Giulio Saggin, former national photo editor with ABC News Online (Australia) has been a news photographer for over 25 years. He’s also the author of You, The Citizen Photographer, based on his years of experience as a professional news photographer and the dramatic impact smartphones have had on citizen photography and journalism. His book attempts to unite the two – sharing his skills and expertise with those interested in visual storytelling, whether professionally or otherwise. What’s great about it, is Giulio uses his images throughout the book to clearly explain the principles of photography he’s trying to get across. In short, some simple steps can turn your average photos into good ones.
In this interview Giulio explains why smartphones and social media have changed the way photographers – and anyone else – can capture the news, describes his loathing of vertical photos, his passion for visual storytelling and says that taking a good photo is the same as writing a good story.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
I left school and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so worked in various jobs while life found a path for me. During the year after I left school I started taking photos and applied to get into art college, and was accepted. I’d always loved sport and knew that to photograph sport I needed to work for a newspaper, so that’s how I got into the news media.
Since starting your photography career more than 25 years ago, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen?
I started as a cadet in 1989, so you can imagine the changes! I’ve gone from using black and white film, to colour film to shooting digital. The biggest change, though, is speed – delivery of images. I remember working on a newspaper in 1990 and watching the FA Cup final on TV. About 15 minutes into the second half, photos started appearing on the wire feed. I thought ‘Wow! 15 minutes into the second half and we’re getting photos … while the game is still going on!’ At the Rio Olympics, Getty were sending photos to clients two minutes after the photo was taken!
And even quicker is social media, where photos taken on (hard news) jobs can be visible to the world in seconds. Twitter, especially, was my ‘go to’ for photos when a hard news story broke. All reporters knew to ‘file to Twitter’.
How do you feel about citizen photography?
This is another ‘horse and cart versus automobile’ moment in history. The smartphone has changed the way we live and made everything accessible. It means the world is being ‘recorded’ at an unprecedented rate and any news event, no matter how small, is usually recorded. Cameras are everywhere. The fact that we can video our world is a good and bad thing. We see things we would never otherwise see but we are also, unwittingly, ‘Big Brothering’ ourselves (Orwell-style, as opposed to reality TV-style). Either way, it’s now the world in which we live. Like I said, horse and cart…
Has social media changed the basic principles of photography, or do they remain the same?
Let me begin by saying that photography and writing are the same – it’s just that one uses text and the other uses imagery. The principle of both is to convey information, hence the term ‘a photo tells a thousand words’.
The basic principles of photography are the same, just as the basic principles of grammar are the same. However, written/spoken language changes because the masses use it to suit their needs. Photography – visual storytelling – is available to the masses in a way like never before and what might be considered ‘incorrect visual grammar’ could easily become the norm.
A good example is the amount of vertical photos being taken, even though we live in a horizontal world. People predominantly use their smartphone vertically, so when it’s time to take a photo, they turn it around an instinctively take a vertical one. Usually this means the ‘story’ of their photo is in the middle of the frame with useless information at the top and bottom. I see this all the time and it drives me crazy, just as the lack of grammar in many social media posts drives ‘literate’ people crazy. People don’t know any different and the sheer weight of numbers of people taking vertical photos might change (has already changed?) the ‘grammar’ of photography.
How do you feel about social media platforms like Instagram which give photographers (and anyone else) a chance to showcase their images?
Like I said earlier, the smartphone has changed the way we live. This means photography, good and not-so-good. Instagram is great because it does allow people to showcase the photos they take. My one concern is the lack of quality of many images – what people think is a good photo and what is actually a good photo – might act to dilute the good images out there. That said, the volume of not-so-good images might make the good ones stand out.
How can photographers take advantage of new trends, channels and methods when it comes to visual storytelling?
From a learning perspective, there are more great photos – news and otherwise – readily available to be viewed than at any other point in history. While vast libraries had thousand – millions – of photos, they were buried away in books. The internet has changed all that. Just as writers should ‘read, read, read’, a great deal of learning by osmosis occurs when photographers … and journalists … ‘look, look, look’. Observe photos and learn from them.
Then there are people like me, who have over 25 years’ experience and are willing to share their knowledge. The availability of online books and tutorials makes learning about photography (and everything else) so much easier.
On a more practical note, speed. A journalist can take a photo on their smartphone and within seconds have it on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram (although I find Instagram’s square crop doesn’t work all that well for news). Also, unlike print media, where space is a premium, several – many – photos can be used on stories. Although, like a written story, more isn’t always better. It’s great to have the choice of images but a photo editor’s eye is needed to edit a lot down to something that works. Sometimes less is more.
If someone was interested in amateur photography, what would be your top tip?
Have fun, experiment and take lots of photos. Photos are a reflection of your personality. They are your interpretation of the world, so be yourself. That said, there are basic principles. Think of a photo as a visual story and ask yourself ‘what story do I want to tell?’
As for an actual tip, I see SO many vertical photos that have SO much useless information. Vertical photos happen simply because people use their phone predominantly vertically, so when the time comes to take a photo, people simply turn their phone around and snap away.
We live in a horizontal world – our eyes are next to each other for a reason… TV and movie screens are horizontal – so get in the habit of turning your phone horizontal. Some photos do work best as verticals but, as I explain in my book, turning your phone horizontal can alleviate a lot of problems.
In your experience, what kinds of photos get the best response?
Tough question. Instinctively I’d say weather (broad term) – sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, storms, seasons etc – and just about any animal photo. However, the one thing that links all photos that get a ‘good response’ is the fact they are visually interesting. Think of a photo as a story – which it is, because it relays information. You don’t like to hear, read or tell boring stories. It’s the same with photos. Photographers know how to make boring photos interesting because they are visual storytellers.
Sometimes it doesn’t take much and I’ve often been asked what to do to make a photo more interesting. I’ve narrowed it down to three things (out of the many parallels between photos and written stories):
- Turn your phone horizontal
- Find an angle (all stories have a point, an angle), so change the perspective of your photo – crouch, sit, stand on something, climb some stairs, move left, right, forward and/or back.
- Include a human element (stories invariably have a human perspective), even if it means waiting for someone to walk into your photo (work, holiday, street scene etc)
What inspired you to write You, The Citizen Photographer and what do you want people to take away from it?
When I joined ABC News Online (Australia) as their as national photo editor I was asked to give reporters guidance on how to take photos. Using ‘a photo tells a thousand words’ as a guide, I looked at the parallels between photos and stories and constructed a presentation – which the book elaborates on – showing how photos are constructed the same as stories. Journalists loved it because photography was translated into a language they could understand.
While originally intended for journalists, the message in my book resonates with everyone, as we all understand story-telling. We do it every day. The thing I’d ask people to take away from my book is to start thinking of photos as stories and ask yourself, ‘what story do I want to tell?’ each time you take a photo. All photographers do this, no matter how long they have been working, and they do it with every photo they take, whether it be on a job, at a party, walking down the street or on holiday. The end result is the same i.e. making your photos into visual stories, because stories are always more interesting than a jumble of information.