Social Responsibility in Visual Storytelling: Photojournalist Kriston Jae Bethel Weighs In

Social Responsibility in Visual Storytelling: Photojournalist Kriston Jae Bethel Weighs In

Philadelphia based photographer Kriston Jae Bethel has been featured in some impressive print and digital publications: American Libraries, Grid Magazine, Mashable, Minneapolis Star Tribune, New Jersey Magazine, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine, to name a few. As a member of the National Press Photographers Association, he enthusiastically adheres to the NPPA Code of Ethics when making photojournalism and documentary work. “This is part of a core belief that people should always be considered first, instead of a good photograph,” he says.

That ethos permeates into everything Kriston does in the field. His images are characterized by a particular visceral feeling or mission instead of the typical focus on a specific subject. In addition to his freelance career and time spent at Temple University and Jefferson University as an adjunct professor, he also works with Resolve Philly, a reporting collaboration between newsrooms across Philadelphia that aims to lift up community voices in the region. We caught up with Kriston a few weeks ago when preparing to collaborate on an Instagram takeover to talk about the Philly photographer community, his personal projects and more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. All photos by Kriston Jae Bethel.

Tell us about Portrait of a Prison. How did the project come to life? What does this project mean to you and those involved? 

Portrait of a Prison came out of what would otherwise be a pretty standard media tour. At the time, I was mentoring a younger journalist who was interested in attending this event, so I offered to join him. SCI Phoenix was built to replace an aging Graterford Prison about a quarter mile down the road, as it had become consistently overpopulated for years. The tour was organized by the Department of Corrections for journalists to visit the new facility, which was designed to hold a larger population, with improved resources and a better living situation for the inmates.

This kind of event usually has several media outlets all looking at the same things, while being given the same information, all at the same time. I wanted to create something that didn’t just show what was inside, but what it felt to be inside. Hard lines, straight-on views and repetition all emphasize a rigid system of justice. Quick glances of light, sky and grass break through that view.

We also love Mom’s Who Pump. Can you share more about your involvement there?

Mom’s Who Pump was a solutions story for Next City. We looked at a new program at Riverside Correctional Facility that allowed mothers to pump their breast milk and have it delivered to their babies who are staying with a family member or other caretaker,

Under normal circumstances, once these women go in, they have almost no contact with their child. One woman I met had been taken into custody straight from the hospital, two days after giving birth. The MOMobile program works to build the relationship between mother and child as much as possible, helping them prepare for when they’re released.

Because this was a solutions story, it was important to focus on what was going right for these women. They obviously didn’t want to be in jail, but were grateful for the opportunity to feel connected to their children. Many of them had never heard there were any benefits of breast milk over formula, and were provided other parental resources, education and even photos of the babies during their time.

How did you get into photography? What was a major break that impacted your career? 

I actually started off wanting to be a writer, studying journalism and political science at Temple University. I moved into a design position at the student newspaper, The Temple News, and found that people didn’t want to pick up a lot of the photo assignments, likely because they weren’t “sexy” enough.

This left some very empty holes in the layouts, so I offered to pick up any leftover assignments. The work was definitely raw (see: amateurish), but I really started to fall in love with the visual storytelling. I started learning and teaching myself, while adding a few photo courses to my schedule. I went on to intern twice at the Philadelphia Daily News, which is where I really started to develop as a photojournalist.

After graduating, I started working as a multimedia designer for a nonprofit, mostly doing design work, but also creating photography and video to tell the mission’s story. It wasn’t journalism, but I was still using the skills I had developed over the years and I was given a lot of leeway to create how I saw fit.

In 2015, I was contacted by Mashable’s Dustin Drankosky, who was their photo director at the time (he’s now creative director.) He had a fashion assignment in Philadelphia, which I thought was odd for someone who didn’t think of himself as a “fashion” photographer. I asked a few questions and it turns out the story wasn’t just about fashion, but how some black men use style to shield themselves from negative perceptions.

This was the first time someone had reached out to me from an outside market and asked me to create work for an assignment like this. It made me realize how much value my work had to others and that I could maybe even go on to do this full time.

A year later, I left my job to go freelance full time. Giving up a salary and benefits wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I knew I wanted to get back into sharing more stories. At some point, I just had to take that first step and see where I landed.

