Picturing the Crisis

A look at photographic coverage in the financial press

What does the financial crisis look like? Well, judging from recent weeks, it looks better in The New York Times than it does in the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. Since the crisis really hit its stride in mid-September, the Times has provided more creative, substantive, and eye-catching front-page photos than has the Journal or the FT.

The Times has long had a strong tradition of photojournalism, and an estimable staff of in-house photographers. That experience and investment has served it well in recent weeks as business news has regularly hit the front page, and thus required front-page-caliber photography to go along with it.

At a time when newspapers across the country are struggling to maintain readership—and when their competition is not just other newspapers but other, more graphic media—they need to catch readers’ eyes. In fact, photography’s appeal to the eye may be one way to make business news more inviting to those who have not been regular readers.

Furthermore, given that space is at a premium, it makes no sense to view photos, even for not-always-image-amenable business stories, as filler. Like the text that accompanies it, if a photo doesn’t give important information, we don’t need to see it.

Now, we admit that financial photography can be a bit of a challenge. (How many photos of frazzled stock traders do we need?) But a look at recent Times coverage shows that the bar is not impossibly high.

We start our examination with Sept. 16, the day when front pages blared momentous bad news at us: the stock market plunge following the tribulations of Lehman and AIG.

First, here’s what the NYT did right.

On a day when the press posted a flurry of images of distressed traders, the NYT front page took a step back and focused our attention on the government’s response—as represented by Henry Paulson—in about as dynamic a photo as you can get of a press conference:

The blur gives a sense of movement, and the expression on Paulson’s face says a lot about that day’s predicament.

That same day, by contrast, the WSJ offered an arrangement of eight stock-trader photos on the front page:

Now, when you look at that many small images of approximately the same thing, they tend to blend, especially when crowded together. And perhaps that is the point here: Mayhem all around!

But we already knew that, just from the headlines.

The power of photojournalism lies in its ability to show us specifics. Yet such a generic presentation blurs specific details—“stock” traders, indeed!—rather than clarifying them.

The FT steered clear of the tiny-images trap, but not in a particularly original or incisive way:

You may not have noticed, but you have actually seen this AP photo already, on the
WSJ’s front page. The top right box. And in fact, this photo appeared all over the press. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

For now, compare these two images, from September 20, the first in the Times:

And the second in the Journal:

The Journal has a bit of a disadvantage because its “What’s News” box takes up a considerable fraction of the front-page—leaving less space for everything else, including photos. And with images, bigger is often better.

Still, the difference between these two photos can’t be blamed on size alone, or on the idea that their intent is to convey something different—because we have no idea what the Journal is trying to convey. It is that muddled variant of a mid-range, up-the-nose shot that most amateur photographers erase from their digital cameras.

And the problem, it seems, was not the photographer. We came across what appears to be the same AP photo, in Newsweek, cropped differently:

This fuller version works. Grounded and framed by the pillars, the men suddenly have a context. We don’t get the striking image of the row of pillars, as we do in the Times photo, but we do get a shot that now raises a similar question: Are these men like or unlike the architecture that surrounds them? Are they pillars of strength or not? Or, put differently, How worried should we be? (The answer, as told by this photo at least, depends upon how you read the subjects’ faces and posture, and so will probably differ from person to person.)

As for the FT, editors seem to have absorbed the bigger-is-better philosophy. But the problem is that size alone is not the key to an effective photograph. We don’t even know what this September 23 front-page photo is of:

If we don’t know, neither do a lot of other people. The caption doesn’t help us: “Flagging reserves: growing concern over the rescue plan saw the dollar slide 2 per cent against a basket of major rivals yesterday.”

Moving along, we’d like to register a complaint about what has become a key element of the iconography of the credit crisis: traders with their heads in their hands, or in other poses of distress. Such photos are always a staple of down markets, and this one is no exception. Most of them are forgettable, and we wish editors would think twice before putting them on the front page.

Here is the FT essentially replicating its September 16 image two days later, this time in Moscow:

By way of comparison, here is another example of a strong Times cover. This one appeared October 1, by which time it was pretty hard to do what the Times does here: come up with a distinctive view of the trading floor.

And here is another strong example from the Times, September 23:

in comparison to the WSJ the same day:

The Times is better here because we get more information from its cover: There are graphs on both pages, but rather than offering a small generic image of traders, the Times shows Barney Frank at a press conference. It is an image of controlled chaos, where the man in charge practically blends in with the people to whom he is speaking.

Interestingly, the WSJ did include a photo of that press conference, but put it on A3, next to a Tiffany ad.

Needless to say, a photo inside the paper embedded in advertising does not have the impact of a front-page shot. Now, this could be an editorial choice—to downplay Frank’s press conference—but the practical result is a stiff-looking front page.

Which brings us to another point. The WSJ often emphasizes graphs over photos or, as in the example below, uses photos as background for the graphic information:

Hey, we like graphs. But they don’t substitute for photographs. Real photographs. Not wallpaper for the numbers.

Now, all this said, even the cover of the Times doesn’t always greet us with impact. Like the October 7 cover, where, in a look more typical of the WSJ, we got its version of the stock-trader typology, accompanied by several graphs:

And this cover leads us to one last point: the problem of repetition.

It wasn’t just the composition here that caught our eye. It was the woman in the middle photo. We’d seen her someplace before… That’s right. As a distressed trader on the cover of the September 17 FT:

She also appears on the October 7 WSJ Money & Investing front, accompanying a teaser at the top left of the page:

This wasn’t the first time we had encountered such repetition. Remember that first FT photo>?

That one, from the AP, really made the rounds.

As local and regional papers picked it up, this rather unremarkable photo appeared across the press that day as the (hidden) face of the Lehman collapse. It was so ubiquitous that it even sparked some Internet chatter, including nasty comments on, surprise, Yahoo! message boards and a defense on the subject’s friend’s blog.

Now, papers do publish the same photo when it suits them. But the fact is that the Sept 16 photo doesn’t say very much and didn’t warrant the attention it got. Furthermore, we did a bit of digging and found that the trader depicted is something of a recurring subject on financial pages.

Even the NYT offered a photo of her that day, although not the same image and not on the front page. So did Reuters.

And an image search led us to even more photos of the same woman. Here she is earlier in September. In March. In October 2007. In December 2006. Again in December 2006.

It may be a small world out there. But not that small. The financial crisis deserves photography as serious and inquisitive as its best articles.

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.