I came across two ‘audio slideshows’ yesterday, on the BBC News and Guardian websites, and just felt I wanted to write a little about them. They both struck me as good examples of slideshows that put photographs and audio together, but don’t quite work – which is a huge shame, as they both clearly contain fantastic, powerful images by talented photographers.
The first, billed by the BBC as Across the two Sudans, is an audio ‘down the line’ interview with the photographer Tim McKulka, talking about his experiences of travelling and photographing extensively across what is now Sudan and South Sudan, laid over a sequence of his images. It contains some great images, particularly the one I’ve screen-grabbed above, of a woman at a food distribution point, lit dramatically with storm clouds gathering behind her.
However, while McKulka’s recollections are extremely interesting, the presentation of images, their sequencing and timings jar with the audio voiceover. Images appear on screen for just a few seconds, not allowing enough time to properly look at the images and read the captions. And ironically, McKulka talks towards the end about how he feels it is important to hear the voices of Sudanese people – yet that’s precisely what we don’t get in this treatment.
Moving on over to guardian.co.uk, and Graeme Robertson’s photos of schoolchildren and daily life in Malawi. Again, there are powerful images, but this time they are sequenced to a single audio-recording of Malawian children singing. This doesn’t work for me either, as again, the pace of the images is a little too fast and the captions in this case a little too brief! I want to know who these people are, and learn more about them. I want to hear a little of their stories. Again, I’m just left wanting to hear the voices of the people pictured.
You might feel that I’m being a little unfair to Tim and Graeme, and to Emma and Jim (the credited producers of each respective slideshow). Perhaps I am. I don’t mean to be. I don’t know the budgets or the time constraints in which either of these pieces were put together, or whether an audio-slideshow treatment was considered for either of them in advance.
But I’m just not sure that any of those things are good enough reasons to justify putting some great pictures and basic audio together, then not sequencing the images and captions carefully enough for the viewer to be able to look at or read them properly, and calling the result an audio-slideshow. This does a dis-service to the images, to the photographers themselves, and most importantly, to the people depicted. As photographers, photojournalists, editors, story-tellers – call us what you what you will – we have a responsibility to depict people with dignity and integrity. We invade their privacy, often uninvited. We use their image to tell a story – sometimes their story, but not always. Sometimes we use their image to tell the story we want to tell. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, though I try really hard all of the time not to be.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not questioning the motives or integrity of Tim, Graeme or any of the others involved in the examples above. I get that Tim has put an awful lot of work and time into producing a book about a country (countries now) that he clearly cares deeply about. I’ve admired and respected Graeme’s work for the Guardian on many occasion. But I’m not sure what this treatment of images and audio does for or says about ActionAid’s work in Malawi – the audio-slideshow doesn’t convey this. Was it meant to?
If you’re reading this Tim or Graeme, Emma or Jim, please don’t read it as a critique of you directly; it honestly isn’t intended as such. If anything, it’s just a call to the BBC and the Guardian, and to all of us – please don’t produce, host or call things audio-slideshows if that’s not what they are. Digital photography in the form of the 5D or the D700, and digital audio recorders like the Edirol have given photographers and journalists the tools to make audio, stills and video to a very high standard relatively easily now.
I know from my own experience that actually it’s not necessarily easy to do all of these things straightforwardly, let alone combine them together. Producing good audio and video is a different set of skills to learn from making stills. And that’s without even mentioning the hours and years you need to spend learning how to edit and combine them all together. But if the audio doesn’t stand up to the pictures, and add to them, then just show me the pictures.
By way of balance, check out these two other audio-slideshows (see screen grabs below) from a couple of weeks ago – again, one each from the BBC (Sudan’s love of cows, by World Service Africa editor Martin Plaut) and the Guardian website (photojournalist Kate Holt’s Life in Somalia’s capital). Listen to the sounds of the cows and the market, to the muezzin calling prayer and children crying, to people’s voices. I’m not saying that these are perfectly effective examples either, but it’s that layering of sound and variation of pacing to add a level of depth and immersion that audio-slideshows need to really work.
We have the tools now to add a richness and depth to still imagery that can transcend photography, radio and video. My granddad used to recite the old proverb that a bad workman always blames his tools (he knew it all too well – he was a carpenter himself). He also used to say another one though: if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Tomorrow the results of the ‘multimedia’ category of the World Press Photo category are due to be announced. It’ll be interesting to see what emerges.