A Pop Quiz about Staging Photos in Photojournalism


Now that everything has been said and written about the World Press Photo controversy, it’s time for a review. At this point, we’re all agreed that photographing your cousin having sex in a car is a bad idea, right?

But after having shot likely over 6,000 assignments for newspapers, let me humbly submit that reality is…complicated.  Anyone who says otherwise is guilty of oversimplification, lack of experience, or self-righteous mendacity. So let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it to mock situations in the real world, where you make ethical decisions about what it means to stage pictures, on the fly.

But before you take this pop quiz, make sure to go hungry for the whole day, pull an all-nighter, and promise delivery of images to a client within the next hour – just to simulate other factors in a photojournalist’s workday that can affect decision-making.

It’s only five questions. It’ll go quick. They seem exceptional, but every situation in the field is exceptional.

Continue Reading

An Eye-Tracking Study That Makes Me Want to Jump Out of my Skin [Video]

A video that I executive produced about the value of professional photojournalism.  Thank you Bill Kurtis! 


In case you missed it, the National Press Photographers Association revealed last week the results of a study led by Poynter-affiliated researcher Sara Quinn on how readers interact with visual journalism. Today was the next installment in a four part series.

Besides for wanting me to do jump out of my skin,  the study should also give tremendous pause to any publisher making decisions about staffing levels in their newsrooms.

To be clear, the NPPA didn’t know what to expect when it asked Quinn to conduct the study. But they knew some kind of hard data was needed. News organizations have been firing photojournalists at a rate higher than their reporting counterparts, believing that the work of photojournalists could be replaced by reporters and reader submitted images (sometimes called citizen journalism, or UGC – user generated content).

It should be pointed out that these industry-shaking decisions have been made in a complete vacuum of solid data.

So let me ask a rhetorical question,  who thinks it’s smart to tamper with your brand without meaningful data? 

The results of the study surprised even both Quinn and the NPPA. The data showed that in every meaningful criteria, from engagement, to appeal, to sharing, the work of professional photojournalists scored the highest ratings across the charts.

When compared to user-generated content, readers showed an overwhelming preference for the sense of story in the images made by professionals. Moreover, readers could easily tell the difference between the work of professionals and those of amateurs, 90% of the time.

Turns out, because we are living in an increasingly sophisticated visual culture, standards rise as well.  Readers are becoming more visually literate.

Or, as one former publisher said pointedly after hearing of the results,  “Readers aren’t stupid.”

Those who understand photojournalism get this. But not everyone has understood that message. After Sun-Times Media laid off their entire staff, I was blown away by the ignorance of the move and labeled it, indelicately, “idiocy”. Afterwards, I was dumbfounded to read uninformed pontification in the journalism world, written by people who don’t understand the process of  photojournalism let alone the power of visuals. So I kept writing, and writing, and writing – about responses to the Sun-Times debaclehow and why professionals deliver images when others don’t, why crowdsourced photojournalism was a fantasy, and why photojournalists are essential to news organizations.  While at the Chicago Tribune, I used the unique blog platform I had to explain and defend what photojournalists do (I have since left of my own accord).

Impatient to change the false narrative that was leading to more firings, I talked to NPPA magazine editor Don Winslow and said, “Why doesn’t the NPPA make a video that promotes our industry?”

Mike Borland, the NPPA president at the time, called me soon after and asked if I would be willing to lead a video project with Emmy Award-winning videographer Mark Anderson to do just that. Mark then brought in his trusted producer Gail Brown Hudson, to help make things happen.

Our team spent months last year following Sara’s eye-tracking research in Minnesota and Florida, interviewing current and former publishers, and showing Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki in action. I sought out subjects to interviews in those locations, added a still photography component to the video and made sure that our subjects were both asked and answered questions that captured the nuances of the situation. When the publisher of The Herald in Jasper, IN agreed to an interview, we made a trip to one of the most visually-oriented newspapers in the country.

We were all incredibly grateful at the opportunity. Personally, I felt that the video would speak for my former colleagues at the Sun-Times and for everyone who cared about the future of professional photojournalism.  We hope to show the video at conferences to spur discussion. Current NPPA President Mark Dolan has helped to shepherd along the study, as he continues his mission to lift up the need for quality and to strengthen NPPA as a more powerful advocate for visual journalists.

