The Big Issue in the North experience
It is 6 months since a group of dedicated OCA students volunteered to take part in a publishing initiative with The Big Issue in the North (BITN). We thought it was time we shared the experience on We Are OCA and showed you the images that the editor has chosen so far.
The Big Issue in the North partnership is giving OCA students in the north the opportunity to work on a brief agreed with the magazine’s editor, Kevin Gopal. The original brief posed two main challenges. Firstly, working on a brief itself demanded having to fulfil the needs of a third party, which is a defining characteristic of professional editorial photography. This means prioritising someone else’s visual communication and aesthetic requirements and making your skills and style responsive to the client’s needs. Secondly, the original brief specified that photographs should have a topical interest. This was a concept that most students contributing to the BITN found more challenging than anticipated. By topical we mean anything that has a connection with current issues of widespread public interest, particularly anything that is newsworthy. In the case of the BITN there also was also a local interest added to the topical slant because images had to have been taken in the regions where the BITN is sold – in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside. Finding out what was topical the week before the weekly deadline set by the BITN meant doing a fair amount of research and journalistic work, which added value to the students’ participation but also demanded time and dedication.
However, things never stay the same for very long on a magazine’s editorial desk. It is one of the responsibilities of the editor to ensure that a magazine is dynamic in terms of content and layout, which means that minor changes to briefs are not only to be expected but also necessary. A few weeks into the partnership the brief changed and a topical take wasn’t a requirement any more. Instead, Kevin Gopal would be expecting to receive eye-catching images that attracted the readers’ attention; these would be chosen exclusively for their individual artistic merit. Most of the photographs published so far, which you can see in the gallery below, were taken on the revised brief. While taking away the topical requirement freed up students to produce images according to their own individual styles and artistic judgement, offering more scope for creative output, students still had to write concise, journalistic-style captions and embed then in the metadata of the file. IPTC Photo Metadata standards built on an XMP platform provide essential information about a digital image such as description, author and copyright status. The information embedded in the metadata can then be read and extracted by pre-press and layout programs automatically. This completely eliminates the need to write image captions in an accompanying Word document.
What you won’t find on the above tear sheets are images which weren’t chosen by Kevin Gopal, obviously. And it is the images that didn’t make it into the magazine that provide an insight into the editor’s decision-making process.
A sensitive case was triggered by an image taken by Jeff Hurst, which shows three characters with blackened faces. I personally pre-selected the image for the BITN. It has strong visual appeal, almost operating as colour popping but without Photoshop trickery. The image is also gently humorous; it is difficult not to find the three skirt-clad men in it amusing. However, Jeff’s photograph was rejected because of its uncomfortable connotations of Black & White Minstrels. Aware of these connotations, and pre-empting a strong reaction by the magazine readers, the editor of the BITN decided not to publish the image, which was a legitimate course of action.
However, what Jeff’s photograph is actually showing couldn’t have been more disconnected from the Black & White Minstrels. Yes, the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers have little to do with the American Minstrels as we know them. But an editor has a responsibility towards their readership, and they are accountable for whatever is said or shown in a magazine. The interaction between the photographer, the editor and the magazine readership is a complex one. And one can hardly blame an editor for erring on the side of caution.
So imagine you were given the chance to be a magazine editor for a day, a magazine with a circulation of over 17,000. Would you publish Jeff’s photograph?