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Jenny Smets: Pictures That Are Worth A Thousand Words

NOW! PEOPLE | 20 February 2019

In the modern era where multimedia amplifies and visual technology magnifies, it is important to note that some experts in the world of photojournalism have voiced concerns about how the media industry worldwide has shaped the way we view the world today and its long-lasting impact on society. This time the cultural center for the Netherlands in Jakarta hosted, in mid February, a lecture related to the issue by Jenny Smets titled “Future Scenarios: Fact, Fiction and Friction”. To break down these topics in details, NOW! Jakarta spoke to her about the emerging issues in arts, humanities and documentary photography. Her expertise for documentary photography led to her taking on the role of curator and advisor to World Press Photo.

Director of Photography at the weekly magazine “Vrij Nederland” and Advisor at World Press Photo, Jenny Smets. Photo by Raditya Fadilla/NOW!JAKARTA

Tell us about your career in photography and documentary production. How did you break into the field and how has your experience shaped you?

I’m an art historian so my career started in art. I studied History of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Amsterdam. As nowadays we consider photography to be art as well, I specialised in Photography. My first job was working for the Dutch government collecting photographs, hosting exhibitions and writing about it. Friends who were working in print newspapers attended these events and pushed me to work as a photo editor.

That was a bit strange for me, as I used to work with photography but never for a newspaper. So, for me it was something new. I was very young back then, around 24 years old, and suddenly was in charge of the whole new things like the visual part of the newspaper.

As a photo editor, you have a lot of challenges. You are constantly defending why you made certain choices. In the national print newspaper I worked a lot with young photographers back then who were my age. They were just starting out at 24 years old, later turned out to be very famous international photographers. So, we actually grew together building our careers, and this was going back-and-forth between journalism and arts. It is something that defines my career, and it’s continuously doing so. Simply put, I work in both journalism and in art. My specialisation is photography but in a broader sense of the word.

Tell us about your thought processes of taking pictures besides making use of lighting, colour, technique and so on. 

My background is different from most photo editors. A lot of photo editors have a background in photography, or maybe they are media experts. When I do a training like I do here, techniques do not interest me at all. It does not matter for me if you take a photograph with your phone camera or with a very expensive camera. What counts the most for me is how the photograph communicates with the audience in the end. And how it communicates with the audience really depends on the context.

In this regards my expertise for photo-stories improves my career. What I look at is how you tell a story without words but visuals, what are the consequences if you leave something out of story or put something in it, what is the effect of editing, what is the effect of sequencing of a photograph, and how it lays out. In other words, I am more of a visual storyteller. I just don’t play much with techniques.

Do you think photojournalism is crucial for revealing world issues? If so, why?

On the one hand, I personally think not only photojournalism itself but the world is turning more and more into a visual world where a lot of news and urgent topics are told both in words and visual arts, thus in that sense it’s getting more important for revealing world issues. On the other hand, the way the photograph tells about the news is changing significantly for the last couple of years. This happens because everybody takes photographs around the world. In my view, there’s a big difference between a photograph taken by a professional photographer who really thinks about their audience and how the photograph communicates and snapshot taken by somebody out of a normal public. In professional photography, a photographer is required to be really good at their work and specialising in what they do.

There’s also the visual language of photography that is frequently expanding due to new techniques and multimedia technology where there is more online publishing than print version. This allows public to become more used to the fact that in most cases photographers themselves are also present in their stories by using their creativity and imagination. I think that is what’s transforming now which helps photojournalism reveal the world issues.

I have read your article on Medium (May 2017) about News Photography in relation to the gender crisis and the employment of women in the photojournalism industry. Even though things have changed as we can see many female photojournalists today, you argue that in practice the industry is still male-dominated. As a female photojournalist, how has the digital photography craze impacted your profession to help change the situation and fight for gender equality?

The gender inequality is now very high on the agenda that everybody around the world is actually talking about it. I wrote this article two years ago. Since then I think almost all organisations are trying to do something about it. In my seminar today about “Fact, Fiction and Friction” I’m also talking about the fact that there were a lot of festivals, exhibitions and publications this year that were specially dedicated to women issues and women photographers. I think it’s a good thing that this happens so quickly. The thing is that it’s not only about photography that is happening, but it’s something beyond.

There is something in the way with the stereotype that photojournalism has. For example, you have to be the tough guy to work as a photojournalist, which I think is a total nonsense in many cases - it’s the images you produce that matter not gender. So I think, everything around the stereotype is changing.

I’m satisfied with the fact that how rapid the change is actually growing with all the pitfalls as well, like you can have arguments on the hub whether or not it’s necessary to benefit female photographers even though not everybody agrees, but I think it’s a good thing that people are talking about it, and are really conscious of it today.

Any other challenging issues you are facing in addition to gender inequality in the world of photojournalism? If so, what are they?

