Leading artists, photo editors discuss changing role of media at Belfast Photo Festival 2022

Belfast Photo Festival 2022 hosts four artists and photo editors to discuss "untold stories, underrepresented narratives and perspectives on the world that too often go unseen.” Photo courtesy of Harper Leigh

By Clara Lincicome | Guest Contributor

Belfast Photo Festival 2022 hosted a panel of photographers, videographers and photo editors on June 18 at the Ulster Museum to discuss the “changing role of photojournalism and the role of photography in communicating conflict.”

This year, Northern Ireland’s premier visual arts festival took on the theme “The Verge,” which aimed to “explore untold stories, underrepresented narratives and perspectives on the world that too often go unseen.”

The panel consisted of four artists: Tabitha Soren, an American fine art photographer and a former reporter for MTV News, ACB News and NBC News; Dilys Ng, the current senior photo editor at TIME Magazine; Elizabeth Renstrom, the former senior photo editor at The New Yorker and Vice Magazine; and Alexandra Rose Howland, who has lived in the Middle East for over a decade and uses the photography and videography that has come from it to “challenge and expand the ways that geopolitical events are communicated.”

The first 40 minutes of the panel consisted of each artist either presenting their own personal history and portfolio or discussing one specific work that has been particularly significant in their career or in their effort to tell untold stories.

Howland shared her short film “Leave and Let Us Go,” which she described as a five-year project that sparked after she realized the disparity between the images she was taking and what was actually happening in Iraq.

The film is a compilation of stories from a video archive Howland composed from the perspective of Iraqis. The clips in the film vary from birthday parties, wedding celebrations and selfies at the club to scenes of bombs, riots, war and people running and screaming in the streets.

“It is such an over-photographed country, which is part of why I was terrified to work there,” Howland said. “Every one of us has images of Iraq in our minds when we hear about it. How can I add to that conversation and really open it up and make an audience connect to it in a way that you won’t when you flip through the news?”

Howland said her goal is to help viewers connect to her content by utilizing images that make the people in the film feel relatable and human.

“What makes people connect with this work is that they can see themselves in these grids,” Howland said. “They can imagine themselves taking these photos so that you are able to see yourself in the work even though it is something so far from our reality.”

Kansas City, Mo., senior Katy Mae Turner was an audience member and said the event was a great way to inspire guests to do something that hasn’t been done before — to get creative.

“Photography is such a versatile field,” Turner said. “You can use it for both reporting the news and creating art. There’s so many ways to showcase life, and these artists all did it in new ways.”

The panel discussed the topic of crossing the line from public to private in their work, as well as how it can translate both truth and misinformation.

“At a magazine, we are in the business of making the private, public,” Ng said. “When we read profile stories, it’s us spending a week in someone’s private life. We’re not often conscious of every single thing that we put out there. It kind of strips away the personal story part of it a little bit. It brings up the question, is any piece of work even honest anymore?”

Hanover, N.H., senior Harper Leigh said the most intriguing part of the panel was the conversation around what is portrayed and what is the full story.

“Ultimately, we aren’t capturing a full story often,” Leigh said. “We aren’t seeing everything, and we can’t. Maybe the best thing we can do at the end of the day is to try and live out the story right before us all and knit those pieces together like one giant mosaic.”

Ng said photo editors have the difficult job of choosing one photo out of thousands to represent an entire story, begging the question of whether that image alone is an accurate representation. This has added to what Soren calls “selfie culture,” where society obsesses over pictures of themselves that don’t present their reality.

“I’ve looked at so much research about the effect that selfie culture has on digital narcissism,” Soren said. “[Scientists] think that the self-surveillance involved in selfie culture and picking one out of 50 images actually causes people in a constant state of auditioning, like you’re in a constant job interview. That tension, that lack of calm or repose, really has negative effects on your brain. The more you have people only thinking about themselves, the fewer connections they have to the community. If you have less connection to the community … society and thinking about others sort of unravels.”

Today, photography and videography are especially crucial in allowing the world to see all perspectives and gain insight into lives around the world. People often consume media without a cognizant awareness of the full story or bias. The panelists emphasized the importance of consumers understanding this concept and media professionals working to accurately represent various perspectives.

“There is no one story that is the whole story,” Howland said.