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Adaptation: Learning New Skills for the Changing Media Landscape

Q&A with Award-winning Visual Journalist Tom Kennedy

On Friday, October 29, 2010, renowned visual journalist and noted educator Tom Kennedy served as keynote speaker during ASMP’s annual member’s meeting at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in New York. Following that meeting and in preparation for his second keynote at ASMP’s Strictly Business 3 conferences, we prepared this Q&A to share Kennedy’s insights with members not able to attend in person. An abbreviated version of this Q&A was published in the Winter 2011 issue of the ASMP Bulletin.


ASMP: Your career background includes important positions with several top media organizations. To what degree would you say your path has been influenced by the trajectory of the media industry?


Tom Kennedy: My career arc has been based on a set of simple premises:

  1. Visual communication is a specific language that is equal in value to text for the audience.
  2. Its value is fully realized for the audience only when employed to tell a full, rich, complex narrative story rather than used merely as a tool to illustrate writer’s words.
  3. I’ve tried to use my skills to realize the full potential of this form of communication by creating maximum opportunities for storytelling for the visual communicators I’ve been privileged to work with over time.


Early in my career, newspapers afforded a certain range of possibilities for visual storytelling through photography. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity at the Philadelphia Inquirer to direct and edit long-form visual narrative stories that earned Pulitzer Prizes for photographers Larry Price and Tom Gralish. After realizing that objective, I thought it was time to move to National Geographic. There I had the chance to work with wonderfully gifted photographers who could tell really strong narrative stories with their work. However, after a decade, I saw the role of photojournalism continually eroding and diminishing in newspapers. At the same time (mid-1990s), I was watching the early Web world emerge. I had a hunch that this medium would evolve to be more visual, affording practitioners the opportunity to create compelling visual stories while at the same time leveling the playing field so that individuals could create visual communication and find an audience just as easily as corporate entities. The evolution of technology has enabled this vision to come to fruition, although I think several challenges continue to exist:

  1. Enabling the audience to easily find and respond to visual content as signal among the noise of the Internet.
  2. Finding a business model that sustains the contemporary visual communicator who is tying his or her career to digital distribution.
  3. Exploring and exploiting rapidly changing technology to expand the narratives that can be created as visual communication.


ASMP: How has your perception of and relationship with images changed or evolved over the course of your career and in the positions you’ve held?


Kennedy: I think there are significant differences in the media experiences provided by still photography and video. They make different demands of the audience and offer different kinds of sensory input. I think we are still in the very early stages of learning how to fuse visual and aural media together within the context of various kinds of social communication networks so as to create rich tapestries of storytelling that become shared experiences. Clearly sound and images are the building blocks of a language that is very visceral and perhaps more concrete in its communication power than text. Adding sound to still photography enables the subject to potentially direct his or her voice toward the audience in a different way than a text caption alone can do. Video offers a different kind of sensory experience than the still photo.


Over time, as I moved from print into multimedia, I had to learn the grammar of film (cinema) and broadcasting and better understand how those forms of communication could be blended to present a coherent vision of the world, in the context of visual journalism. I also had to learn about the potentials and pitfalls of new technologies and how those might influence the messages being created in the journalistic storytelling I so value.


I think most print publications continue to use still photography in a very limited way as “illustration” that is somehow supposed to both grab reader attention and confirm the story narrative being created by text writers. Without trying to pick a fight or denigrate the value of text and journalistic observation provided by writers, I think the literal, illustrative role assigned to still photography is way too limiting and it deprives the audience of valuable storytelling constructs that could help them better make sense of events and forces beyond the boundary of their own experience.


ASMP: Have your attitudes about the role of the photographer changed in relation to your past positions?


Kennedy: I believe it’s imperative that photographers assume certain burdens in creating their content. They have to go beyond being artists who excel at illustrating to being comprehensive visual storytellers who find the best way forward to create meaningful narrative stories by collaborating with others who may have related skills. Photographers need to be journalists in the full sense of the word. They need to question the realities they are observing and seek ways to fully express what they see as the fundamental truths of that observed experience so it can be fully understood and processed by the audience.


