advice, documentary work was, indeed, consistently framed as a way to maintain one’s eye, to stay practiced and to keep honing a personal style that might also appeal to a commercial client.

Because our emphasis at “Reading The Pictures” is news photography, however, I’ll admit I felt a bit like a fish out of water. At the same time, though, what was instructive to me about Geekfest was how the presenters and the attendees conceived of the business that broadly, with the emphasis on “story telling,” including the desire to capture “real life” in sports coverage, or ever more more authenticity in the brand shot. Just as interesting, it occurs to me, is how much this lack of market distinction is mirrored in news photography itself.

Take this beautiful news photo circulated by Reuters two weeks ago, for example. I found it in a recent MSNBC “pictures of the week” gallery. The caption reads:

An African migrant rests after arriving on a fishing boat at Las Carpinteras beach in the Canary Island of Gran Canaria, Spain, September 1, 2015. Around 60 people, including six women and a two-year-old child, were aboard the fishing boat, according to local authorities.

I have to say that, up until the past year or so, I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of news photos that were this lush, that delivered such dramatic light, and that so captured the quality of a set pose. This photo is so intimate, the formality of the caption even feels a little stilted. If the distinction between editorial, art photography and documentary photography has become so ambiguous — with commercial photography pressing to become more documentary or realistic while photojournalism races to become more artful — it’s no surprise why the representation of the marketplace at Geekfest seemed so indistinct.

(photo: Borja Suarez/Reuters)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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