When Southern California Public Radio began engaging their listeners’ eyes as well as their ears, they wanted to bring some fresh perspective to something a lot of people do every day: taking photos with a smartphone.
“We wanted to do a project that elevated the mobile photography discussion,” says Grant Slater, one of the editors at AudioVision, SCPR’s visual journalism blog. “We’ve have been stuck on this idea that mobile photography is so weird and different, but the conversation has moved past that. This is just what’s happening now.”
As part of an initiative to make radio more visual, the team decided to include their listeners in a community photo project called Public Square. Each month, they propose a challenge, and mobile photographers respond via Instagram. “Public radio has an underlying ethos of community and a DNA of storytelling,” says Slater. “It’s an emotional medium, so we wanted our project to be story-based.”
In order to hold Instagram photos to a journalistic level of storytelling, AudioVision stressed that getting the caption information was just as important as the photo itself. “We wanted to get more than just pretty pictures,” says Slater.
The first of their challenges, which began this August, was “Hard Work,” which involved photographing and interviewing someone with “a thankless job.” The instructions: “Take their portrait, capture an image of them at work or take a video. Ask them their name and their story. Write a short note about your subject in the caption and tag it #PSHardWork.”
Slater and the other editors, Maya Sugarman and Mae Ryan, added sample photos done by themselves and other photojournalists, like Ed Kashi and Ruddy Roye. The submissions poured in, with more than 300 images tagged for the most recent challenge.
“I was blown away by the response,” says Slater. “I think we are challenging people. To commit an act of photojournalism is not most peoples’ default, but I think there are people who are storytellers who don’t do it professionally.”
The idea of enlisting viewers or listeners to contribute journalistic content is used by many news organizations, but Slater doesn’t see their project creating replacement professionals. “We’re not trying to teach journalism, per se, but there is a tutorial aspect to it. We are trying to teach people how to take better pictures.”
The submissions for September’s challenge, “This is Where. . .”, feature photos that illustrate scenes from famous films and historic battles, as well as quieter, more personal histories. There are photos of ships, scenes of everyday home life, and sweeping landscapes, all with detailed caption information. The AudioVision team sees helping their listening community tell their own stories as gain for the larger visual good.
“It’s scary, maybe, “ says Slater, “but it’s making photography more democratic, more open. Everyone is moving towards being more visually literal, more visually engaged with the world around them.”
To see entries and the work of AudioVision photographers, follow them on Instagram @kpcc.
Photo credits (clockwise, from top left): @meganjaepe, @ohdeardrea, @lekilihawaii, @missboessel, @mrsgrubby, @plainviewcrowe, @heathfish, @ahchantz. Photos courtesy AudioVision and NPR.