Storytelling lives on Interview with documentary photographer and journalist Spencer Wynn

An interview with documentary photographer and journalist Spencer Wynn, and the state of the newspaper industry. Storytelling will never die, only the mediums that carry them will change and evolve. Or are they devolving? As fewer people pick up daily newspapers, we turn to digital resources and the Wild West of news sources: Social media. A medium strengthened by its immediacy and ability to give everyone a voice. But with it also comes click-bait headlines and the proliferation of fake news stories. There’s hope, as sites like Medium and Storehouse attempt to push original storytelling through long-form content. Spencer’s stories can be found on the latter, photo stories that often reveal intimate portraits of the people he meets and sheds insight on the places he has travelled.

Printed newspapers have been dying a slow death for quite some time, as subscriber rates have plunged and the demographics they thought they could count on have also moved on: Tablets have found their way into the homes of older adults and an increasing number are going online for their news. Some newspapers have survived through tablet subscriptions, but it’s also hard to compete with the sheer number of free digital news sources and the fact that by the time it reaches the press, it’s no longer news. For photographer and journalist Spencer Wynn, that meant an inevitable round of layoffs for him and some of his colleagues at the Toronto Star, the highest-circulated newspaper in Canada.

Print versus digital, it was an unfair battle from the beginning. Did newspapers ever have a chance of “catching up”?
S: Newspapers will never catch up. They will continue to spiral, many in the US are just folding.  In Montreal, La Presse is gearing up to stop their print product because their iPad app is working really well. There is real content there you can interact with. But the Toronto Star is struggling to find its footing in the iPad world.  The older people still buy their printed product, so they can’t kiss that goodbye.

Digital media didn’t appear overnight.  Why do you think it has taken the industry so long to implement change and adapt?
S: The Toronto Star is like a big ship, it’s so expensive, and it takes forever to steer a new course. A iPad app might not pay anything.  It’s still has hundreds of thousands of readers, which other newspapers would kill for that kind of thing. But the organization that is so massive, there’s a lot of massive overhead.

What do you think will happen to all the people that are being let go from the industry and new, young people that are just starting out in journalism?
S: There’s a lot of very talented people out there, trying to reinvent themselves. They have many years of experience and can easily land something. If they were put down in a busy studio they can handle handle pressure, because pressure is what we tend to thrive on in this business.

A lot of people may change careers altogether, do something completely different. The older workers may not be as trained up as some of the younger people in social media for instance, so that will be a challenge, but a lot of jobs will come from there as well. It’ll be different pay, so a lot of people will have to make lifestyle adjustments. There’s competition for bright, young, knowledgeable people in their 20s who are just on top of this stuff. They have a leg-up over people like myself.

Spencer might have started out with the newspaper industry, but he was also an early adopter of social media, with thousands of followers on an active Twitter account and a regularly updated Facebook Page.  Recently, his dramatic photo Inner Horses of Mongolia was featured on National Geographic’s Daily Dozen.

Don’t trust the Internet?

Social media can be a wonderful thing. Twitter has taken citizen journalism to new heights, giving people a voice they never had before. It’s also incredibly easy to spread things that aren’t true, like the next celebrity death or that Facebook will start charging for its services. To the internet’s credit, with such a mass user base people usually able call out the fakes pretty quickly. Sites by traditional publishing still have the edge on authority, as we’re more apt to believe a story published by The Guardian.

S: For nine years I was at Toronto Life magazine and that was fabulous. Being a monthly, we had the luxury of fact checking. There was a guy named John, we were working on a massive piece and he was up at 2am in the morning fact-checking a story because of the time difference with Israel. He had to read out and cross out words for a million word article. But you can’t do that in a weekly newspaper, a daily, and certainly not the internet. Papers are riddled with apologies because for the reporters, the first thing you have to do is file to the web first. They can barely get the news out. There’s a lot more errors happening, a lot more pressure to get stuff online really really quickly and so the content and the depth of the stories is getting a little thinner.

With so much being thrown onto the internet, clutter is now king. People don’t think of Facebook as a news source, but it’s a hotbed for internet hoaxes, and the well-meaning friends that share stories don’t realize that they’ve been duped either. There’s a difference between clearly satirical sites like The Onion and fake news masquerading as real news. They can have repercussions for people and businesses, like the fake NY Meta article about a Coney Island roller coaster derailing that injured 8 people. These stories are fueled by a goal to get you to click-through to their site so they can reap the benefits of all the banner ads they’ve put up. It’s pure internet clutter, and to poke fun at this internet trend there’s even a site now where you generate fake stories to prank your friends.

Before we bash the accountability of the internet, the idea of masquerading as real news or real articles is not exactly new. Advertorials have been around for a long time in publishing, and their goal is similar, to look like a real article so that you will accept the fluff of the product they are advertising.

S: At the Toronto Star we had issues because the advertorials looked too much like the Star, down to the body copy. If you can get people duped into thinking its a real news story, then the advertising that surrounds that will have worked- they think, great they’ll make lots of money.

It seems like user-generated content has really blurred the lines between fact and fiction.
S: There’s a real line you can cross between real journalism and sites like Wikipedia where people are just putting something up, it’s not always well researched, it’s more like a personal post they dress up to look newsy and important.