If you are concerned about the future of not just photojournalism, but journalism as a whole, then please watch this video. Read the results of the eye-tracking study, and share them in your social media feeds.

The current narrative that undermines photojournalism is false and destructive to the business of newsgathering.  It is harmful to the free press and our democracy. There is no easy solution to the business challenges that face news organizations but, as the experts interviewed point out,  sacrificing visual quality will only add to the death spiral of a business.

If you still don’t believe me, look what happened to the Chicago Sun-Times, 15 months later. Once walking with swagger and braggadocio about how they would buy the Chicago Tribune, the owners were forced to sell the bulk of Sun-Times Media – six daily and 32 weekly suburban newspapers – in order to keep the downtown newspaper alive. It is sad and disappointing.

So who’d they sell to? The Chicago Tribune’s parent company.

If you care about professional photojournalism, this 9 minute video will fly by.

Thank you for sharing. Please give your thumbs up, and “like” the video where you can.

As they say in Chicago, vote early and often.


Speaking about Cuba this Wednesday in Chicago

cuban photographer in Havana

Talking with residents during my ponytail-“barbudo” days while working in the Havana bureau for the Chicago Tribune in 2001. 


Just a short note to say that I’ve been asked to talk about Cuba on Wednesday (that’s tomorrow) for a chat at the Cultural Center of Chicago on Cuba.  It’ll be more of a conversation than a lecture, although I will be showing pictures and scanning some negatives as much as I can to show. It’s free and will only take an hour. Come by at 1pm. Here are some more details:

Wednesday – 1/21/2015 –  1-2pm
Chicago Cultural Center
Garland Room Fl 1
78 E Washington St Chicago, IL, 60602-4801
Free. Open to the public.

If possible,  it’d be great to stick around afterward and chat about all things Cuba. One hour isn’t enough time!

Interesting tidbit – one of the reasons why I majored in political science at Northwestern and made Cuba the focus of a thesis was because of a class where a professor dissected the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco. It was mesmerizing. I remember thinking, and this idiocy is why I can’t visit family? I became fascinated by how politics can affect our world and shape experiences for generations.

Some of the questions we’ll get into are: How can the two countries work together to create a positive future? How has the embargo affected life on the island? What kinds of stories about Cuba are missing from our media?

Heady stuff.  Whether we can answer all those questions will be up for debate, but if you are planning on visiting Cuba or are fascinated as I am with the country, this will be a great primer for your trip.


Daily Photojournalism Withdrawal Disorder


(An x-ray may not reveal this underlying condition…)


It happens to many of us. Photographers don’t talk about it much. TMI.

After we find creative opportunities that entice us to leave our daily newspaper jobs, we move on with our careers.

Then, we go through withdrawal. We’ve photographed for decades on a daily basis around a newsroom of colleagues. Something doesn’t feel right.

Your doctor is familiar with this syndrome.  You may experience the following symptoms: Continue Reading

6,000 Reasons Why the Embargo Won’t Go Quietly



©1999 Alex Garcia

So I’m walking through Havana one day and see the picture at top and think to myself, that’s pretty amazing. It was 1995. Relations between our two governments were tense but I’m staring at the words “New York”, in the heart of Havana, chiseled in stone.  As I found out later, the bank was one of 11 expropriated branches of the National City Bank of New York, which later became Citibank.

The value of its branches when seized after the Revolution was estimated at $6 million.

But Citibank became embroiled in a 22-year battle over the expropriation, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision had implications for how U.S. entities could recoup funds when another country seizes its assets.

Some five years later, I’m walking by the exact same location and looked up. Different sign. Again, I thought, that’s pretty amazing.

Like this branch, thousands of properties across Cuba were confiscated after the Revolution. I have family who came here and had to leave everything behind except what they could carry with them. It’s both a financial and emotional issue. The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission recognizes almost 6,000 claims, the vast majority of them from individuals.

Under the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo isn’t going anywhere until these claims are satisfied. How that will happen would take something of a miracle, given that the Cuban government doesn’t have the money to pay and many of the properties don’t even exist anymore (or are even worth claiming).

Cuba will likely advance the argument that its losses against the embargo should be taken into consideration as well.

