Does National Public Radio hate photography?

One of the many great things about listening regularly to National Public Radio (NPR) is their extensive coverage of the arts and culture. They carry numerous freestanding shows (and have numerous reporters/hosts) exploring different aspects of culture and the arts. They usually end each hour of their major daily broadcasts with a report on some aspect of arts and culture.  So why is their a yawning gap in their coverage when it comes to photography?

I have to confess to listening almost exclusively to NPR, as compared to commercial radio. So, what I am writing may be limited, but I doubt, it since NPR’s cultural coverage is certainly the widest ranging in the radio world.

Think about it.  NPR covers news and politics, but they also report on sports, business and of course literature, dance, film, music and television.  And they usually do so with energy and a technical expertise that is often compelling. In fact, some of my favorite NPR pieces have been the ones where the reporters(s) went to unusual length to tell a typically “non-radio” story over the radio. So, we know they can do it.  This also means we cannot “let them off the hook” by simply saying that since photography is a visual medium and radio an auditory one, they cannot work together. They have a pretty good track record of crossing disciplines, so why is photography so neglected?

Photography is arguably the most democratic form of personal expression on the planet.  And it is growing. I have recently been gathering information on photography competitions and festivals, for a future blog entry.  What I saw as I collected that information was that competitions are proliferating, arising from every small and medium size cultural institution imaginable.  Photography festivals are sprouting up all over the world. And photography workshops seem to be everywhere these days. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am certainly part of that trend.)  Photography museums and galleries have recently become fixtures in the cultural landscapes of most major cities. The point of all of this is that the interest in and the practice of photography as a means of creative expression is exploding across the cultural landscape.

Digital photography has (as I have previously noted) taken away the “craft hurdle” that once kept many people away from photography. While digital technology has broadened access to other cultural pursuits, such as film and music, its impact is nothing like what has happened in photography.

Even with new technology, how many people actually can create compelling pieces of music? Though many people love ballet, the actual number of practitioners is very low. Even fewer have the resources and the expertise to make a great motion picture. Yet, NPR reports on these other cultural pursuits exponentially more often than they report on photography. Same things goes for literature and theater. I can go on, but you get the point.

I often ask myself, what is it about still photographs and NPR? I used to think that because photographs are everywhere and seemingly created by everyone, few stick out to celebrated by those who talk about culture on a wide scale, like the folks at NPR. I once was resigned to leave it at that until I started listening to a radio host named Dick Gordon on a show out of Boston, called The Connection, which he ran from 2001 to 2005. Yes, The Connection was created and hosted by Christopher Lydon from 1994 to 2001. Lydon was no friendlier to photographers than any other radio reporter.

But Gordon, who I enjoyed regularly from 2001 to 2005, was somehow different. He had worked as a foreign correspondent and as a host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I was subsequently reading a n interesting book about poverty in South Asia where Gordon was mentioned.  The book is Out of Poverty: And Into Something More Comfortable by John Stackhouse.  Later, I read a bit more about him and in one piece he acknowledged having learned a lot about working as a foreign correspondent from the photographers he worked with in the field, in South Asia.

To his credit, Gordon was openly sharing one of the lesser-known secrets of being a foreign correspondent.   Because photographers have to be on the ground for a given story, they frequently have as good or better expertise as compared to the more visible (and vaunted) foreign correspondents. A great deal of international reporting can and is done using the telephone and other communication technologies.

Photographers on the other hand, simply have to be there, no ifs, ands or buts. Also, the best photographers tend to return to the site of ongoing stories over time, developing a resource base of knowledge, a kind of an institutional memory that foreign correspondents, who change posts frequently, often lack.

Many of the writers I used to work around did not think much of photographers. The best they could say about a good piece of photojournalism was “nice snap.” One of the other writers whose work I have followed who openly appreciated photographers was P.J. O’Rourke, the foreign-affairs desk chief at Rolling Stone magazine. In his book, Holidays in Hell, he goes into great details about the photographers he worked along side of covering international news.

Similarly, when I used to hear Dick Gordon doing a radio piece on a given photographer or talking about some aspect of photography, he clearly had both a love of and a connection to the medium.  That open embrace of photography always pleased me.

I have a couple theories why it appears that NPR hates photography. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this question. The most obvious one is that same ongoing prejudice against photographers that most word people hold onto.  Because so many photographers do seem to live out their lives behaving in the worst stereotypical ways, it is not surprising that such stereotypes continue.

Maybe it goes back to how radio people listen and photographers look, so the “ear” people tend to put the work of the “eye” people even further down the hierarchy, then say, print journalists. After all, the folks who work in print (and now on the web) need photographs to liven up the pages of their pages.

So, I am no closer to figuring out what the people at NPR have against photography. Sure, Terry Gross will occasionally interview a rising star of photography or profile and aging master.  But photography is almost as widely practiced as gourmet cooking, but how often do you hear about chefs vs. how often do you hear about photographers on National Public Radio?  Photography and photographers are clearly not included when “All Things (are) Considered.”

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