ASMP: In your opinion, what are the most significant factors that influence a photographer’s role in the industry?


Kennedy: As soon as photographers go to work within a media company, whether as a staff member (in the case of many newspapers or broadcast companies) or as a freelancer, they are immediately enmeshed in an operating culture that has its own mores, political culture and operational workflow practices that can either help or hinder. It is essential that photographers have a very clear view of those realities and understand how they may be influencing their own work. I think photographers have the obligation to transcend limitations and work to the full extent of their creative capabilities to serve the three groups that matter most: subjects, audience and themselves. They must find ways to continually explore and exploit technologies that are enabling our new digital world. They need to understand the ways in which digital technology is transforming the conversation around news and information and how they can contribute to the conversation, perhaps using new mechanisms of distribution to foster communication with the audience and to enlarge the canvas on which their work is being presented.


I see photographers as visual communicators who have a natural affinity with others (editors, designers, producers, programmers and so on) who can facilitate the creation and distribution of visual storytelling.


As the new digital technology (particularly DSLRs) enables the ability to produce video and still images from the same equipment, it is essential that photographers understand the possible implications for their work and find people who can collaborate to enlarge both the canvas for visual storytelling and the ways in which the tools are being applied.


ASMP: What do you feel are the most important attributes a photographer should bring to the table in a working relationship?


Kennedy: Photographers must hone their skills to be “deep seers” of the human condition. They must be able to probe beyond surface realities to link the specifics of a moment in time (in the case of a still photograph) or series of actions/flow of time (in the case of video) with the deeper underlying truths of the human condition that are also present in every observed moment.


I believe the best visual communication encodes four layers of reality:

  • The specifics of the moment.
  • The underlying fundamental truths at a much deeper level.
  • The point of view of the photographer as observer and shaper of a recorded image.
  • The reaction of the subject(s) to the presence of the photographer as observer.


Ideally, the photographer understands his or her role as making observations that bring those four layers together in a finished piece of visual communication. It is a major responsibility.


To do that well, I think photographers need to be cognizant of their role as both artist and journalist. They need to change how people see the world around them and to express their visual language with a power and clarity that makes the fundamental story message crystal-clear.


As an editor, I’ve always valued communication with photographers premised on curiosity, mutual respect, humility, courage, resilience and a shared passion for exploring and enlarging the boundaries of our storytelling, while simultaneously bearing faithful witness to the experiences observed on behalf of an audience who may never have the same level of access.


As visual communicators, we are also visual historians, keeping the record of our times for posterity, even as we help others to understand forces and events in the present.


ASMP: The theme of your keynote is adaptation. What specific tasks or tools would you recommend photographers cultivate to aid in this process?


Kennedy: I think technology drives artistic vision to some degree, just as it drives methods of production and distribution. It’s essential that photographers pay attention to how technology is influencing our world.


For those of us in journalism, the advent of digital communication via the Internet has further amplified the rhythms of newsgathering and distribution first advanced by broadcast media. We are contending with the endless flow of “now,” and this is fragmenting attention and channels of distribution alike. We need to understand the implications of this reality so we are not slaves to the rhythm to the extent that it hinders our ability to truly observe, analyze and share valuable knowledge and wisdom-elements that can be found at the heart of our observed and shared visual communication.


I recommend that photographers engage with others in allied fields of information gathering, production and distribution to understand how their own vision can be enlarged and transformed through intelligent collaboration.


I would say that learning about social networks as a means of building one’s own brand (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so on) is valuable, just as it would make sense to engage in constant conversation with peers and develop sophisticated monitoring mechanisms like the use of RSS readers to track relevant experts or topics that are likely to be of interest.


Certainly, the emerging landscape of DSLRs and related audio recording gear is now essential to the creation of multimedia visual storytelling. At the same time, video and audio editing software tools are ever more sophisticated and capable of supporting content creation previously only possible in large mainstream media production companies. By using blogs and building Web sites, one can promote one’s work and engage with others who may be able to contribute to the evolution of one’s own technical abilities and storytelling interests without being totally beholden to large corporations.


ASMP: Your work and interests have long been connected to visual narrative and ideas of a story and its purpose. In your keynote you brought up the question of an audience for a story and getting their attention. Are there specific methods for storytelling and connecting with an audience that you currently find photographers to be using most effectively?


Kennedy: I think we are in an age of paradox on many levels. On one hand, we have the most powerful tools in the history of man to create visual storytelling and we have mechanisms of distribution that place publication within reach of individuals or small groups with an ease that was unthinkable just thirty years ago. At the same time, this capability is also creating immense issues of signal-to-noise ratios when using the Internet as a vehicle to distribute content. It is hard to find and hold an audience in this age of permanent connectedness (via mobile digital tools — assuming the electric grid is present and persistent) and DIY (Do It Yourself) culture making. Tools are blurring the lines between professional and amateur in ways that challenge the professional.


In this current digital landscape, tools seem to favor the content creation that expresses a story in short bursts, i.e. the 90-second YouTube video or the 15-second powerful visual commercial. Short seems to be winning.


Yet, I believe there exists the possibility of an alternate universe being equally released with the advent of portable entertainment screen devices like the iPad. Those have the ability to enable longer form visual story-telling that might also eventually find a large audience hungering for a deeper look at the world and hoping for the same kind of shared experience as that released by broadcasting.


I think the natural power of recommendation afforded by social networks can be supportive of photographers’ efforts but they have to be handled with care. Fan support is far more valuable than blatant self-promotion. It makes sense to use social network tools to interact with natural fan groups in the same way that entertainers or athletes might do it. That is, not solely for commercial or self-promotional purposes, but rather as a mechanism for engaging in conversations that actually stimulate further creative development on the part of the artist.


ASMP: What kinds of distinctions (if any) do you make between powerful image making and powerful storytelling abilities? That is, do you feel that strong images presented in weak storyline have greater merit than a powerful story with mediocre images?


Kennedy: The chief criticism of multimedia being rendered by still photographers and editors is that it often features a strong story (principally expressed by the audio track) but a plethora of really average or even weak photos. It is a criticism I understand.


I think it reflects a challenge in the moment that is also a statement about the idea that technology is slightly ahead of our ability to harness it fully and usefully.


No photographer wants to show weak work to an audience. No audience wants to exclusively engage with weak work that doesn’t entertain or inform in a valuable way.


The challenge is arriving at fluency with images and aural communication so that the storytelling is strong because all the parts are strong. This is why I place such a value on collaboration. I think it is extremely difficult to do all things so well that one can truly function as a “one-person band,” particularly in the ferocity of the always on, instant-on communications landscape. It makes much more sense to me that multimedia stories be shaped by individuals who work together to create a shared vision of the experiences being documented.


I think small groups have an advantage over large ones in the current environment, assuming that everyone collaborating is working from a position of great skill in a particular area, i.e. great photographer, working with great audio person, working with great editors/multimedia producers and great programmers to shape a piece that fits in a clever web-based or mobile app-based landscape.


Large legacy media organizations retain the cultural biases that have always thwarted profound visual journalism and they simply aren’t nimble enough often to go beyond known and well-defined story-telling motifs.


I think skilled visual communicators (and I am including all the skill sets in that label) need to continue to work together to hone optimal storytelling techniques, tools, and work methods so we don’t have to make choices between good stories with subpar visual content and great visual content that may not support meaningful stories.


It is also necessary to keep in mind that the audience ultimately wants content of value, and that the determination of what is valuable to an audience rests ultimately with them.


