Listen in

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Photographers have often combined images and audio to bring more depth to their stories. But with the development of high-speed internet and the democratisation of new media outlets such as Apple’s iPad, they can now reach larger audiences with more sophisticated audio slideshows at a fraction of yesterday’s cost. And while the use of video is on the rise, some believe that still images and audio is all you need for powerful narratives.


“The main reason I record audio is simple – because I work in Africa,” says Peter DiCampo, winner of BJP’s International Photography Award 2010 (#7782). “I have, basically, one ideal in my work, which is to make issue-based stories without making them into ‘poverty porn’. I could easily get some facts and figures from experts, put them into a story description, and then make photographs that illustrate the problem – but I don’t feel like the story is complete without hearing what the local people have to say about how an issue impacts their lives. Audio and video interviews allow me to share those opinions, and, based on the feedback I’ve received, it’s been a successful way of making the viewer feel more connected.”

Feel the noise

In fact, audio can, at times, be the only thing that gives power to a photographer’s images. Sebastian Meyer was embedded with US troops in Afghanistan last year, when his patrol came under heavy fire. “When I came back and I looked at the images, I thought they were okay. But then I went back to them a week or two later, and I thought, ‘These suck. They’re terrible. They’re a lie.’

“The lie for me,” he explains, “is that photographs are inherently silent. They don’t make any noise. They also don’t exist in time. They’re frozen moments. For example, combat is extremely loud. The noise itself is essential in understanding what it’s like to be there. As a journalist, you’re telling that story – so it’s misleading for these images to be quiet because they give a false impression of what it’s like to be there.”

Meyer adds that his images did not end up looking as nearly as scary as they should have done. “They’re not as loud as they should be, or as disorienting. Sound is really an essential part in showing that aspect.”

When Meyer found himself in Libya earlier this year, he chose to start recording audio. “The frontlines were pretty hairy there,” he recalls. “I had a [Samson] H4 recorder and I found a way to fix it to one of my side pouches with a microphone sticking out.” It was very basic, he admits, but it did the job. “You can hear bullets going past you. All of it sounds a lot like a video game.”

But then came the bombs. While in Ras Lanuf, Meyer photographed the explosion of a bomb dropped from a pro-Gaddafi warplane. The image [left] in itself isn’t very scary, but says Meyer, “Somehow, the sound – that gets me upset. That takes me to a place that is genuinely terrifying. And I hope this recording of it gives the audience a better impression of what it was like.”

Narrative device

Of course, audio doesn’t have to be used in tense situations, such as in warzones. For DiCampo, ambient sound is very important. “With the Life Without Lights project, audio has been key because I’m dealing so much with darkness and night- time imagery,” he says. “I like to think that people watch these pieces in a dark room with all the lights turned off – so the sounds of crickets, and the nightly activities of the villagers, hopefully make the viewer feel more like they are a part of the scene and helps them understand the issue.”

In fact, says Meaghan Looram, a deputy picture editor at The New York Times, audio should only be used when it “makes sense” and adds to the narrative. “For example, I had a conversation with James Hill, [the newspaper’s European contract photographer] when he was assigned to shoot the week leading up to the Royal Wedding. He was going out to shoot features and portraits in anticipation of the big day. He has quite a witty eye and he and I discussed the idea of trying to capture some audio that could be paired with this kind of images. Quotes from the people he was doing portraits of, or some sort of textural ambient noise.”

However, Looram admits, it doesn’t necessarily work every time. “This particular idea could be great, or might not work out once you have the piece in front of you, and to be totally honest, what ended up happening with Hill is that it was a very busy news week. A few days later we talked again and decided that, not only could he not really find defining texture audio- wise, but I could tell him from our opinion that we weren’t going to have the bandwidth to [justify] an audio producer put it together.”

But when it’s appropriate, and “when we think we have a good chance of making a strong piece, we’d do it.” Of course, she’s quick to add, it’s not always easy to add audio to photographs. “It’s extremely work-intensive and it’s not always a slam-dunk in terms of its effectiveness,” she tells BJP. “We are working on a handful of projects that combine audio, stills and video, and I tend to think that the times when it works out the best are when one of two things have happened. This might be a bit counter-intuitive, but either the audio exists first before any shooting has taken place or the audio and the photographs are being gathered at the same time.”

As an example, she cites the Emmy-award-winning One in 8 Million project. “Todd Heisler [a contract photographer for The New York Times] didn’t go out and shoot anything until we had a draft of the audio,” she explains. “Some people have said that this seems a little bit counter-intuitive and corners you in to what sort of imagery you can get, but I’m of the mind that it actually creates a much better marriage of the stills and the audio. He would get a sense of the kind of theme of the piece, the tone of voice, a feeling that would let him focus on certain things.”


Then comes another problem. “Many people underestimate just how much photographic material you need [to produce an effective audio slideshow], says Looram. “I think it’s very easy for audio slideshows to get very slow. It’s a real challenge for the photography, because you need far more variety that a regular slideshow would demand.”

Also, adds DiCampo, producing an audio slideshow requires a lot of different skills. “It takes a lot of time that is often unpaid to build photography, audio, and video into one story,” he says. “What I’ve learnt in the past year is that I’ve tried too much to be a one-man- show with all of this. I’m always asking dozens of people questions on the piece and the software, but I’m not actually partnering with anyone. The whole process takes an absurd amount of time and is never worth the money, but I want to see the piece finished. I want the idea I have in my head to be something I can watch and share with people.”

Even at The New York Times, the workload can be too daunting. “Many of our photographers are equipped to do their own audio gathering, but it’s a lot of demands for one person,” says Looram. “It’s a lot of pressure to put on them. One thing might suffer if you try to do everything at once. I think it’s better if you try to pair a photographer with a reporter or an audio producer – everyone can focus on what they’re best at.” But, she adds, “we decide on a case-by-case basis. We have to assess whether or not we have the resources to produce it in the first place.”

But, especially in cases when people have become blasé about images – “they see the pictures of an explosion and barely react to it,” says Meyer – the use of audio, and to a greater extent video, can help bring back engagement from audiences. “I think it’s important in an age where we’ve become numb to a lot of visual images to find another sensory level to tell stories at,” he says. “We have to keep surprising our audiences so they don’t fall in a state of lethargy.”