Have any advice for photographers who are just getting started and who are trying to build their own brand?

Be persistent. Figure out who you are and who you want to be, then work toward making that a reality. 

Building a brand takes time and when I left my full-time job, my phone didn’t just start ringing nonstop with people throwing money at me (to be clear, it still doesn’t.) I worked on my portraits and picked up street photography, so I kept pushing myself. I reached out to editors, went to conferences and talked to photographers, so I could learn from others. I took on teaching part-time at Temple, so I could still have some steady income.

There are plenty of people who have big ideas, don’t do the work and eventually give up on those dreams. Don’t let that be you!

What’s your shooting and editing process like? How would you describe your style? How do you distinguish yourself from other photographers? 

I never know how to describe my style, which is probably a terrible thing to admit! If you look at my work, I tend to have a few different styles. I’m constantly learning, adjusting and changing, so how I shoot today may be different tomorrow, depending on the need. Photographer André Chung once described me as a chameleon and I’m kind of down for that. 

If there is one thing about me that I’m proud of, it’s my ability to quickly connect with people. The equipment and photos and technique are all important, but what I think about most of the time is how I treat the people I work with. 

I want people to genuinely trust me, because as a photographer, I’m only jumping into their lives for a slice of time before eventually moving on. I want that to be a positive experience, even if the circumstances surrounding how we met may be less than so.

Tell us about your go-to gear and how it’s affected your work and your style. 

I love working with my Nikons and finally picked up a D850, which is great for portraits or commercial work that might get blown up to larger print sizes. I can also select a smaller sensor area size, which is useful for photographing sports. My go-to lenses are the typical photojournalist fair: a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8.

Another thing I do is always keep a full lighting kit in my car. I carry around three Nikon SB-600s that I’ve had forever, along with a bunch of stands and lighting modifiers. The speedlites are light enough to move when I need to and the extra equipment gives me flexibility for anything that might come up during an assignment.

In the past year, however, my Impact Hexi 24” Speedlight Softbox has proven super convenient to work with, especially when I need to be mobile and won’t have the chance to really setup equipment. This really showed its worth when I was able to bring this into Riverside Correctional Facility to create portraits. We had about six or seven people in a tight space, but I was still able to create some nice images of those women.

What are your thoughts on diversity and representation within the industry as it stands today? What would you like to see change?

We’ve definitely seen a growth of diversity in the industry, which I think has come about from two things.

The first is technology, which has helped reduce the barrier of entry for everyone to get into photography. In the past, you had to have the right equipment to get into the field. More importantly, you had to gain access to cloistered editors if you wanted to get your work out in the world for people to see.

Today, nearly everyone has access to at least a phone camera and social media platforms, allowing great photographers that would otherwise go unheard of to share their work with a worldwide audience. This isn’t without its drawbacks (see: Insta Repeat,) but it does allow more people to contribute to our visual discourse.

The second is that people in the industry are starting to become more aware of how important it is to have diverse voices share their perspectives.  It’s not simply a matter of having more people of color for the sake of diversity, but that there is inherent value in how our experiences shape our work. Bringing in more photographers of color, women photographers and queer photographers can only improve the stories that we tell.

I still think publications are playing catchup, but I know some of them are actively working on getting there. Photographer databases like Diversify Photo, Women Photograph and Natives Photograph provide resources for photo directors and art buyers to find, removing the excuse of, “I don’t know any ______ photographers.”

Speaking of greater representation for photographers of color, do you have any shoutouts? We’d love to amplify the work of fellow photographers who inspire and motivate you.

I can’t mention photographers of color without starting with Gordon Parks. He was a trailblazer that was able to navigate between fashion photography, portraits of iconic Americans and documenting the realities of being black in a segregated society.

I would certainly have to give a shoutout to Kwaku Alston for his amazing portraits, as well as André Chung, who I mentioned earlier. I also need to call out Brent Lewis, photo editor over at The New York Times and one of the founders of Diversify Photo, who’s a huge advocate for change in the industry.

People should always be considered first, instead of a good photograph.

Kriston Jae Bethel

Curious about other Philly photographers making their city proud? There are plenty.

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Caitlyn Edwards is the Senior Customer Marketing Manager at PhotoShelter. Passionate about visual storytelling and ethics, she covers photo news, events and offers educational tips.

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