Sebastián Hidalgo on what it takes to practice a collective visual approach.

By Ellie Mejía

Photo: Andrea Hart

Photo: Andrea Hart

On April 18, a modest crowd gathered in Build Coffee for our 104th Public Newsroom. This time, we invited photographer and former City Bureau fellow Sebastián Hidalgo to lead the workshop. Hidalgo, an award-winning freelance photojournalist, broke down the concept of “shock value” photojournalism and presented ethical ways to approach visual storytelling.

At the Public Newsroom, we often talk about how media coverage can misrepresent and harm marginalized communities and how we might begin to repair that. On April 2, we talked about the history of biased race reporting in Chicago and asked attendees, how could we better cover this topic? The conversation was inspired by an earlier Public Newsroom, where participants discussed how Chicago journalists could improve crime reporting.

But when we have these conversations we don’t always talk about the weight of visuals, which are often the first thing people see when reading the news.

Shock value photojournalism refers to photos — often depicting violence or bodily harm — meant to elicit fear, disgust, surprise or any strong emotional reaction from the viewer. Historically, the subjects of these types of photographs have belonged to marginalized groups. Taken together, the images can come to misrepresent entire communities, often portraying them at a deficit for the sake of manufacturing shock.

This approach is common in part because of the prestige assigned to violent or shocking photos. Recent Pulitzer-winning images feature scarred, malnourished or deceased Black and brown bodies. As Hidalgo explains, institutional reverence for these types of images signals to emerging photojournalists this is the kind of work that will make them successful, perpetuating the problem.

So how can we build better frameworks for visual journalism? Hidalgo practices and advocates for what he calls a collective visual approach, which he says focuses on “team building, trust, consistent communication, community and involvement of all parties.” Within this framework, the photographer aims to build trust with colleagues in the newsroom as well as members of the communities where they work. “We have to really understand that as journalists, reporters, editors, we’re all in this together,” he says. “If we really want to go beyond shock value in photojournalism, it takes all of us.”

Isaac Flores, an 11-year-old separated from his mother at the border last year. Hidalgo took on an assignment to photograph Flores. Disturbed by the national conversation around the wall, he says he chose to depict Flores’ daily life as a child. [Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo]

Isaac Flores, an 11-year-old separated from his mother at the border last year. Hidalgo took on an assignment to photograph Flores. Disturbed by the national conversation around the wall, he says he chose to depict Flores’ daily life as a child. [Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo]

To that end, he shared a few tips for photojournalists looking to try this collective approach. Hidalgo advises freelancers to look into the histories of publications they might work with, keeping an eye on the types of images they have published in the past. He also suggests photojournalists edit their portfolios to reflect their values.

If you are on assignment, Hidalgo also suggests explicitly addressing shock value with your editor at the outset, and checking in frequently throughout the process with anyone who has a hand in the story. “Have these conversations extremely continuously. Have them with your editors, your reporters,” Hidalgo says.

Outside of the newsroom, it is critical to extend the same open communication to sources. Hidalgo illustrates this with two examples from his own experience. Reporting on the suburb of Dolton, before taking photos he asked community members how they felt about being reported on and photographed, involving them in the process. On a different assignment, he was tasked with photographing an 11-year-old. He told the boy to simply raise his hand if he didn’t want his photo taken, a way of respecting his boundaries.

Hidalgo says these are small but concrete steps toward taking photos with sensitivity and respect. “This looks different in each project but… a collaborative visual approach looks for something more meaningful, respectable and necessary,” he says.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how much thought, research, time and relationship-building and conceptualizing happens before photographers even take a photograph,” said Pat Nabong, another former City Bureau fellow and photographer who was in attendance. She stressed the importance of maintaining these practices over time. “I already apply a lot of what we talked about in my own practice, but I think that concerned process is like a muscle. I have to continue to have these thoughtful conversations among my colleagues, editors and the people I photograph,” she said.

Pat Nabong (center) speaks as part of small group discussion. [Photo: Andrea Hart]

Pat Nabong (center) speaks as part of small group discussion. [Photo: Andrea Hart]

If you want to learn more about the topic of this week’s newsroom, there are several resources out there.


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