ASMP: You view collaboration as an essential resource for photographers to seek out. For those who have worked independently until now, can you suggest any strategies or tips for establishing such resources?


Kennedy: I think it’s important to consider how your own work maps to an audience’s desires and needs.

  • Where can you do the most good with your storytelling?
  • What is the story you want to tell?
  • When will the audience pay most attention to your story? Where will they find it?
  • What is the optimum way to distribute the story to your audience?
  • What tools and skills are required to best tell the story?
  • How will you need to blend media elements to best tell the story?


The answers to these and other questions should suggest the kinds of skills needed to create a meaningful story experience for your desired audience. Assuming that a photographer doesn’t possess all the necessary skills to fully answer an audience’s expectations, one must begin to look for natural collaborators in other areas. This is often a matter of researching — whether through introductions by respected peers or Internet-based searching — to seek out people with whom one would like to work.


I really believe in working with the best people I can find and people who I know will be supportive and equally passionate about a given project. That can evolve over time and change with the nature of a given project. I first look to professional organizations and social/personal networks as ways to find people I may not know directly. And I look for mechanisms of recommendation that suggest desirable patterns of performance.


ASMP: Collaboration requires giving up a certain degree of control. Can you offer any advice for troubleshooting this or similar business concerns at the beginning of a collaborative relationship?


Kennedy: I look for people who share my work ethic, passion, commitment to excellence, and ability to be transparent and honest in their communication with me.


I have always been fascinated by the dynamics of human encounter, and the challenges of working together toward a shared goal/vision. I have always felt that my own work could be improved by working with people smarter and more talented than me, and I have tried to put myself in positions to seek out the knowledge and wisdom from such people whenever possible.


I learn a lot by observing and listening to others and by always seeking out the answer to the questions behind the questions. Inevitably, in collaborations, people make suppositions about others’ intentions and take shortcuts in communicating that may wind them up in very divergent places unless they take the trouble to deeply examine the process at every stage as it unfolds from initial conception to final execution. I believe that one has to be alert at every stage and really focused on being clear and transparent to others involved. Assumptions and frameworks must be checked and re-checked as work unfolds. People need to be both self-critical and reflective and willing to share their observations with each other. People need the humility to ask for help and to express appreciation and thanks for others’ contributions at every stage. My key questions are always, “What would make this more valuable for our audience?” and “How can you help me make this better with your own energy, talent, and ideas?”


By inviting others to participate in this way and then asking them to be fully present and transparent in their own creative processes as they unfold, then I think you have a reasonable chance of communicating successfully.


ASMP: Your past work includes consulting with organizations on the subject of innovating within a corporate environment. Do you have any advice for photographers regarding innovative thinking or to help them drive innovation within the structure of their work for clients?


Kennedy: This is a very big question.


For me, innovation is about the release and harnessing of creativity. I want to be working with clients and colleagues who want to be excellent and who are willing to talk and listen from wellsprings of passion, focus, attention, and mutual respect. I want to be of service to others and in turn I will ask them to tell me how I can accomplish goals that are meaningful to them. I think it is important to really understand how culture and workflow practices may be helping or impeding the full release of creative energy. Arriving at that understanding can only come through direct, open, honest communication and observation.


I assume that everyone wants to please and succeed, even if it may not be immediately clear at the outset of a project as to how best to accomplish those goals. I want to know about variables in the assignment itself and how those might impact the execution. I want to work with colleagues to develop alternative plans and scenarios at the outset, so that the inevitable, unexpected problems and friction points can be dealt with from a clearly developed and transparent action plan. In other words, I want the decision-making to have a philosophical framework behind it that is visible and agreed-to upfront by all contributors. In addition to the framework itself, a project needs to have decision makers acting at the right time on the best information available. There has to be agreement about that process and who will make the decisions at a particular time point in the project and for what reason.


