Jeff Hutchens' "Planet in Peril": An interview with Jonathan Blaustein
Pictures are pictures. Images are images. And art is art. It's all information anyway, which carries no transmission cost in the 21st Century. So we're drowning in it.
Historically, boundaries have existed between the worlds of art, journalism, and entertainment. Walter Cronkite was not Andy Warhol. Eugene Smith was not the Croc Hunter. But we live in the 21st Century, and it’s a fucking free-for-all.
In an attempt to better grasp the future of photography and journalism in our shell-shocked world, I asked Jeff Hutchens if he would agree to an interview in this month’s Fraction Magazine, to accompany a few of his photographs. Jeff and I met last June as participants at Review Santa Fe, and I was impressed with his piercing take on the global trade of endangered species, “Planet in Peril.” I knew he was represented by Reportage by Getty Images, and was chosen for the PDN 30 list in 2009, but that was about it.
Once he agreed and I began my research in earnest, I learned that Jeff is actually on the cutting edge of the blurring lines that have everyone so confused at present. (And after reading that sentence, I bet.) Allow me to summarize. Jeff has been a still photographer for the television arm of a famous photography magazine (National Geographic), taken still, journalistic photos of a Television Journalist as he interviews people on camera (Anderson Cooper), had his still photos displayed as multi-media slideshows on a TV news channel (CNN), been the host and subject of his own documentary TV show where he is filmed while taking photographs (National Geographic Channel), taught workshops to aspiring journalists in a war zone (Northern Uganda), and been the star of a series of TV commercials for Sony and Singapore Airlines. (Also on Youtube.)
So I suppose if we want to figure out what the future of journalism looks like, and if images still matter, and whether professionals can change the world like the citizen journalists in Iran, and how on Earth anybody can make a living these days…Jeff is the man to ask. So I did.
We spoke for almost an hour and a half in late March. Jeff was thoughtful and gracious, self-effacing and casual. I began by asking him directly what he thought, "the future of journalism would look like," just to get it out of the way. He replied, “That’s tough. I’ve been wondering about that myself. People really have to carve out their own niche more and more. When works starts drying up, people want to go back to basics and do whatever anyone needs done. I think photographers need to define their own style within a fluctuating professional landscape. But it’s super-hard to tell. Classic photojournalism has been tired for a while.”
And as we moved past the cursory, I began to realize that Jeff Hutchens has figured out how to use large, multinational media corporations to fund his artistic vision. Again and again, he spoke of how he doesn't think about "storytelling" or "news" or "audience" when he's clicking the shutter. He's just concerned with communicating his vision; with making the photos he wants to make. The images tend towards the dreamy and ambiguous. They're very stylized, and clearly utilize artistic sensibilities, with strong angles, dramatic compositions, huge texture, and heavy use of chiaroscuro. Of course, given that we live in the digital world, he actually captures in color, raw, while visualizing in Black & White. (In fact, I was able to find some of his signature "Planet in Peril" images posted in color on the CNN flickr page. That's right...CNN has it's own flickr page.)
He returned a few times to his code of respecting journalistic ethics, which he defined as, "...working strictly within the confines of reality...no manipulation...not posing things…working with what’s actually there…as opposed to retooling things in a physical sense," but mostly we spoke about context. He doesn't consider it. He just makes photographs, and gets to travel around the world because those photographs are published by reputable news outlets, or as editorial content in magazines. But he was clear that he makes the photos that he wants to make. Kind of like using the news media as a new-school patronage system.
So while the future of photojournalism is clearly multi-media, it also sounds a lot like art. In fact, when I asked him why his work is considered journalism and not art, he replied, "I would love to say that it’s art. I can say that. I can believe that all I want, but I need it to be accepted within that context as well." Ah, Context. We came back to it again and again. If they're 40x60 lightjet prints in a white frame on a white wall, they can be art. If they're 8.5x11 on a glossy tearsheet, it's journalism. Or to use Jeff's words, "A photograph should stand alone. The aesthetics of the image and the way the work is labeled shouldn’t have to change based on the context in which it’s going to be displayed." So I asked Jeff about the future, and the future is making whatever you want to make, and getting it out there in whatever format you can, in as many formats as possible.
We're all making pictures these days. Some even claim that there are just too many photographers, and perhaps it's true. But it seems to me that the defining characteristic of our images today is how well they reflect our vision of the world, and whether that vision is itself distinctive or intelligent or interesting or innovative or even, dare I say it, profound. If everything has been photographed, which some also claim, then it's no longer about being the first to shoot the pyramids, or the first to make staged self-portraits. It's about getting the work made, by any means necessary, and ensuring that said work has value to someone beyond ourselves.