What is Reportage?

November 30, 2018 |

There's a troubling trend among hashtags — and I fear photographers in my own industry may be among the worst offenders.

On Instagram and elsewhere, one can see images labeled as #photojournalism or #reportage when they are, in fact, merely photos.

I say "merely," even though photography has been my career's great passion. But it's because of that passion and my respect for the work of actual photojournalists that I am particularly bothered to see wedding photographers call their work "reportage." That word properly used actually means something important beyond just a stylistic conceit.

By contrast, however, I'm the lead cheerleader for those practitioners of #weddingphotojournalism. It's among the most moving, evocative, and beautiful work done by professional photographers and — with that important qualifier, "wedding" — it is a strong statement about the creative approach and technical ethic of photographers of the Wedding Photojournalist Association.

So what is "wedding photojournalism"?

Wedding photojournalism is wedding photography that strives for the honesty and authenticity — the factual, documentary quality — practiced by photojournalists. To call this straightforward practice of recording the movements and moments of a wedding day a "trend" seems a bit strange, but there's no denying that, in the wake of the founding of the WPJA in 2002, the idea of adapting the photojournalist's craft to wedding photography has caught fire faster than a blaze of unity candles.

But assuming these pictures are meant to capture a couple's memories of the day — and not, say, to illustrate a crime story on page A-14 of your local paper — then the work performed and the images that result are "wedding photojournalism" or "wedding reportage" — inspired by but not the same as "photojournalism" or "reportage" itself.

Why are people misusing these terms?

Wedding photographers who apply for membership in the WPJA have their portfolio sites carefully vetted before their membership is approved. Their work must reflect an expertise in capturing "moments" during a wedding day. But misrepresenting their portfolio as, for instance, an example of "reportage" (rather than specifically "wedding reportage") must be corrected before they can become members. For the term "photojournalism", this has been a membership inclusion principal since 2002.

Unfortunately, looking beyond this group of professionals, there are an increasing number of wedding photographers who will lay claim to the mantle of actual photojournalism or reportage without any qualifiers or evidence. Even if someone vaguely claims being 'published', then a client may need to inquire more closely to know if the photographer actually received news assignments from any publications.

Should you care?

Given the WPJA's relationship with actual working photojournalists and news photography editors — and the roots of many members in actual news reporting — we think the blurring of the line is bad for wedding photography, because it constitutes false advertising. And it's bad for photojournalism, particularly in this era of social media amplification and ubiquitous visual expression, from Instagram feeds to Internet memes. Given the recent rise in charges of "fake news" and hidden agendas revealed in online media purporting to be journalism, we feel it's more important than ever to lay proud claim to our own work in "wedding photojournalism" and thereby bolster the independence and service of "news photojournalism" — which is synonymous with the terms "photojournalism" and "reportage."

The very definition of honesty

Couples hiring a wedding photographer shouldn't even have to worry about this issue, frankly. But they should be alert to the probity and professionalism of the photographer they hire. And if that photographer claims to be, simply, a "photojournalist" but is not or has not been employed by or working for an actual news media organization, you have possibly come across a photographer who may play fast and loose with other important definitions, such as "deadlines" and "deliverables."

The definitions of words are important to me — and, as one might expect, they are important to journalists, reporters and editors, photo or otherwise. (In addition, they can be very important to the Federal Trade Commission and in courts of law!) After my full-time work as a staff member at America's oldest continuously published daily newspaper (The Hartford Courant), but as I was just beginning my work as a wedding photographer, I worked as an assistant illustrations (strictly photo) editor for one of the world's leading reference publishers (Oxford University Press) on a major new dictionary of American English. And in that dictionary, its latest edition still defines reportage as: "The reporting of news, for the press and the broadcast media."

The bottom lines

The bottom line for wedding photographers who take their cues from photojournalists in recording the story of a couple's wedding (and not directing or manipulating situations and settings, as traditional wedding photographers might expect to do) is to be clear in all instances that your work is "wedding photojournalism" or "wedding reportage," and not try to imply a career in actual photojournalism where none such day job or résumé exists. To do otherwise — to falsely label one's wedding photography work as "reportage" or "photojournalism" — is at best careless. If a professional photographer doesn't know the kind of work they're in, and the kinds of work other photographers do in very different circumstances, what else don't they know about their field? At worst, such misrepresentation is a dishonest and corrupt business practice.

And the bottom line for couples seeking a wedding photographer? If a WPJA wedding photojournalist shows up, your wedding photography will be in good hands. If an actual, working photojournalist shows up, you probably have bigger concerns that day than your wedding photography.