As the current Assistant Managing Editor and Director of Photography at The Washington Post, MaryAnne Golon’s 30-year career doubles as an expansive roadmap of photojournalism’s evolution across contemporary news organizations. Golon first established her legacy in the medium during various photographic roles at Time Magazine, where she worked for over twenty years. A strong believer in photography’s ability to inform and enlighten, Golon is quick to clarify that she’s been told “photojournalism is dying” since she started working with the genre thirty years ago. Her take? It isn’t going anywhere. In fact, our hunger for processing the world through images has only increased—we just have to figure out how to filter through the noise.
We are thrilled that Golon is on the jury for this year’s LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards. In this interview, editor Cat Lachowskyj speaks to Golon about the evolution of the photographic medium, how photography facilitates the transmission of news stories, and what makes a strong visual story stand out.
LensCulture: You’ve carved out a very dynamic career in photography, specifically in photojournalism. Tell me, how did your interest in the genre start? Were you always interested in journalism, or did you fall into it through by way of photography?
MaryAnne Golon: I actually started photographing when I was very young, so it all began with photography. When I was eight or nine years old, I was a Junior Girl Scout, and the first badge I wanted when I graduated from Brownies to Girl Scouts was the photography badge. So, my mother managed to get me a tiny little camera—way back in the olden days of film! I quickly became a prolific photographer, documenting my own family. I came from a large family—six children—so there was always something going on, and I found myself making scrapbooks and storytelling as a young child. By the time I was a teenager, I convinced my father to convert a bathroom in our house into a darkroom, and you couldn’t get me out of there. I was the palest teenage girl you’ve ever seen because I spent my life in the darkroom. I always knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I never really planned on becoming a journalist. It’s more like journalism found me.
I worked for my high school newspaper and yearbook—the usual path for people in journalism—and I ended up graduating from a journalism program in Florida. I initially thought I was going to pursue the art route, and I was booted from an art program because the artist who ran it thought I was too ‘documentarian.’ But I used all kinds of things in my artwork, which included scratching words into negatives to make statements about the work I was doing. I got a scholarship at Time Inc., which is sadly no longer in existence, and I ended up interning there and then spending the first two decades of my career at Time Magazine, so it was kind of a photography to art to journalism journey.
LC: It’s interesting that since you were a young girl, your approach to photography has always been grounded in storytelling, whether by your family or enhancing the stories in images by scratching your negatives. I wonder, what sorts of images give you pause when you see them? What constitutes a strong image for you?
MG: The most powerful images are always a combination of a whole bunch of different things, but I think I’ve been in this industry for so long that there isn’t a certain kind of picture that is my go-to or favorite. There isn’t necessarily something that makes me react in a certain way. I love to be surprised by photography, but in visual narrative storytelling, especially from a journalistic perspective, the most important thing is that each individual image can stand alone, but in their combination, they tell a story. They have to be powerful enough to stand by themselves.
LC: So it’s important to be struck by each image.
MG: Yes. What I reject is this idea that narrative storytelling should have ‘filler pictures’ that move you from one place to the next. Yes, you might need an opening picture, and you might have to introduce your characters and have a crescendo and exit, but each image should be striking on its own despite its position in the greater narrative. The images are what propel you from the beginning to the middle to the end, rather than words.
LC: It’s interesting you compare visual storytelling to textual storytelling. Your job is not just about images, but about how images relate to text. Tell me a bit about that journalistic partnership and what keeps you intrigued by it.
MG: The way news organizations look at photography and the way that, say, magazines look at photography is entirely different. At news organizations, photography requires the same sort of informational value as words do, or as a graphic would. I think the reason I remain intrigued about broadening the visual, contextual way we look at photography in news is because I know it needs to be reworked from the inside.
Working in news, I have conversations all the time where I’m asked, “Well, why do you like that picture?” And I say, “It’s not about why I like the picture. I’m drawn to the picture because of its quality, because of the way it makes you feel, and how the tone of the picture evokes a certain emotion and sits well within its narrative.” It’s about being able to understand the emotional impact of an image, and the way an image makes you feel. What do its tonal qualities tell you? What sort of mood does it evoke? These things are always less tangible than: “This is a story about this man, so here is a picture of this man.” Sometimes you need to be a wordsmith to explain photography to people who are less visual than you are.
