Sunday 5 April 2015

Words v pictures

In the beginning was the word? Nah, wrong. In the beginning there was the image, and that's how it's stayed, despite what we writers would like to believe. And actually, not only are images more important now than ever before, don't hold your breath for things to change, because plenty of people whose job is to have their finger on the pulse of social media are betting on the opposite. (Good thing too, you may be thinking, having thrashed your way through all those mixed metaphors.)

My recent media trip to the Kimberley in north-western Australia has provided me with the evidence for these assertions. First, image before words? I give you Aboriginal rock art, 40,000 years old. Case closed.
And the rest? Well, two of the group members, Lauren Bath and Garry Norris, were people who make their living from posting photos on Instagram as well as a couple of other online sites. Yes, that's right: self-made early adopters, they now make money from Instagram - or, rather, are contracted by organisations like Tourism WA to go on a famil, take hundreds of photos and post a specified number of them, duly hash-tagged and linked, on their Instagram feeds for their thousands and thousands (nearly half a million, in one case) of followers to see, respond to, and re-post. And these 'influencers' (it's a real job description) are sent all over the place: Iceland, Canada, Finland, New Zealand...

Don't be misled by any perceived notion of triviality: being a professional Instagrammer is at least as time-consuming, if not more so, than making observations, talking to people, taking notes and afterwards writing up a story. These people, both excellent photographers with all the heavy and expensive equipment that any pro snapper would be expected to have, were totally focused on planning, spotting and taking their images whenever opportunity offered, from dawn to midnight. Then, in what for the rest of us was more or less downtime, they were choosing, editing, labelling, captioning and posting their photos to Instagram, Google+, Steller and Trover. And then they were not only responding to the usually inane comments that their followers left, but also looking at, 'liking', and commenting on those followers' feeds, to keep them engaged. The two of them spent long hours bathed in the glow of their iPhone 6-pluses, doing their jobs. It was exhausting just to watch them.

It was fascinating, but at the same time slightly worrying and shocking to think that tourism organisations are now spreading their limited funding to include a whole new species of travel communicator. The RTOs are a bit anxious about it too, having no idea whether it's really cost-effective, if spraying the pictures over the interwebs will really translate into more visits and thus more tourist dollars into the region's economy. It's an obvious argument, though, that the same applies to travel stories. Yes, funding a writer on a famil with the result of a page or two of words (and pictures) in a newspaper or magazine is far cheaper than buying advertising there that may not even be noticed (I myself am totally blind to advertisements, just do not even register that they're there). But there's no guarantee that the story will be noticed either, or read beyond the first paragraph if that, let alone inspire someone to book a trip the next day - or, more probably, the following year. It's an act of faith.

Photographers will say that the emergence of influencers is just pay-back for their having been pushed aside for years now by writers using ever more clever digital cameras to present cash-strapped editors with acceptable word/image packages, and they certainly have a point. But, in small consolation, let me say that the lightning picture, above, was taken by Jarrad Seng, a professional photographer brought along on the famil by Tourism WA to provide them, and us, with striking images to use. And striking this one certainly is (though, fortunately, not literally for writer Max who features in it) - so striking that I knew to refer to it in my opening paragraph and, cunningly, included a thumbnail version in the story document.

Rightly so: the editor responded instantly requesting the hi-res version, it was the only photo he wanted for the (one-page) story, and I am confident that it will be published soon, while my other stories in his files, a couple of them dating back to 2012, will just have to continue to wait their turn. "Cracking shot," he wrote enthusiastically, ignoring my words completely.

But I have also received my own small consolation: today, one of my own favourite photos was finally published, accompanying a freshly-written story. It's only taken five years...

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