Words and Pictures: Complement or Compromise?

October 22, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because originality is just as important for words as it is for images.


I usually style myself 'photographer and writer'. Occasionally I ring the changes and say 'writer and photographer'. It may depend what I've been doing lately or if I'm trying to sell myself in a particular way. 


In any case, it's usually an advantage to have both strings to my bow. Personally, it means there's more variety in my working life. From a business point of view, it gives me more options, and there are a lot of editors and other clients who like being able to get words and pictures in a single package.


However, I do know that there are some editors who would rather not use the same person to deliver words and pictures on the same job. And, much as I want to say, "hey, no, I can do that!", I think they might have a point.


This is not because there's any fundamental reason why the same person can't be a good photographer and a good writer. In fact I can think of quite a few examples to the contrary, like one of my key influences, Galen Rowell. A developed visual sense and a love of language can easily co-exist in the same person, and the rest is acquired skills. Of course it takes time to learn and to hone two different sets of skills, but then I wasn't born yesterday.


In many ways I think writing and photography can not only co-exist but complement and enhance each other. Both require you to pay close attention to what's going on around you. They may be subtly different kinds of attention. A photograph can only directly represent the visual world, whereas a writer may need to take note of sound, smell, taste and touch as well. But actually it's my contention that photographers should use all their senses, that they should feed into your photography too.


Coincidentally, having mentioned Galen Rowell, I came across this quote while I was preparing a talk I gave last week:

“The combination of pictures and words together can be really effective, and I began to realise early in my career that unless I wrote my own words, then my message was diluted.”

But maybe this strength is also where the problem can arise. The problem is not being able to do both; it's being able to do both at the same time. There are times, especially when trying to do a job in limited time, where the two may pose conflicting demands. 


I don't do a lot of what I'd call proper journalism, though I enjoy what I have done and have even won an award or two for it. But it's clear that, to say the least, it's very difficult to interview someone properly and take pictures at the same time. Of course, you don’t have to write down what the interviewee says: you can record their responses, but you still have to pay close attention then and there if you're going to ask the right questions. Fiddling with cameras at the same time is not conducive to this – and it’s probably very annoying for the interviewee too.


Another example, and one where I do have more experience, is guidebook work. Whether it's original writing or checking existing routes, this demands a very close and particular focus on where the route goes and how best to describe it. My most recent job of this kind was in Shropshire. It's a beautiful county but it's a tough place to be a guidebook writer. In my view, mountains are relatively easy. It's farmland that's hard.


When I'm checking walks, I take lots of photos, but 99% of them are just snaps. They're useful as a record of the route, nothing more. This is partly a matter of time; generally, to make the work viable, I want to do two or even three routes in a day. Good photography takes time. Even a relatively straightforward landscape shot usually takes a little time to find precisely the best position to shoot from. Action shots often take longer, as there may be more setting-up to do and then the subject may have to repeat the moves several times.. 

But switching from guidebook writer to photographer also requires a very distinct mental gear change. Interestingly, both are primarily visual, but they require very different ways of looking. In guidebook mode, especially in complicated country like farmland, I'm constantly looking at where the route goes next. Is the next stile visible when you enter the field or do you need some other reference point? Do you turn left, bear left or go half left? What clues are there to help the walker keep track of their position in a complicated sequence of fields, gates, and stiles? “cross a field to a stile; cross another field to a stile; cross a field to a gate; yadda yadda.”… And often (as with the AA books I’ve worked on) you have a strict word-limit so you’re also trying to figure out how to describe all this in the most concise way possible


In this mode, I'll probably miss a lot of potential photos that I'd see at other times. If something is so visually compelling that I can't ignore it, I can make that gear change, but it it doesn't happen that often and it certainly doesn't deliver anything like the same results from a day out as I’d expect to get if I was focused on looking for great images the whole time. And the shots I do get are often the most obvious possibilities, images that many other people would also have got, rather than the unusual or surprising or different angles.


And what about the magazine feature, where I'm trying to record an experience, such as a mountain climb or bike ride, or give a portrait of a destination? Maybe this is the crux of the matter, because this is exactly the sort of job where it's often expected that writer and photographer are one and the same. 


