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Best of ASMP 2009

In our new century, with environmental awareness a worldwide priority, photojournalist J. Carl Ganter has helped to expose crucial water issues through the non-profit Circle of Blue. By turning to leaders in journalism, science and design for guidance, this organization has created new connections that build greater narratives in a time of media realignment. And by working in specialized field teams-comprised of researchers, data experts, reporters, photojournalists, audio- and videographers as well as scientists-they produce complex, front line reporting to communicate powerful stories and generate crucial details about our planet’s biofeedback.

J Carl Ganter


Project: Documentation of water crisis in Australia for Circle of Blue

© J Carl Ganter
All images in this article © J Carl Ganter

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

JCG: I started as an aspiring photojournalist lurking at Contact Press Images. At barely 16, I was enthralled by the world of photojournalism and the power to tell important stories. The legends of Burnett, Adams, Reininger, Pledge, Leibovitz, Azel — they were changing the world one picture at a time and I wanted to be a part.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JCG: I Joined in 1985 as a student member of the Chicago chapter when I was a sophomore at Northwestern University.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JCG: Photojournalism, travel, documentary, portrait and aerial.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

JCG: Since I began teaching multimedia production some ten years ago (I married a radio broadcaster and have done TV, radio and print reporting), I’ve sought a Holy Grail of video and still imagery. We’re finally reaching the point where a small SLR can serve both purposes. Beyond technology, I think that patience and listening are our most undervalued tools.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JCG: Persistence and knowledge of the story defines great from average photographers. David Allen Harvey once told me that you have to plan for luck — 90 percent of it is being there. He’s right. I study the issues and work hard to get into the right places at the right times. Also, our subjects, if we simply allow them the space and take time to listen, will lead us to the gems, the magic moments. For example, while interviewing an Aboriginal elder in Australia, we were getting great stories. But we sensed there was something much deeper than details about how water levels had dropped or how the community was drying up. I asked a simple question: How had the drought changed her relationship with Dreamtime and her ancestors. We sat quietly to allow her emotions some space. She then proceeded to tell us about the utter devastation and the painful tears in their web of history and culture. She opened up because we took time to listen.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

JCG: I try to insert myself into people’s lives and pick up on the little stories that illustrate larger metaphors.

ASMP: You are a founder and director of the non-profit organization Circle of Blue. Please give us some background on this organization and how long it has been in existence

JCG: My wife and I co-founded Circle of Blue in 2002. The goal is to develop strategic, compelling, integrative journalism about the emerging global water crisis so we as a society can make informed decisions that will shape generations to come. We are rooted in storytelling, while using the most powerful science and data resources coupled with innovative communications design.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Circle of Blue is a non-profit affiliate of the Pacific Institute. What, if any, was your level of involvement with that organization prior to starting Circle of Blue?

JCG: We saw a vacuum in powerful storytelling around one of the planet’s most urgent challenges, the unfolding global water crisis. The Pacific Institute is the most credible science and policy organization focused on water; we wanted to bring the sensibilities, depth of story and power of journalistic integrity to create new narratives and reportage. Science often lacks context and narrative for non-scientists. Together we can identify trends and make them relevant.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Are there other organizations or institutions that are central to Circle of Blue’s infrastructure? How were these relationships established?

JCG: We’re a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and it’s helped us build partnerships with agencies, organizations and story sources. We turn to leaders in journalism (such as the Poynter Institute), photojournalism and science for guidance. We can’t do this alone — in a time of media realignment, we have to create new relationships and connections that build greater narratives. We’re also partnered with the AIGA and INDEX:, two of the world’s leading design institutions. With them and Brian Collins of Collins: Transformative Design, we launched “Designing Water’s Future,” a global competition that engaged students from 27 countries in finding new ways to look at water. This came out of a session I co-presented at the World Economic Forum.

ASMP: Please describe how you balance your responsibilities with Circle of Blue with your work as a photographer. Has your involvement in this organization taken away from your time in the field?

