Thursday, August 30, 2012

The monster speaks: Social portraiture is the new journalism

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon in the dim basement with Boulder independent radio producer, Jeff Emtman ( He recently received a fellowship from SoundCloud  to explore unique ways of storytelling via a podcast.

Emtman developed his own field of study at Western Washington University that he called Social Portraiture -- the idea of capturing a person or story via a mix of photography, journalism, sociology, other social sciences and radio production.

"I've really struggled a lot with that label 'journalist,' because it’s a really complex field," he told me.

In fact, he thinks journalism falls under the umbrella of art, like sculpture or music (a controversial perspective that he says has landed him in some trouble a few times).

He says:
"I view my work as art pieces, as opposed to something you might expect to be written by someone wearing a fedora hat. What an artist does is they make representations of their world. What I’m working on right now is the representation of my world and the way I see it. I don’t claim to be this omnipotent power." 

I had to learn more about this concept of social portraiture. So before our interview about his new show, Here Be Monsters, I asked him a few questions about my job -- and his.

In your opinion, what is the role of a modern journalist? 

I was always really surprised by this perception I ran into when I was studying photography that came out of the traditional camp, especially aging professional photographers, who thought, “Oh my gosh, there are all these schmucks running around with their cameras. I’m going out of business.” I, of course, was one of those schmucks.

There are two ways you can look at this. You can look at it like there is more competition and you’re going to go out of business, or you can look at it from the inverse perspective and say this is an opportunity that I have to up my game. I have to work harder and develop my style and become a better artist myself. This is your opportunity to make something new and find a different way of connecting to people.

What do you hope to accomplish with your SoundCloud fellowship?

What I’m doing would not be possible without the financial support of SoundCloud, but it’s also nice because I’m not being employed by anyone. I now have the opportunity to do what nature does when it has free time. Let’s try this mutation, let’s try this mutation. Most of them are going to suck, but there’s going to be one of these that might really connect and thrive. I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of sound production and seeing what people identify with and seeing if there are ways we can make media more engaging so people want to connect with it more.

Where do you see the future of journalism going?

There’s something that needs to change when we educate people to be journalists. The new journalist isn’t going to be a photographer. It isn’t going to be a web writer. It’s going to be someone who is good at thinking. Because they can teach you all they want in college but who knows? Blogs might be obsolete in 10 years, so you don’t want to major in blogging, you don’t want to major in a field. You want to major in how to be a good researchers and how to talk to people and how to connect. That’s where I see journalism going. And really, that’s all it’s ever really been.

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