And not every editor expects this just because it’s cheaper that way, and/or they don’t have  the trouble of sourcing photos separately. As one editor said to me just last week, ‘if we use your photos, then we know they genuinely relate to the story’. Your experience, your photos – which is what the Galen Rowell quote implies.


This is true, and it’s a good point, and sometimes – if I were telling the story of a solo adventure, for example – there would be no other way; they would have to be my photos. But here, I think, is the crux. Taking photos changes the experience, in several ways.


For one, if I’m taking photos as well, I need to carry more stuff. I’ve blogged several times about the search for a smaller, lighter camera which can do everything I want, but I’m still convinced that smartphones and compacts do not cut it for serious photography. And while I might save significant weight using something like an Olympus OM-D EM-1, its autofocus performance for action subjects still isn’t up to DSLR standards (as far as I know, no mirrorless camera is). Plus there’s the small matter of the cost of a whole new system (camera, lenses, flash, ideally a spare camera body, and so on). I simply can’t afford it, unless and until it becomes so good I’d be able to sell my Nikons – and I think that point is still several years off.


Secondly, taking photos takes more time. This is important in itself, and for some experiences can be crucial: bike challenges, for instance – more about that shortly. It can be frustrating for any companions too.

Third, taking photos fundamentally changes the nature of the experience. Partly, it means you have to stop far more often, and in different places, than you might do otherwise. On a mountain bike ride, for example, some of the best images are likely to arise right in the middle of the best descents – just where no rider in their right mind is going to want to stop. Not only does it mean I’ve got to break the flow of my own descent to stop for pictures, it can also mean I’m looking out for possible places to stop all the way down. All of which means that when I come to write about the ride, my memory of the descent is not the same as it would be if all I’d had to do was ride it.


Conclusions? I can only say I have no simple rules for when it’s possible for one person to do justice to both words and images and when it’s better to have two people doing the two jobs. It’s not always my decision, but I hope I’d have the integrity to say something if an editor asked me to do both and I didn’t think it was possible.


I’ll wrap up by saying a few words about a recent experience where I was on words duty and someone else was doing the photos. I hope this may shed a little more light. This was a commission for Outdoor Fitness magazine. I’ve done a few photographic jobs for them this year (you can see the results of two of them in Issue 22), but this was the first time I’d stepped across to do something as writer. In fact I’d pitched the story of the Lakeland Monster Miles (100km ‘adventure cross’ ride, half off-road) knowing that I wanted to ride it, but I really didn’t fancy doing it with a heavy camera backpack. And as I was out for six and a half hours anyway, I dread to think how long I might have taken if I’d been trying to photograph it as well – and, given the weather on the day, how wet and cold I might have got! Fortunately, the mag usually commissions separate writers and photographers for features like this and they booked the excellent Henry Iddon to take pictures for the Monster Miles.


Henry and I discussed plans beforehand and again on the morning of the event; the agreement was that he would ride with me in the early stages, get some shots of me on the first serious off-road section, on the lonely moors of the northern Lake District, then leave me to my own devices and continue more slowly, taking shots of other riders along the way. He’d then take a short-cut and meet me again in Whinlatter Forest, near the end, ride in with me and get shots of me finishing and of the aftermath.


For an off-road, or part-off-road, event I think this was as good a plan as could be devised. He was able to photograph me at several points; this did involve some short delays but Henry knows what he’s doing and didn’t keep me hanging around too long. But leaving me to my own devices for the bulk of the ride meant I was able to experience it purely as any other rider would, while he was able to photograph a range of other people, both faster and slower than me, as well as a representative chunk of the route (if you look at the event website, he must have ridden most of the ‘Mini Massif’ route anyway). Of course he wasn’t there to document my entire ride – but then I had the text to do that. 


Which underlines my conclusion (or as near to a conclusion as I’m going to get); words and pictures shouldn’t duplicate each other, they should complement each other. But when  one person has to do both, it’s quite a challenge to make sure they don’t compromise each other.


By the way, the photos accompanying this blog are from New Zealand, where I was doing both words and pictures for a feature for Privateer magazine (tragically, about to publish its last issue). It was a big ask, but I had the rare luxury of having several weeks to devote to one job. Time does make things easier. 
If you're looking for photos of the Lakeland Monster Miles, look out for a future issue of Outdoor Fitness. I'll post an update as well as alerts on Facebook and Twitter when it appears.


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