In journalism, one of the crucial concepts of interviewing taught to reporters in order to deliver newsworthy information is to have them ask and find the answer to who, what, when, where, and why; this is otherwise known as the Five W’s of Interviewing. By seeking out the answers to these five questions, a reporter can discover various angles of a story as a well as provide essential information to a reader necessary for him or her to determine whether or not an event or situation is relevant.
Yet, how does this apply to photography? Excluding the category of photojournalism for a moment, which would have to adhere to such concepts on the basis that journalism is included in the process, photography at its essence is a visual expression of an idea. A means to communicate a story to another individual in a unique, interesting, and direct manner. It may not be groundbreaking newsworthy information, but within a photograph, a dialog between the photographer’s idea and the viewer’s interest is a occurring; and often times (at least I know when I look at artwork) will seek out to understand who the image is about, what is happening in the frame, where the subject might be located, when was it taken, and why could it be important to the photographer as well as why should it be important to him or her self. Hence the term “communicative arts”.
Thus, in trying to find the meaning what makes a good photograph within my own work besides just comparing it to the works of others; I decided to combine my background in journalism (the aspect that first got me interested in photography) into my critiquing process and begin to use the Five W’s of Interviewing as a checklist for both when I edit behind my computer and even while shooting behind my camera.
1. The Who. (No, I’m not talking about the rock band.)
Answering “the who” within a photograph can either be extremely easy or extremely difficult. For instance, it can be a portrait of a famous actor. At other times it can be an abstract image that symbolizes a face. Or there could be no person, pet, or legged creature at all in the picture. What is important in this category is whether or not the viewer can determine if there is “who” and then utilize that information to guide them clearly to the next question.
2. The What.
If not who, then what is the image portraying? This can be places, things, objects of values and what not. When I think of answering the “what” in a photograph, I usually think of how clothing or jewelery ads clearly attempt to show that the watch or shoe is a luxury item of high quality. However, “the what” can also pertain to the actions taking place within the photograph. For example, if the image is about a dance, what type of movement is being portrayed is important to the context of the photograph.
3. The When.
People (in large part) are day creatures. We do our work and learning in the morning, and our relaxing and sleeping during the evening. As such, our relationship to time defines the cycles of our activities. Portraying time in a photograph can either adhere to those expectations of what occurs during the day or night, or they can be completely flipped around to show us a different attitude to how people or things interact with the changes of time. When I think about how “the when” can impact an image, I think of Stephen Wikes New York City “Day to Night” transition series showing side by side temporal contrasts of popular New York City landmarks within one frame.
4. The Where.
Is it outside? Is it in a house? At a concert? The where of an image can describe to the viewer how easy or difficult it was for the photographer to create the image (I don’t think most of us make trips to Antarctica on a daily basis). But beyond the technical aspects in which the location of a photograph may or may not limit a photographer, “the where” also describes how the subjects of the photograph (whether it be person, place or thing) interact with their environment. Street photography as a genre is dependent on “the where” because it is photography done usually outside depicting how people interact in an urban setting. So too is landscape photography to list another example.
5. The Why.
I consider this “W” to be the most important, and justly so, the hardest to show within any form of art. Exhibiting the why in visual form is essentially building the artist statement clearly within the piece. It’s a balancing act between providing a direct statement and not overly simplifying the message such that it doesn’t weaken creative intent behind the piece. Yet, if there was a clear cut formula on how to explain the “why” in one’s artwork, then every creative would be able to answer this question clearly within their work without misinterpretation to the viewer.
At times it can be the fault of the viewer for not being able to comprehend message of a given artwork. But I like to give the viewers (artists and non-artists alike) the benefit of the doubt that they are capable of comprehending the “why” of an art piece (at the very least the motivation behind it) if given just enough information the same way as a reading the lead to a newspaper article. Thus, if there is any miscommunication in the translation of the message in the artwork, it is fault of the messenger and not the recipient for not providing enough detail in the who, what, when, and where to lead up the answer of the “why” in any given artwork.
It is also through the artist’s search for “the why” and the viewers interpretation of “the why” within artwork that I believe brings about a new “why” or reason to understanding (as an artist) our own artwork.
By asking the Five “W’s” within one’s own work, I believe that artists can better edit, better present, and find a better understanding behind their own work as well as how they choose to share it with the rest of thew world. For artwork isn’t just about the how our creations make us feel, but how we communicate those feelings and ideas to others with a sense of purpose.
As for life (which I won’t discuss as in length in this article) it is important to view and critique our actions both before and after they occur. Every action we do every day includes a “who”, “what”, “when”, and “where”; but often times we forgot the “why”. Perhaps our actions just become a matter of habit or just being caught up in the moment of things. At times such actions can yield favorable results, but if we never stop to ask “why”, then at the events in which they are unfavorable, we don’t fully understand them and cannot defend them under the criticism of our peers. Thus, by using the Five “W’s” as guiding posts, we can better understand our own actions and manage how we present them to the rest of the world so that we can develop a better understanding of each other.