Currently working on a project linked to the first safe drug-consumption place which opened on October 14 in Paris, the young American photojournalist gives a portrayal of his occupation. From an analog camera to an iPhone and from the United States, to Paris, and Europe, he changed tools and places, but remained truthful to the ethical foundations of photojournalism.
In his apartment of the 18th arrondissement of Paris at 9:00 am, the young photographer, sitting in front of his cup of coffee, seems relaxed. But this visible coolness lets an underlying stress show through. Fortunately, he progressively unwinds as the conversation unfolds.
Passionate about documentary photography, William Lounsbury has always tried to show his vision through the lens of his camera. Growing-up in St-Louis, Missouri, he was already concerned with social issues: “I was the type of kid who would start yelling about Darfur in Sudan and pick fights with people for no reason”, he recalls, amused. The penny drops when William hears about Eddie Adams, the famous photojournalist. The Saigon Execution Picture (1968) and its power of action on the Vietnamese boat people confirms his desire to do documentary photography. “That’s inspiring, it shows the power pictures can have and I’m kind of an idealist…” he says.
During his studies of photojournalism, William Lounsbury flies to Denmark and falls in love with Europe and a French girl. After moving to Paris at the end of his studies, odd jobs come one after another but William slowly starts making himself known as a freelance photojournalist. “It’s hard to make a name for yourself but it’s also a very small community”, he comments. “When you start meeting people within the community they introduce you to everybody else.”
Ethics is key to photojournalism. The Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) gathers the standards that visual journalists must respect in their daily work. Editing is for example a very important part of the photojournalist’s work and it should not be used to alter the picture’s content and context. Practices vary from one photojournalist to another but William is very strict on this point: “I obviously never remove or ad anything”, he explains. “I also have to be careful with cropping because you can crop to manipulate the picture. I strictly hold myself to those journalistic standards of editing”. Cropping is indeed often seen as unethical by some photographers who want to preserve the integrity of the frame which they consider inviolable.
Avoiding stereotyping and bias is also one of the main rules of photojournalism. If purists still think that subjectivity is unethical and that objectivity should be part of the photojournalist’s core values, this is not the case for every journalist. For William, “nobody’s actually impartial”. John Godfrey Morris, picture editor, explains that “the camera is not, after all, a neutral instrument any more than the journalist’s typewriter. Bias and personal judgment still prevail and truth remains an elusive ideal”. William admits that he does not try very hard to be impartial: “Impartiality is not a requirement for me, personally”, he explains. “I don’t think that every issue needs to have both sides expressed.” Currently working on portraits of drug users visiting the first “salle de shoot” which opened in Paris, the photographer does not see the need to give the opponents of the project a floor. According to him, photo reportage should not be impartial as it is precisely used to impact mentalities and make a difference in the world.
If William is not impartial in the way he photographs, he tries nonetheless to stay unbiased in the choice of the subject matter: “I know I can go to the political meeting of somebody I disagree with passionately and still do my job because I believe that people deserve a voice”. Impartiality also comes under consideration in the choice of subjects. For his project on drug users, the photographer does not have a typical profile in mind. Especially since it is hard to find participants, patience is his primary tool to get people to agree.
Iphone is THE New Camera
In the art of portraits, developing a good relationship with the subject is primordial, says Howard Chapnick. William has an infallible technique to approach people: An old analog camera that he carries around near the safe drug-consumption mobile van, a place “that distributes clean instruments for drug users”. “It makes it easier to approach people. The fact that I don’t have the giant photo reporter camera hanging around my neck [but] this bizarre argentic camera makes people want to stop and talk to me,” he says.
Even if William does not always carry his big DSLR camera, he always has his phone with him. Because as Chase Jarvis says: “the best camera is the one that’s with you”. This tendency from professional photojournalists to use the mobile phone as photographic equipment is greatly increasing. “IPhone journalism is totally a thing and it’s actually great when people can do it really well”, William exclaims. Many photojournalists also use Instagram as a way to develop their audiences. Even though the young photographer considers his Instagram account rather a personal journal than a real portfolio, he still sets himself high standards when it comes to the quality of the pictures: “Even if I shoot something on the iPhone I’ll still try to frame the picture, to make it compelling (…) If I’m posting something [on Instagram] I want it to be good work.”
Widening the Lenses to Picture the World
As most newspapers and magazines call on freelancers for one-time assignments rather than hiring their own photographic staff, a large majority of photojournalists work as freelance contractors. It actually brings advantages, such as the freedom for the photojournalist to choose his clients and his subjects. If it was not a real choice at the beginning for William, he does not regret embarking on the adventure of freelancers at all. “When you are a freelancer you get to set your own hours and you get to do the work that you want to do”, he explains. Before adding: “The only bad side is that if you don’t have work you don’t get paid. (…) You start counting your cents and eating only plain pasta…”
Above all, being a freelancer allows the young photographer to travel across the globe. The photo tour company he created with his friend Alexander J.E. Bradley (Aperture Tours) made him want to make journeys and he regularly travels the world looking for stories to tell. Denmark, Romania, Spain, Poland… William loves experiencing and discovering unknown ways of live. “When you travel for work, you get to really meet people, to see a different part of the city, to see how people actually live”, he points out.
In this very strict and regulated field which is photojournalism, the standards and norms are slowly evolving. William Lounsbury is part of this new generation of young photojournalists who want to change the rules and who free themselves from the ethical and journalistic standards of the profession to better embrace the possibilities that the future has to offer.
To go further:
Chapnick, H., 1994. Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Jarvis, C., 2009. The Best Camera is the One that’s with you: iPhone Photography by Chase Jarvis. New Riders.
Woolley, AI. E., 1966. Camera Journalism: Reporting with Photographs. A. S. Barnes.