I think it is very important to understand not just the clients’ objectives, but also what has led them to conclude that they need those objectives met. I want to know about their past experiences in trying to address specific goals and how and why those goals may have not been met in past work. I want to know the strengths of the clients I will be working with and how they will define my success in executing the project. I want to know about their understanding about messaging to the audience and whom the audiences are that they are seeking to reach and why those audiences may matter to their efforts.


Every project contains hidden “whys, whats, and what-ifs” that may not be visible at the outset or based on past efforts. My goal is to address that reality upfront and to then seek out the best way to surface that knowledge while there is still time to shape the creative response.


I think that problems always result from the failure to ask all the relevant questions in a timely fashion and the failure to confirm one’s understanding of the underlying objectives with the client at the start of a project. I want to know as much as I can so I can see if my efforts are going to fully align with the client’s expectations and measures of success. If misalignment is revealed at the outset, then more communication is necessary to align expectations and execution on both sides.


Creativity can only be present and fully released if both parties are working together in good faith, and fully communicating in a way that builds excitement about the effort.


I want to start a project with an execution plan that will meet the client’s initial expectations. But then I want to engage in collaborative conversations that can yield possible outcomes that were never envisioned at the outset, and I want to shape a process that can allow those happy discoveries to happen at any stage of the process right up to the final moment of production.


ASMP: In your past work with photographers, are there any particular shortcomings, lack of skills or vision that you have found to be most prevalent? If so, do you have any recommendations to remedy this?


Kennedy: The great challenge for any creative person is to continually be evolving and gaining mastery of new skills or insights that will help fuel further growth. The challenge is never be to be trapped by the limitations of the cultural vision and politics of one’s clients. As an example, I have worked with many mid-career photojournalists who are staff members of newspapers. Over time, they have honed their creative skills to focus principally on aesthetic expression in a limited, literal “illustrative” way that matches the expectations of their organization. As a result, they have never honed the ability to do deep narrative storytelling. Essentially, their photography is based entirely on reaction to assignment variables imposed by others rather than taking responsibility to shape their own efforts through their own efforts to tell a meaningful story on their terms. In other words, assuming the full responsibility for individual authorship and ownership of the terms of subject observation aren’t in their repertoire because they haven’t been afforded that opportunity and over time they have unconsciously accepted the limitations of others’ vision for their work. I want all photographers to have the chance to fully embrace the yoke of journalistic authorship and responsibility for a full, rich, complex visual story narrative.


The remedy is to demand that opportunity. One should not settle for a job in a culture unlikely to allow one to do his or her best work. Life is short and I don’t want to waste it by working in an environment that doesn’t demand my best every day and that doesn’t support me in the pursuit of that effort. If my environment won’t allow me to succeed in that way, then the only right thing, my opinion, is to change course and find another opportunity.


ASMP: Photography has changed from a field in which professionals were perceived as possessing a certain mastery of skill to one where lifelong learning is essential to success. Can you recommend any educational resources as specifically relevant and accessible for working professionals?


Kennedy: I recommend professional organizations such as ASMP, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), the Online News Association (ONA) and the Society for News Design (SND) as ready sources of information and inspiration. Follow the blogs and tweets of skilled practitioners; look at photo books, Web sites and Vimeo or YouTube Web videos for inspiration.


As a resource for learning software, I recommend Check out and as information sources for the latest on technology, new media production processes and mechanisms of distribution.


ASMP: What do you see as the most challenging aspect of the current state of our industry? How do you think this is likely to change or evolve in the future?


Kennedy: I think we are at a pivot point now. Changes in imaging and editing technology have profoundly enlarged the capacities for creating visual communication. Storytellers are being offered access to opportunities that previously could only have happened within the confines of large mainstream media companies. Individuals can reach large numbers in niche audiences around the world. All organizations that are conscious are realizing the value of visual storytelling to their branding and messaging relationship with their desired audiences. Yet, at the same time it is unclear if individual practitioners can survive in the long term with business models based on the 20th century model of professionalism reflecting the “economics of scarcity.” We exist in a world today where the tools of visual content creation enable the complete blurring of lines between the professional and avid amateur. At the same time, the economics of scarcity have been supplanted, if not replaced, by the economics of the “freemium” model, or a micro payment system like iTunes for certain forms of media. Business models need to evolve. Professionals may need to understand that their value and ability to make a living may not be solely predicated on their image-making capacity alone in the near future. Instead, they may have to stitch together a variety of activities, particularly if they are working as freelancers, and their ability to make a living may depend on collaboration as much or more than singular activity as it might have in the era of economic scarcity.