Even with the best negotiation and the best signage, there really is no papering over this issue.




Stumbling into Cuba’s History


©2014 Alex Garcia


©2014 Alex Garcia


News that Cuba and U.S. might finally normalize relations has put my normal plans to a stop today. I can’t stop thinking about my relationship to the island.

Several years ago, before working for the Tribune’s bureau in Havana, I was a photographer in Orange Country for the Los Angeles Times. I had only been there 3-4 years but had a decision to make. I was in my 30’s, realizing that it was now or never if I was ever going to act on a passion to deepen my connection to my father’s homeland. I could ask for a leave of absence for 6 months to pursue a study program in Havana, or leave the paper and do the same. Gratefully, the editor at the time, Colin Crawford, approved my return (those were different days). I knew that if he hadn’t, I was single and could make it on my own – a “Hail Mary” pass.

It was an incredible trip, and if you ever are thinking to yourself whether to pursue a personal project that could interrupt your life, know that it could be now or never. I went as a student and stayed true to that mission by largely foregoing photography in order to forge connections to family that had been dormant for decades because of our governments’ political divide. I wanted to see what I could experience beyond for the typical narratives that you know about the country.

But I stumbled into history twice, completely by accident. The first was not long after I arrived, when it was announced that the remains of Che Guevara would be returned from Bolivia in a procession that would move across the island. His remains would also lie in state in a very small coffin, where thousands of Cubans waited in the longest lines you’ve ever seen to pay their respects. Since then, there was some doubt about whether it was all just a symbolic ceremony.

The second was the visit of Pope John Paul II. All visitors with U.S. passports had to leave the country prior to the visit, but I was able to return for the week-long event with my student visa in order to witness all the positivity in the Catholic community. From a sad and mourning event to one filled with hope and joy. It was an amazing roller-coaster of emotion. In those days, there wasn’t an internet and this was all on film. My pictures have largely never been seen.

A few years later, however, my experience proved invaluable. The Tribune Company won approval to open a bureau on the island and I hopped to it, staying three months.

As a child, I could not understand why I could not visit my family in Cuba. It affected me so much, apparently, that when my grandmother made her one and only visit, I apparently declared I would see them in Cuba.

Years later, when I finally did make the first trip while at the Los Angeles Times, I rolled into my father’s hometown in a Soviet-made Lada taxi. It was dark and I could barely see the people at the end of the sidewalk outside the family home. I heard the voice of my aunt, the one who had accompanied my grandmother on her one and only visit to the U.S.

She said, “When I heard one of our family members in Chicago was coming for a visit, I knew it was you, Alex.”




What Happened to Soldier Field?


Soldier Field

©2014 Alex Garcia

In case you don’t know about the month-long storm on the lakefront, the architect for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art along Chicago’s lakefront released his design last month. Because of its size and other-worldly appearance, it was widely criticized, most notably by Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin, whose unmincing words can be seen below the screen grab of his article, above. The Friends of the Parks has launched a federal lawsuit saying the city and the Park District overstepped their authority – so the whole thing is a mess.

As someone who used to photograph for Kamin’s articles at the Trib, and as someone who passed by Soldier Field many times a week along Lake Shore Drive, what most bothers me is the architect’s illustration you see at top. It’s inaccurate at best, and deceptive at worst.  At bottom is a photo I took from the closest I could get to the same vantage point of the sketch, which was probably from the roof of McCormick Place behind where I was standing.

The sketch completely eliminates the controversial western part of the Soldier Field addition, which is considered the last big architectural mistake by many along the lakefront. It has a spaceship like appearance. What Blair Kamin calls, “Klingon Meets Parthenon”.

Normally when an architect unveils their project, they are anxious to show how they have shaped the building to fit its environment, both functionally and aesthetically. At least that’s been my experience, unless someone wants to avoid an embarrassing project.

In this case, the other-worldly addition to Soldier Field probably accentuated the other-worldly design of the Lucas Museum, feeding criticism that the lakefront was becoming too, well, spacey. The citizens of Chicago probably didn’t need that reminder, or they thought Chicagoans couldn’t handle the truth about the future lakefront.

That, or the spaceship on Soldier Field was getting maintenance done on the morning the sketch artist showed up.

On Chicago’s lakefront, anything’s possible, I guess.