The other thing is what’s changed very rapidly for the last couple of years is that all the major media is now much more aware of the diversity issue. In this case, not only do I work as photo editor but also as an Advisor for World Press Photo. The way they put programmes into the world that work with such issues (gender inequality and diversity) is a great example that they really try to change the situation in a better sense. What I see now in the photojournalism industry is not ‘European centric’ anymore that used to be full of experts from the ‘west’ who dominated it, but there is Educational Department in the media company that consists of everyone from different backgrounds and nationalities, who are also more aware of working with the related issues.

So, we have a special programme called the 6x6 Global Talent Program in which we ask people in every continent where they can actually nominate photographers from where they belong. To be nominated this programme includes the jury of the World Press Photo with diverse backgrounds.

What is challenging now is I think the era in which we all thought, “OK, we’re sending out our photographers to the other part of the world to tell the stories that are taken places over there” that in most cases is gone.

What advice can you give to someone thinking about an education and career in photojournalism? 

First of all, be very passionate about what you want because it is not an easy job. You have to sacrifice a lot as a photographer nowadays, as if not easy to get an income out of it. On one hand, you see that the media is struggling financially. On the other hand, it also gives you great opportunities because you have so many ways of challenging yourself with different platforms to utilize your skills. Back in the day, if you worked as a documentary photographer, your works would be published in the magazine or newspaper. However, nowadays, you have a wide range of publications not only in the magazine or newspaper but also online publishing, museums, festivals and exhibitions. As you have different platforms with diverse ways of selling your photography, therefore I think it is quite interesting!

Many photojournalists are looking for ways to establish recognition for their work. What does it mean for your works and career to be recognised? 

Well, I am not a photographer myself, but I recognise that a lot of photographers are actually looking for recognition. For me personally, my career is actually all about getting recognition not only from one photographer but for photographer in general. During my whole career I have tried to get recognition for photo stories in magazines or newspapers where they get properly treated, shown and paid. I must admit that it’s not an easy task.

I strongly believe that in the media photography is considered to be something extra; not a language on its own. I would say, as a photo editor, the language and the photographs are equal. For example, in the magazine I work for, it has texts and visuals that work in certain qualities. They should work together as in balance. What I’m saying is that, the photography is not exactly showing what’s written in the text rather you have to make use of the quality of the photographs. The photographer has to tell stories in a visual way. So to be clear, the medium is more my thing. That is what recognition means to me.

Why is documentary photography special to you? Please give us an example of some of your favourite projects that you have accomplished so far.

As I studied History of Art, I like beauty of things and aesthetics. It’s the way I perceive the world. I chose to specialise in Photography because I like this special connection that photography has to real life with the fact that photography really can tell stories. If I see a very good photographic story, I still can feel butterflies in my stomach in a sense that what I see can be fairly emotional and beautiful at the same time. In photography, I get to feel multiple things that attract me to a certain topic.

Photography used to be massively shown in the magazine. Then it got more emancipated till you see it in the museums today especially in Europe. Here in Asia, I am happy with the fact that there is more and more photo festivals, and I think that is special, why? In photo festivals you actually bring photography back to the community as well. I had this special moments when I was in Kathmandu, Nepal for photo festivals held in October and November last year. What happened there was the exhibition most of the time took place in outdoor space within the diverse communities. What was really nice was I saw the local people living there usually had a series of photographs showcased in a square just in the front of their houses.

It was quite phenomenal because not only did I get to meet photographers from Nepal but also from Europe and everywhere in Asia. That event was exactly a place where knowledge and stories were shared. I also got the chance to meet local communities with their unique stories. And that’s exactly I think what photography is all about; that it is about communication, so people really connected then started talking about these photographs and commented on them which they soon saw and understood. Some of the photographs and the stories included heavy topics like same-sex relationsnand things like that. I was happy to know that they were open-minded to talk about them all. These exhibitions also allowed conversations between people which led to a more diverse topics and the variety of dialogues. I really think that this phenomenon was rare because for me it’s not only about the quality of the photographs [sometimes it is really crucial, but it can be aesthetically handled by the photographers] but what it can evoke or connect people to real life.

What do you have in store for this year? Anything we should keep our eye out for?

There are some new trends in photography. One of them is that photography is trying to tell stories that are sometimes very difficult to visualise. They are not quite in front of the lens or not reporting anymore, yet it’s really telling us stories where they are allowed to use fiction and their own imagination into the story. This is not called photojournalism I’d say - this is a whole different category - but it’s more documentary photography. My point is documentary photography as new trend now can actually feature personal stories. Also, It can be stories that deal with the future of the world.

You can’t photograph the future of the world, but you can photograph things that make you think about the future. Said that, it’s a very creative approach in contemporary life. The benefit is that the boundaries between photography and visual arts are not so strict anymore. A lot of artists make use of photography or vice versa. Photographers are close to arts nowadays. This combination is very unique I think, and that’s what I see a lot - sometimes with good or bad results. That’s why I call it, “Fact, Fiction and Friction” because fiction can be very intriguing, yet sometimes it can also cause a little bit of Friction.