ASMP: If you had to name one thing, what would you say is your most important professional accomplishment to date? Please talk about the initiation of this accomplishment as well as it’s legacy or enduring effects.


Kennedy: I think it may be premature to try to answer that question and maybe even inappropriate. My career is about seeking to promote the capacities of visual communication to address society’s needs for information, while at the same time I continue individually to try to help visual communicators around me develop and hone their skills to fully contribute to the medium’s storytelling possibilities. I hope I have helped a lot of colleagues over the arc of my career, even as I continue to move into a new chapter.


ASMP: Please talk about any new goals that you are looking to accomplish in your work.


Kennedy: Currently, I am working at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications within Syracuse University as the Alexia Endowed Chair Professor of Documentary Photography. I am trying to help my students develop as the next generation of visual communicators to meet the world’s needs for knowledge and information that contributes to a safer, saner world. And I continue to try to help with professional communication/training that establishes new possibilities and best practices for the use of visual communication.


ASMP: What are you most excited about in terms of the future of our industry? How do you feel photographers can best prepare themselves for this?


Kennedy: Slightly more than 15 years into the evolution of the digital revolution in content production and distribution, facilitated principally by the emergence of the World Wide Web, I still remain tremendously excited by the possibilities of visual communication. I see us as being perhaps at the end of the beginning of the first phase in developing a visual/aural alternative storytelling language, suited to all manner of digital distribution platforms and devices. We’re just beginning to shape this language and make it responsive to audience needs and expectations. I’m excited that this landscape offers the democratization of authorship just as it enables the articulation of previously unheard voices and underserved communities to come to the world’s attention in a meaningful way.


The journalism being created by digital delivery devices is profoundly affecting social communication. I think there are as many negatives as positives to be examined, debated and understood. Yet for me, the ferment of the present is exciting because it offers the possibility of rewriting the rules of media to better serve our audiences with truly valuable communication. I remain optimistic that signal will emerge from noise for all audiences and audience needs.


Photographers may have to realize that in the future, their work is best undertaken in concert with other visual communicators and that it may be necessary to reinvent the media organizations as a part of the process.


The career ladder I climbed is no longer possible in the same way, simply because the media landscape is shifting, buckling and altering so profoundly. Photographers must be committed to lifelong learning and viewing their careers as marathons with many twists and turns in the route. I think the ability to collaborate with others and to find audiences in new ways may be crucial to earning a living.


While the present churn in the media landscape is destabilizing and threatening in some ways, it also offers the possibility for reinvention and working to shape a very different storytelling language. The birth process is always painful and protracted, particularly since we may be living through an epochal moment in media history equivalent to the Gutenberg era of slightly more than 500 years ago. History will have the last word, but we can all do our part now to enable the process of forward momentum and new creativity on behalf of all visual communicators, the language we speak and the stories we tell our audience.


Tom Kennedy is an internationally known visual journalist with extensive print and online journalism experience, including positions as managing editor for multimedia at and director of photography at the National Geographic Society. He has created, directed and edited visual journalism projects that have earned Pulitzer Prizes, as well as EMMY, Peabody, and Edward R. Murrow awards.


Kennedy has been a featured speaker at some of the most prestigious journalism conferences and media workshops around the world while also consulting to various academic institutions and international media.


Currently, he is on the faculty of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University as the endowed Alexia Foundation chair in the multimedia, photography and design department.