The internet has made it really easy for people to just “steal” images and content.
S: Education is big issue, i’ve had to deal with people professionally and personally who think it’s fine to use something because they got it off at the internet. Two years ago a friend told me that a photo I took was being used in some advertising. It was a small company in Ontario that sells water systems for cottages. I contacted them and said excuse me this is my photo… You can’t use this. Here’s my bill.  And they said, “Well, prove it!”  So I sent them a picture of it being used in The Toronto Star and they were like “Whoaaa, oh my god what have we got ourselves into.” We settled on half the price and they had to stop using the picture. They really didn’t know.

How to Tell a Great Story

What separates good and great storytelling is the ability to really get inside it. Spencer reveals what it takes and how he approaches documentary photography.

Can you talk a bit about your current projects?
S: There’s a big project I am working on with the Star until November. It is a bit of a secret, I’ve been working on it for 2 years. This past trip to China was very much targeted at documentary stuff, and the project in India is pure documentary.

What was your experience like in India?
S: I’m working with a writer so she and I are a team on that. Last time we were there in March, first time I was there was on a murder story. This one location, we’ve been there twice, sleeping in a slum and all that goes with it. It was the only way to really tell the story, telling it truly on the inside rather than what happens so often:  You’re an outsider, looking in at a situation. Doing a lot of reading and research, you’ll interview a few people and take pictures, create something.

But the writer and I were very much the same person, we really wanted to get inside the story. That meant making arrangements to come back to sleep on the dirt floor with all the rats, rodents, bugs. Get a feel for the life, the sounds, smells, tastes, the people.

To go through those lengths to tell a story properly must really come through in the content.
S: It’ll definitely come across in the writing and in the photography and the video. There’s going to be a deep interactive component in it as well so people can navigate their way through the story. It’s going to be very cool, a unique experience for a newspaper. They’ll have to build some sort of microsite. You get online and people have very short attention spans so you have to give them meaningful content. Great visuals, short videos, and a navigation that they can easily use, pick up where they left off and not get lost in the wormhole of badly designed web pages.

How did you approach your recent trip to Tibet?
S: I had a foreign journalist visa to Tibet, that’s really rare. I met up with four other Canadian journalists, the five of us got together, with a government  tourism rep in Beijing who was kind of our leader. The whole thing is for tourism, they want Western media to cover and talk about China because it’s important to them that Westerners do it rather than Chinese. I was the only non-Asian person, the other journalists were in essence Chinese, they spoke Mandarin and came from that background.

Since the trip was government-led, did you feel a bit restricted in terms of where you could go? If you could return to Tibet, what would you do differently?
S: We couldn’t just wander on our own, we went to see a school, factories, and a brewing company, which was great. This was a government-led trip and we were shown things. Part of my pretty heavy pitch to a few people is I want to go back but I want to go back and see Tibet the way i typically see China:  I land in a city and then i go off and get lost, with no itinerary. It’s a hard thing for people to swallow because they ask what do you mean you don’t know where you’re going? I have a rough idea but I don’t know in what order. I might like a place so much I’ll spend a week there, it’s totally organic. It’s just the way I do things because that way surprises can happen and you can really get into interesting bits of culture.

Has the way you told a story changed over the years?
S: Getting back to newspapers, new media, television, all of the tools have changed. But the core stories matter, whether its on television, radio, or print. It’s the content. They can cut back on organization, change the platform, but its really content. Original content is key and I think as human beings we are attracted to other human beings and their stories.

Storytelling as a Personal Journey

As a photographer and Art Director with The Star, Spencer produced a notable body of work.  Last year, he and his team, including writer Katie Daubs, won a National Newspaper Award for an inventive graphic novel that they had created for the paper. The graphic novel explored the personal stories of people they encountered in Toronto’s underground PATH system, an expansive network where you can do everything from yoga classes to attending church. The novel was at times funny, and heart-wrenching. For the paper, it was a new way of storytelling that made its content more accessible for a younger audience.

From setting smoke bombs off at the airport, to working with a real lion on set, there’s little that Spencer hasn’t done for a planned photoshoot. In closing, he was asked to describe the “craziest” thing he’s ever done for a photoshoot:

S: The craziest thing was when we had a campfire, a tent and everything right on Bloor St (Downtown Toronto), right outside the front of the new ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). This was to illustrate, when the recession was really hitting, people started hearing this funny word and that was “staycation”. So what do you do in Toronto? From an art direction standpoint it was coming up with this wacky concept and pulling it together. So I contacted the ROM and they had just opened: “This is going to sound really weird but I want to have a campfire outside your door. I’ll make sure I put a steel plate down so I don’t scorch your nice black marble.” We took a tent, huge rocks from the garden to make a campfire, and rented a mom, dad, and kid.

The only thing we couldn’t do was take the picture because a cop was sitting across the street and you can’t really have a big fire on the street. As soon as he left, BOOM! The lighter fluid went in, the bonfire went up and people started roasting marshmallows and tourists started taking pictures. We got a beautiful, beautiful photograph.

To see more of Spencer Wynn’s work, visit his portfolio site at


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