LC: It’s mind-bending when you need to use words to create an argument for why visuals are so important. Images are so different than text, because they simultaneously boil down and expand things at the exact same time. Why do you think telling stories through images – as opposed to text – is such an important practice?
MG: I definitely think you have to have both. Unequivocally, neither can exist on its own. I think if you had all books with no photographs in them, or all books with only photographs in them and no words, we’d exist in an environment that’s a far less rich place to learn from. Captions are incredibly important for images, and as you said, images can boil things down and also expand things. I’m always looking for the images that expand.
LC: We’re constantly being told that photojournalism or photographic reportage is a dying industry. How do you work to counter that stance to keep the artform alive and relevant?
MG: Since the beginning of my career, which has spanned more than thirty years, I have been told that photojournalism is dying. And I have news: it’s not dead yet. Yes, there are fewer staff jobs than there used to be for photojournalists at newspapers around the world. But does that mean that less journalism is being made? No. I think there’s a shift in the industry that’s been a long time coming, but I don’t think that photojournalism can completely die. There are too many practitioners who are incredibly successful, and too many people who still seek some semblance of truth in storytelling. There is a hunger for reality.
There’s a quote in our newsroom at The Washington Post by our previous publisher Phil Graham, which says, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” and I feel like truer words have never been spoken. You have to gather what happens in the moment, and then step back from it to understand its context—all the other things that are happening in that moment—to actually write history. Without the initial gathering of facts, where would we be?
LC: What are some of the specific ways you have seen the industry change?
MG: Photojournalism is a field that’s become incredibly expensive. There are certain people who believe that anyone with an iPhone can record imagery. But in the same way that anybody with a pencil can’t be a great writer, anybody with an iPhone is not necessarily going to be a great photographer. Nor will they have an understanding of the skills or ethics behind the photography that they are creating to elevate their work. All we can do is keep doing it. Our motto at The Washington Post is, “Democracy dies in darkness,” and photography is a big part of the coverage that leads to people being enlightened. Enlightenment comes from being shown what you don’t know, and it’s our responsibility to educate readers on that.
LC: You also directly experienced the monumental shift from working with press prints to digital methods.
MG: Yeah, that goes hand-in-hand with my being told that photojournalism has been dying throughout my entire career. I feel like right now we are in a hugely transitional moment. The last time it was screamed from the mountaintops as loudly as is it right now was during that shift from film to digital, where there was meant to be this Grand Canyon divide between the digital generation and the print generation. But it was rocky, and we lost at least five years—if not a whole decade—of what would have been reclaimable photography: stuff shot on slides or film, or something that has lasting value.
The technology just wasn’t in the place to have anything close to high quality. The digital file sizes were tiny, and things were stored in storage systems that no longer exist. We lost a generation of images during that transition. I feel like this new upheaval in the industry—the notion that with a decent camera in your Android phone or iPhone, you eliminate the need for professional journalism—is the same thing. I have to say, I just don’t buy it. I think the genre will continue to live on.
LC: If it continues to live on, how might it change?
MG: I like to remind people that at the very start of photography, the only people who could afford to pursue it were very wealthy men, and sometimes their very wealthy wives. It was so prohibitively expensive for anyone else to afford. It may yet swing back in that direction for some time before it evolves again, and I say that because it seems to me that many of the most successful people doing photojournalism right now tend to have alternative sources of money than standard assignment rates or the ability to solely rely on grants. Right now, if you want to be a successful photojournalist, it’s very helpful if you have a trust fund!
LC: So you foresee it as a blip in the trajectory, not necessarily the downfall of the entire medium.
MG: Photography is so young! It’s not even 200 years old, so we’re talking about a medium that was the same for a very long time, and then went through this seismic shift 25 years ago, and we are still working through that shift. But the downsizing of newspapers and letting go of staff is a bigger story than just photojournalism. It’s more about how we consume information, because photography has never been more omnipresent than it is now. What we have to do is figure out a new business model and reshape our own opportunities within this changing market. That’s the answer.
LC: In that same vein, why do you think audiences should continue to engage with photographic journalism?
MG: Because I live and breathe photojournalism and it’s my everyday existence, it’s hard for me to even imagine a world where anybody would think they could live without it. Images evoke emotion, whether that be anger, pity, empathy or even humor. People often slough off funny pictures, but I think any emotion that a photojournalistic image can evoke—even a laugh—is worthy, because it means it moved you. That’s an important part of what we do, and it can’t be lost.