Images of resilience: The case for visual restorative narrative

Digital photography allows for a volume of images to be taken, presented, and experienced. And this leads to key considerations regarding photojournalism.

Like much of the media business, photojournalism is in a time of great transition. Breaking news is a prime example. Because of technological innovation, nearly every person on the street today has a camera in his or her pocket in the form of a smart phone. In breaking news events, everyday citizens are now on the scene to capture breaking news images. And those images spread rapidly via social media. We no longer rely on the mainstream media to distribute and bring photos to our doorstep via the front page. And because of this, as well as for economic motives, photojournalism positions across the country are being eliminated.

With that said, what then, is the future of visual journalism? Perhaps, that future lies in depth, sustained reporting. A recently-labeled genre of journalistic storytelling, termed “restorative narrative,” intends to cover the story beyond the immediacy of the breaking news, and in doing so, to help individuals and communities move forward in the wake of large-impact events. Restorative narratives, which can be told through mixed media, including text and visual, have certain characteristics: 1) strength-based with hard truths that show progression without giving false hope; and 2) authentic, sustained inquiries that present universal truths and human connection.

Consider “Invisible Child: Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” by Ruth Fremson, a photojournalist for The New York Times. Fremson spent more than a year visually documenting the plight of the more than 22,000 homeless children in New York City, specifically focusing on the story of an 11-year-old girl named Dasani. The story is available online:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 6.15.52 PM

In Invisible Child, Ruth Fremson captures the hard truth Dasani’s life, as she and her parents and seven siblings navigate the reality of living in a decrepit and dismal homeless shelter in New York City. Fremson’s authentic images show the cramped and fetid living conditions, from rotting mattresses to filthy bathrooms to mouse and roach infested walls.

Regarding her work and the topic of child poverty, Fremson says she tried to tell a story that “would engage people and make them care in an increasingly complicated and over stimulated and oversaturated world” (personal communication, June 1, 2015). She adds, “I’ve always been drawn instinctively to the story where I can shed light in a dark place and give people a voice and platform” (personal communication, June 1, 2015).

Fremson’s sustained inquiry takes audiences through Dasani’s daily responsibilities of caring for her siblings to her life at school to the grown up world of navigating the bureaucracy of NYC social services to finally finding a more acceptable living space. And while there are certainly many set backs along the way, both physical and emotional, the journey leaves the family in a more positive situation than where they began.

While Dasani’s life is wrought with peril and complications that are outside of the scope of understanding for most of the suburban middle class, there are most certainly elements of strength captured in Fremson’s visual narrative that attest to human connection and universal human experience, most notably, the bonds of survival and love that Dasani shares with her seven siblings. And, again, while Dasani’s troubles run deep, she is a testament to hope as seen throughout the visual narrative, from the focus and intellect captured in Dasani’s face during her dance classes at school to the rare moments of childlike joy in something as simple as blowing out her birthday candles or playing with balloons. In one photo, Dasani and her siblings are captured blissfully dancing in the streets; in another, Dasani and two of her sisters hold hands as they cross the street.

DasaniDancingDasani and her siblings enjoy a rare carefree moment.
Photo by Ruth Fremson, 2013, The New York Times.

Fremson attests to the authority of visuals as storytelling. “When you can look somebody in the eye you can’t really ignore them,” said Ruth Fremson (personal communication, June 1, 2015). Through the ability to truly see, photographs transcend the two-dimensional plane to create human connection through the illustrations of resilience and hope. Changes brought about by advances in digital photography are significant on the individual and collective level. Historically news photographs have been classified along two lines: breaking (spot) news photographs and feature photographs.

In an entertainment-focused, 24-hours news world, these lines are beginning to blur. The rapid rise of social media has also blurred these lines. And the responsibilities of the photojournalists themselves are certainly changing. And citizen journalism—through the ability to capture and share news imagery—further complicates visual reporting. With the rise and dominance of social media, news now comes from more than just the elite media.

In a time of great change, journalism must adapt to survive. And for visual journalism, that change could be positive. With full acknowledgement that we need breaking images—those graphic, painful, and exploitative breaking images that show the horror, destruction, and devastation—they need not be the entirety of our focus. If news organizations could embrace changes brought about by technology and social media to focus resources on depth reporting that captures resilience through authentic, meaningful progress, visual restorative narrative could indeed be a future—and thus a sustaining value—of visual journalism in legacy news outlets.

And the real beauty in this takes us full circle to a strength of digital photography: depth of imagery and space to give these stories freedom to take the subject and the audience on an authentic and meaningful journey.

*This blog post is adapted from a research paper that I will be presenting at the International Communication Association Conference in Fukuoka, Japan in June 2016. The paper has been awarded “Top Faculty Paper” in the Visual Communication Studies Division. Assisting with the research were undergraduate journalism student Erin Hampton and media studies doctoral student David Morris, who is a co-author on the paper. The research was made possible by a grant from the Agora Journalism Center.

Header image credit: Ruth Fremson, Andrea Elliott, and The New York Times


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