JCG: Since starting Circle of Blue, I’ve had to wear many hats. From field producer working with some of the world’s most talents photographers to fundraiser and operations. Periodically — usually when our staff wants me out of the office — our photo editor will assign me a story. In the past few months I’ve shot in rural China and Southeast Australia.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: How much time did you spend on the story about Australia? What percentage of time was spent on preliminary research vs time conducting research and photography in the field?

JCG: We spent ten days in the field, but could have spent years. But we have an advantage in many ways working as field teams. For a typical assignment we take an experienced reporter, researcher, producer and issues expert. In Australia we had three researchers developing our stories before we arrived. Keith Schneider was our reporter/writer; the strengths multiply when you have talents like Keith— for ten years he was the New York Times environment reporter. We also had Aaron Jaffe, the youngest winner of the Panavision Young Filmmakers Award. We all have a sixth sense for news and the larger narrative. We also rely heavily on local sources and journalists’ serendipity — the scent of the story.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Were you working alone or as part of a team? If the latter please describe the effects of collaborating with others has on your photography.

JCG: At Circle of Blue we prefer to work as teams. For larger stories we assign several researchers, a data expert, a reporter, photojournalist, videographer, sound person and usually a scientist with issue expertise. For our rural China story (publication this fall) we had an exceptionally connected team, which included a leading scientist, a savvy local guide and award-winning filmmaker who had all been to the region. It takes a special team to work this way; often the videographer has a different vision or needs than the still photographer. But the narrative remains the same. In Mexico, for example, we paired Getty photojournalist Brent Stirton with NOVA/BBC/PBS videographer Brian Robertshaw. They shared a vision, passion and camaraderie that led to a much richer, coordinated reportage.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Did your coverage of this story incorporate any multimedia coverage in addition to stills? If so, please describe your process for capturing the disparate elements.

JCG: My wife and I have taught multimedia production since 1995. We’ve also both done broadcast, so multimedia isn’t something new to us. But the challenge of juggling the tools will always exist. We always start with the story and choose the tools carefully. The advent of the D-SLR’s that shoot video has made field work easier, or at least more flexible. For instance, our filmmaker can be on the ground shooting interviews and other angles while I do aerial stills and video with a D-SLR and gyros.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Please tell us about the other photographers working with your organization. Are they freelance photographers, on staff or both? What is the most important quality that you seek out in the photographers you work with?

JCG: While spending my youth at Contact Press and Time, I learned that passion drives talent. We seek photographers with a strong story sense and exceptional abilities to wrangle logistics and produce stunning images. We’ve worked primarily with photographers like Brent Stirton from Getty, an incredible shooter, and the Contact Press Images team. As a nonprofit, we don’t have leeway for re-shoots, so we have to have talents we can count on. For example, during our Mexico coverage, I was designing the exhibit and event in Mexico City before we had even seen the photographs from Brent. He didn’t disappoint.

ASMP: You list veteran photo director Karen Mullarkey on your staff as Director of Visuals. How did she get involved with your organization and what is her role in day-to-day operations?

JCG: I met Karen when I was 15 years old, during my very first visit to Contact Press Images and Newsweek in New York. She works with us on special projects. There are few visionaries who can shepherd the soul and quality of photography at the caliber Karen can. Her editing eyes are among the sharpest in the industry. She nurtures the best talents and knows how to manage the most complex international projects for us.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: What kind of distribution network do you have for the reportages that Circle of Blue produces? From your point of view, what are the most important aspects to consider in establishing a distribution network?

JCG: We walk the line between the 20th century and 21st century worlds of news. For the 20th century outlets, we provide excerpts of our front-line coverage. In the era of social media, we publish on our site and rely on others to link or reference our work. Our goal is to help provide the in-depth, front-line reporting and data that the mainstream media doesn’t have the resources or attention span to produce. In today’s world, most of the media focus is on celebrity, politics, relationships and sports. All the while, we have incredibly complex, critical issues unfolding around us. We all have to do a better job framing these stories and making them personal, relevant and timely. In many senses, we’re missing some of the biggest stories of the century simply because they don’t fit into a 24-hour news cycle. They are slow fuses, but they will lead to some of the greatest challenges to society, health and environment.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Please talk about any collaboration between the disciplines of journalism and science that factor into the research or production of your work.

