Michael Shaw isn’t afraid to call bullshit on news photography. Whether it’s a viral picture of two protesters “kissing” during a riot or a less-than-candid/possibly staged photograph of President Obama, Shaw arms himself with the ammunition of context and lets loose on the world of photojournalism.
There’s a lot of persuasion, a lot of bias and interest behind certain imagery.
Shaw is the publisher of BagNews, a blog focusing on “visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.” The 56-year-old is a clinical psychologist whose research has focused on visual thinking, the analysis of characters and how metaphors can provide psychological insight. He considers himself a “news photo critic” and writes articles himself, as well as inviting multiple media academics and award-winning documentary photographers to contribute to his site.
“We live in a hypervisual society and also in a society where there’s a lot of persuasion, a lot of bias and interest behind certain imagery,” he says. Shaw hopes to help people deconstruct images with a “visual literacy” instead of consuming images passively. With Instagram, Facebook and digital media, images can instantaneously circulate around the world, often carrying with them assumptions, judgments and false stories.
BagNews has a variety of posts categorized by three main sections. Notes is a blog focused on “Reading the Pictures,” whether they be news images circulated on newspapers, blogs or social media. Originals publishes original works of photojournalism, and Salon is a platform for lively discussion on visual images. The Notes section has put a spotlight on Shaw multiple times in the photojournalism universe, since his often-opinionated posts stir up controversy with their media critiques.
”There is nothing like it — an analysis of photographs made by photojournalists for media and consideration of their impact and function in society,” writes Loret Steinberg in an email. Steinberg teaches photojournalism at Rochester Institute of Technology and used BagNews articles in her class before eventually meeting Shaw and becoming a consultant for the site
When his two sons were about 7 and 15 years old, Shaw would draw political cartoons on their brown lunch bags to explain political topics. He began scanning them and then making digital copies of his cartoons as his kids grew older. In 2001, he launched BagNews with his cartoons, and he shifted over to visual imagery analysis in 2004. ”I was inspired by the visual coverage of the Bush-Kerry campaign and how much more effective the Bush imagery was,” says Shaw. “The Karl Rove quote that really said it all, and still does, is ’Politics is TV with the sound off.’”
As a teenager, Shaw says he was very political, with a dark humor. He grew up near San Diego and was constantly writing in high school. He pursued a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University, and then his interests turned to clinical psychology. Shaw continues to practice today, but he also travels around the country lecturing on visual imagery and moderating panels at journalism schools. He gets very animated as he speaks about the “state of the news photo” and the manipulation of messaging that occurs with visual images.
While on a panel at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the slim Shaw enthusiastically encouraged students to write to him with any and all thoughts about images. While he does not consider himself a traditional journalist, he is eager to inform the public about the different shades of truth that exist in the news. Sometimes that means publishing previously censored war photographs, and sometimes it means clearing Obama’s name as an ogler.
Shaw’s website serves several purposes. At times, BagNewsNotes debunks a story behind a picture that may have been taken out of context or provides cultural commentary about what the picture’s story says about society. When Notes critiques ethics, a firestorm of debate often explodes. This occurred in February when Shaw published a widely read story stating Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin had misrepresented the subject of his photo, which had won second place in two revered competitions of 2013: World Press Photo and Picture of the Year International. Photographers, reporters, news outlets and citizens alike jumped into a conversation either defending Pellegrin or criticizing him in a debate about whether he was unethical in his photos, primarily for captioning a Marine holding a gun as a “sniper” and making it seem like he was part of a gun-violence problem in an area of Rochester, New York.
Shaw says news images are often used as propaganda, especially by the Obama administration.
Other organizations called out by Shaw and his website include the New York Times, for its handling of a Haiti photography essay, and Facebook, for its repeated censorship of a photojournalist’s images. (Warning: This link contains graphic imagery.)
“His posts seem to attract a really intelligent crowd of commenters, which is unusual for blogs,” says Rob Haggart, a former director of photography with his own website, APhotoEditor. Haggart stumbled upon the blog and says he reads it weekly, if not daily. Although critics of Shaw’s point out that he is not a photographer and is therefore an outsider, Haggart thinks that is the positive aspect of BagNews.
“I really like his perspective. I think the point of view from outside the industry, from his own viewpoint, not as a photographer, is really important. He’s pointing out something that exists subconsciously in people either taking the pictures or looking at them.” Haggart points to Shaw’s ongoing discussions about how the Obama administration has an aggressive PR campaign with its own personal photographer, controlling images and messaging through Flickr, Instagram, and the distribution of White House photographs.
Shaw’s critics complain that his posts are too biased and that he doesn’t always speak with the people he is writing about. While Shaw responds to criticism with posts or by delving into a little more reporting, he does not apologize for his opinions and critiques.
”I think what we do is pretty revolutionary in that kind of ’60s sense,” he says. “I think we’re a little threatening to everybody, probably.” He adds, “Because there isn’t a precedent for a news photo critic or a photojournalism critic, I think people get really thrown in terms of what I’m doing.”
So should he be held to a certain standard of journalism?
“I’m a journalist in the same way any big movie critic is,” he responds.
Regardless of what some in the photojournalism world may think of him, Shaw is not going anywhere anytime soon. ”I think that media has gotten a free ride. News media has gotten a free ride, because nobody’s done that with them before.”
Cat’s out of the bag.
Why you should care
Michael Shaw stirs up the world of photojournalism while pointing out how the pictures you see — or don’t see — may affect your view on politics.