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Clarity of Voice in Today's Media Landscape, Mike Davis, Meghan Ahearn, Theorize Art

Picture Editor Mike Davis On Clarity of Voice in Today's Media Landscape

By Meghan Ahearn

Picture editor Mike Davis is also the Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at Syracuse University

This article is part of a series, "The Next Big Ideas: Thoughts on recent trends and innovations likely to influence photography in the year ahead," which appeared in the June Photo Annual issue of PDN. Use the following links to read other articles in this series: Why Social Media Marketing Demands Great PhotographyWhy CMOS Sensors Are Changing Medium-Format Photography Ivan Sigal on Bringing New Ideas and Underrepresented Voices to StorytellingHackathons: Asim Rafiqui On The Value of Multidisciplinary Experiments 
The Market for Better-Looking Stock
It’s an interesting commentary on the state of the photo industry that one of today’s more revered picture editors doesn’t work at a traditional media company. Though Mike Davis was twice named Newspaper Picture Editor of the Year (POYi and BOP), and spent time at National Geographic and The Oregonian, for the past four years he’s primarily been a consultant, working directly with photographers on everything from editing  finished bodies of work to advising them while a series is in progress in order to fill holes in their narratives. Last fall, he also became an adjunct professor and the Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at Syracuse University.
Being in the unique position of collaborating with a variety of photographers, who have recently included Diana Markosian, Lynn Johnson, Zun Lee, Sol Neelman, Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet, gives Davis a keen insight on the direction the industry is headed.
Considering the current media landscape, in which viewers are inundated with imagery, Davis believes strongly that photography with a “voice” has a better chance of breaking through the clutter. “It’s always been true, I guess, that the uniqueness of a photogra- pher and the photographer’s voice ... is what got people hired, it’s just more true now,” he explains. Davis finds the old idea that a photographer should be an impartial observer of events no longer applies. Instead, he believes the photographers whose work is sought after today “are powerful in what they say [and] in how they take a photograph.”
Finding your own photographic voice can be difficult, he notes, though he likens it to a light switch being turned on: “Whether a light comes on is dependent on the person. Some people don’t have a lot of ‘self’ to explore or to express, so even though they may try, it’s not going to happen. But obviously unless you never know that is a goal, then you’ll never go there.” For Davis, this is the difference between “molding” your work to a client’s needs versus having a client hire you for the “unique way in which you perceive the world through your photographs.”
Davis advises both his students at Syracuse University as well as emerging and professional photographers to create powerful and varied bodies of work that are “like the work you want to do.” Now more than ever, he notes, you will be hired based on the work you are currently shooting. “It’s a somewhat simplistic notion, but that’s what distinguishes [a photographer] ... compared to the old days of producing a general portfolio of work.”
He encourages the photographers he works with to explore their subject matter in a way that is “dynamic and dimensional.” Davis explains, “The assumption is [that] the more complex the ‘why’ is, the more interesting the ‘how’ can be and the more directed [the images] will be.”
Additionally, a body of work should explore a subject from all angles. He cites the cliché of a photographer following around one homeless person and creating a single body of work from the images. Davis suggests instead focusing on poverty and the many ways it’s manifested in society. While homelessness can still be a part of the project, he explains, the project may cover other aspects, like the food eaten at a homeless shelter, the places where the homeless sleep, the cardboard signs panhandlers hold.
Equally important is presenting the work in the most emotionally powerful way possible, and also taking into account the platform on which it will be displayed. “I think increasingly you have to think about how you edit a body of work [for] the different places where it will live, and photography can live in so many more different places.” Essentially, every platform requires a different edit: a website, a print portfolio, a photo book, a gallery exhibition, an app. “Each one of [these places] does require a different way of thinking—in that the space where photographs live does have a pretty significant context: how you treat them, how you sequence them, how it feels when one sits next to another.”
For many photographers, Davis creates selections of 12, 20, 40 and 60 images, depending on where the series will be presented. He adds, “a lot of the core relationships between the photographs stay the same but with some variability.”
Having twice edited portfolios that won POYi’s Magazine Photographer of the Year honors, and having three times edited portfolios that earned POYi’s Newspaper Photographer of the Year honors, Davis firmly believes that the sequencing of images can impact how viewers (and contest judges) see them. Many elements are taken into account when Davis sequences images, including color, light, composition and where the subject is in the frame, but he rarely goes into those details with a photographer until a goal of what the work should communicate is set.
Davis strongly agrees with many in the industry who believe that, thanks to the increase in imagery that surrounds us now, the “visual literacy of the world is growing.” That change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he notes. But it does mean that the quality of work and the way in which it is presented is even more important as a photographer builds his or her career. And it means that getting advice on honing and shaping a project is more valuable than ever.
“I think now there is a greater need for picture editors and people who can craft visual narratives [to] help photographers develop [their work],” Davis says, “at a time when there are fewer of us than there have [historically] been.”
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