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Alec Soth is a photographer who works on large-scale projects that play with the boundaries between his roles as a fine art photographer and photojournalist. This week, he asks you to take on the role of a newspaper photographer and report on a story from a different perspective.

INSTRUCTIONS - News Photographer
1. Pick a story from a news source and follow up with it
2. Look for something that wasn’t covered in the story and take a photo of it
3. Write an accompanying text that pushes the viewer in a different direction
4. Upload your photo and caption with #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:

SARAH URIST GREEN: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought to you by Squarespace.


We're in Saint Paul, Minnesota, today to meet up with photographer Alec Soth, who makes large scale photo projects that manifest in prints, exhibitions, and books. He works in a variety of formats, but is known for using a large format 8 by 10 camera for series including "Sleeping By the Mississippi," which evolved from several road trips he took along the Mississippi River. And "Niagara," for which he visited the Niagara Falls area and took a series of pictures that all circle around the themes of love and passion.

More recent photo projects include "Broken Manual," which sees him visiting people trying to live off the grid and the places they inhabit. Soth's work is often talked about as chronicling American life. But as you look at more and more of it, you see it's much more complicated than that. His work is rooted in the world of fine art, but also skirts that of photojournalism. He also does editorial photography and has been a member of the Magnum Photo Cooperative since 2008. But he's also known to play with these rules. With his author friend Brad Zellar, Soth, for a while, posed as a reporter from a fictional newspaper and investigated stories around the US, which they documented in a series of tabloids distributed by Soth's publishing company Little Brown Mushroom. And then he also published the prints separately as a photo book titled "Songbook."

It's the permeability of Soth's roles as an art photographer and a photojournalist that we're going to be talking about with him today.

Alec: I'm Alec Soth, and this is your art assignment.


When I got out of college, I had this photography knowledge and thus opened up the possibilities of all sorts of different potential photography jobs, low end photography jobs. So I worked in a dark room and I worked at an art museum and I worked at a small suburban newspaper. So I was photographing ribbon cuttings, city council meetings, new business opens. And the occasional fire destroys a property, that sort of thing. And while that seems dull, and at times it was dull while I was doing it, in retrospect, I've realized how interesting all of that subject matter is. That these sort of very prosaic elements of daily life and community life are actually what's interesting to record for the future.

You know, the thing about the ribbon cutting moment when you do it for the suburban newspaper is that the job is to get the giant scissors on the ribbon at that moment. It's ludicrous. And they hold it, of course, for 30 seconds so you can get this. What I think is probably more interesting is the guy walking away with the giant scissors right after. Where did the giant scissors come from? All these questions. Kind of the before, the after, looking at something just slightly askew can reveal all this other information.

So your assignment is to be a newspaper photographer for the day. I want you to pick one story. It doesn't need to be a dramatic story, like a fire or a crime scene, it could be something really simple like a ribbon cutting for a new store or a birthday party for someone turning 100, and I want you to follow up on this story, with the goal being getting access. Because once you're in there, then you can look for something a little unusual. Maybe something before the event or after, or something funny happening off on the side. And let that carry you to the story. In addition to this picture that you make there, I want you to write a little text that also isn't entirely obvious. This can be something you overheard. Or it can be a quote from someone. But something that will push the viewer in a slightly different direction.

Sarah: John, this assignment makes me think about how in this, the day of the internet, it's really easy to get access, actually.

John: Yeah. I mean, we're all reporters, right? I think about Serial. Or I'm really interested in these communities that are trying to find the identities of unclaimed bodies online. Like we're all reporters and we're all detectives.

Sarah: And you don't really need credentials these days. And what that also signals to me is that it's important to remember that there really is no such thing as objectivity. That that is a myth. And whenever anyone goes out to report on a story or take pictures, they bring with them their own biases.

John: And they also bring with them this history. The conventions of photojournalism, a lot of which actually go back to these photographs that were taken during the New Deal in a project that was sponsored by the Farm Security Administration.

SARAH URIST GREEN: The FSA's work included educating the public, and they established a photography program led by Roy Stryker with the aim of documenting poverty, defending federal relief efforts, and introducing quote, "Americans to America." From 1936 to 1944, the program commissioned work by an impressive roster of photographers who were sent to document the effects of the Great Depression in the hardest hit areas of the country. Stryker gave out assignments to 11 artists including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks.

Lange was sent to Oklahoma and Texas to photograph drought-stricken Dust Bowl farmers, and to California to photograph migrant workers in relief camps. Walker Evans was sent to document small town life in Pennsylvania and across the American South. And Gordon Parks was assigned to Washington, DC, documenting racial segregation and bigotry in the nation's capital. Over 250,000 photographs resulted and were made available to media, appearing in newspapers and popular magazines like "Life" and "Look."

The project's reach extended far beyond its original objective, generating powerful images that communicate the harsh realities of the time created by photographers who used a wide range of styles and approaches and who would go on to make important work in similar veins.

Alec: So I had been working in this very inward looking way, wanting to somehow go back out in the world and engage with community in some sort of way. So on my birthday, I called up a friend of mine, Brad Zellar, who had formerly been a newspaper reporter, and asked him to give me this gift of going out on a newspaper assignment with me. And he would be the writer, I would be the photographer, and we'd-- you know, like an authentic team out in the world. The question of what should we do came up. What do we cover? And so we just picked up a newspaper and more or less just pointed at the first story. It didn't really matter what it was.

The story was of this cat which had been missing. And it turns out it had been living on a freeway interchange between all these different freeways. And it survived on this deer carcass for this long period of time, but it was becoming a real problem because all the cars would see the cat and slow down. And so this police officer on Christmas day saved the cat. And this was this charming little suburban story. And we went to the shelter and met the cat and met the people who lost the cat, and all this kind of stuff. Reported on the story. And it opened up for us. And we heard these really funny quotes and had a funny experience photographing the cat. And it wasn't necessarily profound, that particular photographic experience. But it showed this path of a way to go out in the world. We created a fictional newspaper, had business cards made, and started going on assignment after assignment.

So the number one question I'm asked, by far, is how do I approach strangers. And I think of it as being like those people that hand out stuff on the street when you're walking by. It's humiliating at first. But you realize that it's not that big of a deal. You're just another person on the street handing stuff. And OK, maybe it's going to annoy a few people. But most people don't care. And the thing about being a photographer or a writer when you engage with people is that you find out, to your relief, that so many people are just really hungry to be paid attention to and they like the attention.


SARAH URIST GREEN: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace is an easy way to create a website, blog, or online store for you and your ideas. Squarespace features a user friendly interface, custom templates, and 24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at for a special offer. Squarespace: build it beautiful.