JCG: We recently partnered with Google to help develop a new tool for visualizing data, called Fusion Tables. We have a data researcher on staff who helps us identify trends and spot stories that have largely been locked in spreadsheets. We’re entering an era of mass data collection, so it’s critical that we interpret this data, our planet’s biofeedback, and find the stories that will connect with wider audiences. When we bring data and science together with exceptional storytelling we have a chance to respond thoughtfully to our planet’s great challenges.

ASMP: From your perspective as director of a non-profit organization, what do you find to be the most successful methods for getting the word out and building support?

JCG: We live in an era of metrics — everyone, including funders, wants quick solutions and “now” responses. But the challenges and solutions are much more nuanced. That means that Circle of Blue doesn’t fit the normal funding model with quarterly reports of lives saved, wells drilled, schools built. But in the Knowledge Era, we can help define the long-term priorities and report without fear or favor what works and what doesn’t. It’s often a slow process, but rewarded by the breakthrough stories and larger bodies of work that become sources for others to find and implement solutions.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Your organization has very specific guidelines about working with sponsors. Do you have any advice for independent photographers about seeking or securing corporate or manufacturer sponsorship for their work?

JCG: As the economic downturn challenges all of us, many photographers and journalists are turning to NGOs and companies for employment. Certainly, there are many important stories to tell. But we have to be careful not to confuse editorial/journalism assignments with promotional work. Each NGO has a mission and fundraising objective. Some fear that we are building a nonprofit industrial complex and that the competition for funding is becoming a competition for message, rather than working together to solve problems. I hope that we’re entering an age of transparency that allows us all to be open about relationships and goals, and to look critically at ourselves. On the business side, it’s important that photographers be very clear about their image licenses, as well as how the images will be used. Photographers also must decide whether they are doing journalistic assignments or commercial assignments — there are different standards for remuneration, usage, independence and ethics.

ASMP: What are the future plans for Circle of Blue? What stories or initiatives are currently being researched or are in production?

JCG: We are integrating more closely our journalism, science, data and design elements. We’ll be testing new media, new platforms and new ways of communicating. We are a non-advocacy organization, but in the largest sense, we are advocates of the truth and story. Unfortunately, the world is filled with surpassingly large stories of water challenges. Our goal is to not only report these crucial, often tragic stories, but to find the heroes and solutions.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: While photographers must also be business executives, most would rather be shooting than dealing with spreadsheets. What do like about heading up the Circle of Blue, and what aspects do you not like?

JCG: Each day I come to an office filled with brilliant, passionate people who are helping not only define a global issue but are helping shape how we think about journalism and multimedia storytelling. Yes, I’d much rather be shooting or producing in the field, but it’s an honor to shepherd some of the greatest talents and give them the tools they need to be successful.

ASMP: As a non-profit organization, do you seek photographers who may be willing to reduce or waive their fees on assignments for you?

JCG: We do our best not to take advantage of someone’s largess. We won’t say no to reduced or waived fees, and most do afford us some special arrangement, but we also want to demonstrate our respect for the profession and talent. We live in an era where we all have to share and pool our talents; we choose to make a difference.

© J Carl Ganter

ASMP: Advocacy journalists are often looked upon skeptically by mainstream news organizations. How has your photography and journalism been accepted, and used, by news organizations?

JCG: We avoid the term “advocacy journalism” to describe our work, since we’re careful to maintain our independence and journalistic ethics. There are too many hidden interests and we strive for full transparency, accuracy and integrity. Our peers in the mainstream and new media — and our audience — need new sources they can trust. The consequences of misguided decisions are too great. Millions of people die each year because of dirty water and billions of dollars will be invested in infrastructure and other projects in the coming years. We have a duty to see, to report fully. Throughout all facets of the changing media landscape, we need to sacrifice some of the old ways and work together to inform and empower ourselves and our communities with the knowledge we need to meet these new challenges. So, really, nothing has changed since this country considered a free press the essential Fourth Estate. We just have new tools for collaboration and, in many senses, greater challenges.