Local photojournalism gets a boost from a California nonprofit

CatchLight, a California-based nonprofit, was launched in 2015 to create opportunities and support for photojournalists; over the past several years, they’ve created project grants for photojournalists and partnered with local newsrooms to offer financial support and training for early-career photographers (in some cases, partnering with organizations like Report for America to pay photojournalist stipends). Today, CatchLight Local announced that five philanthropic organizations will invest a combined two million dollars over the next several years in an effort to address what CatchLight CEO Elodie Mailliet Storm calls “image deserts”: the decline and dearth of photojournalism at the local level.

Mailliet Storm, who worked for a decade at Getty Images, says the past few years of CatchLight’s pilot programs in local newsrooms—supported, in the past, by groups like the Lenfest Institute and Facebook— reinforced her belief that photojournalism is uniquely valuable for local communities and local publications, even as photo budgets are downsized as local publications lose financial resources. “We’re looking at the media ecosystem, saying we don’t understand why people don’t trust us,” Mailliet Storm says. “But you’re looking at practices [that are] essentially entirely disinvested from any form of visual media storytelling.” When the CatchLight team launched pilot partnership programs with local newsrooms in 2019, they hypothesized that photojournalism would increase engagement for local papers in addition to creating personal connections between a publication and its audience and even increase local newsrooms’ long term sustainability.

CatchLight has collected data from their news partners, finding that newsrooms that paired their reporting with editorial images increased their engagement, their social media followings, and donations to the publication. The newsrooms that participated in CatchLight Local’s pilot fellowship programs over the past two years have either hired their fellow full time or expanded their photojournalism budgets. And beyond those measurable benefits, Mailliet Storm believes their programs have underlined other intangible assets of localized photojournalism: the universal language of images, their emotional impact, and their possibility for building intimacy—and trust. When photojournalism is responsible and embedded in its community, “visuals are a very democratic tool,” Mailliet Storm says.

The “image deserts” that Mailliet Storm describes are similar to “news deserts” in the parallel rise of available digital content along with the decline of trustworthy content. With the popularity of social platforms like Instagram and Facebook, images are everywhere. “If you run a search by location on Instagram, it’s usually ads for belly fat, selfies, images of pretty vistas that people want to share with their friends and families, but it’s not really meant to be informational around the community that is being represented,” Mailliet Storm says. Editorial photography, on the other hand, is uniquely valuable but too often under-resourced. “Yes, there are more and more pictures of places. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s high quality information being served to the community.”

Photojournalist David Rodriguez began volunteering for CatchLight in 2018, which led to a job opportunity as a reporter and photojournalist at the Salinas Californian, his hometown paper, and a CatchLight fellowship in 2020. Amid the pandemic, Rodriguez photographed farmworkers in a five-part photo essay that documented crowded living conditions and food insecurity. “For two years, I’ve been building bridges in this community, bridging this local community that I love so much to their local newsroom,” Rodriguez says, adding that photojournalism has the benefit of immediate power: “the power to create instant connections.”

Jesus Salvador and his father Meliton inside their two room apartment on the north side of Salinas in 2020 // Photo by David Rodriguez, courtesy of CatchLight Local

Sheyanne Romero, news editor at the Californian, says Rodriguez’s work has been “invaluable” to the paper, creating both engagement and impact. Photojournalism has a unique journalistic mandate to call attention to stories, people, and situations that may not be readily visible to all audiences, Romero says, particularly in a time of isolation and crisis. For example, she says, “you don’t necessarily see fire evacuees if you’re not personally impacted by fire.” Photojournalism confronts its audience with images of their neighbors’ reality outside their own isolated spheres.

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Geographic communities, after all, are made up of people who don’t naturally see themselves as communities when self-selecting information online. Our civic networks are broader than those we might choose for ourselves. Good photojournalism can serve as a many-way mirror; at least, that’s what CatchLight and its partners hope and believe. “There’s such a value in showing a community what it looks like,” Romero says. “Since David came on, Salinas was reintroduced to itself.”

CatchLight’s California desk will fund ten photojournalist fellows, a visual editor, and an editorial and engagement director for the next few years, working with newsroom partners like CalMatters and others still to be announced. “My hope is to build a collaborative and sustainable way for visual journalism in local media,” Mailliet Storm says. Perhaps visual journalism can, in turn, help sustain local media and the communities it serves. That’s CatchLight’s bet.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites