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© David Shrigley




The 2011 Orwell Prize, the British awards for political writing, has just announced its longlists. The awards are into their 18th year, yet blogging was only recognised as a form of political writing in 2009. Here’s the blog longlist.

Upon the news, Charlie Beckett at POLIS chose to reflect on the health of blogging.

On one hand Beckett says that some good bloggers have bowed out (presumably not replaced instantly by new bloggers, quality-wise) but on the other acknowledges the slew of very good, very relevant and very free blogged opinion and commentary. He also applauds former mainstream media (MSM) journalists using the blog format as one tool in their kit. Overall, he thinks blogging is still in transition and “much of it below par.”

While I agree with most of Beckett’s points, I don’t agree with his conclusion. I think he is bored by the increased specialisation of blogs:

Everyone’s at it. The market’s gone way down the long tail with very specialist blogs … where people are addressing a very niche audience (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those narrow subject niches are rather capacious in terms of readers).

When Beckett refers to the market, I take it he is talking of activity and development of ideas, not solely about money exchange.

If Beckett is right about blog proliferation (I think he is) then we can conclude two things. Firstly, that readerships are getting cosier with their blogs of choice and selecting from an overall wider choice. Secondly, bloggers are splintering into niche next to niche to good effect; one’s subject matter does not dilute the others, but complements it.

The upshot? Bloggers and blog-readers have increased in relevance to one another.

Beckett sees this preponderance from the other side too. The mind-share (of readers) has been, and continues to be, a premium commodity for writers. For eyes-on-screens, bloggers are not only competing against MSM but against each other too.

Original content will secure those eyes.


Beckett weighs the reporting of new facts against the “surplus supply” of opinion.

There is a so much professional and personal comment around on MSM (Comment Is Free) as well as independent forums like Mumsnet or Facebook that opinion is now so cheap (free) that it’s has lost its value in the market place of public debate. New ideas and new facts suddenly have more currency than views.

Readers don’t mind if content – containing new ideas and new facts – is written by a journalist or blogger, professional or amateur, as long as it is proven reliable and informed.

So now it seems the expectation of a blog is to be not only specialised (niche) but also to carry exclusive material (unique). That is a tall order, yet the long and engorged tail may suggest it is already being done.

Certainly, blogs need to do more than merely point.

Finally, Beckett says that here in America, we might still be hung up on a difference between bloggers and journalists. I wasn’t aware.

In the States I am amazed that there is a still a debate about bloggers v journalists. In the UK we appear to have moved on from that rather sterile argument, although our blogosphere does not have the power of the American versions.

Beckett calls the argument sterile because it is clear that if blog content is bogus, people won’t read. Conversely, if content is good and the copy is lyrical then readership follows, no matter who you are. (This logic may apply more to the act of reading more than, say, watching cable news where nonsense seems to dominate.)


You heard it here first folks. Uniche, meaning the required combination of niche subject matter and unique content, might be the tricky combination required by bloggers to survive remain relevant in the future. It’s not merely good enough to have your own area, you have to deal with its issues with fresh information and shower it over readers in timely, tasty morsels.

Whadd’ya reckon? Uniche? Does the wordplay work?

Uniche. Also the feminine plural of unico:

Adjective: unico m. (f. unica, m plural unici, f plural uniche)
1. only, sole, one, single
2. unique, unparalleled, unequalled


Incidentally, one of the longlisted blogs for the 2011 Orwell Blog Prize is Ben’s Prison Blog. “The only blog by a serving British prisoner,” as claimed by author Ben Gunn, looks “stupidity and ignorance in the eye whilst attempting to inject some neurons into the criminological debate.”

I wrote about Gunn’s position as a pioneer incarcerated blogger a couple of years ago when one of his letters containing content deemed by the prison governor as “interesting enough to be published on the internet” was intercepted and not delivered. (More here)

I was recently asked to propose a blogging workshop for photography students. It pushed me to think why blogs should be written and why they should be read.

Blogging tools have developed concurrently with the social media platforms that have permitted our shared glut of imagery. Writers in general have provided context to images for a long time, but I reason bloggers are a new front line in the expanded process.

Here are my thoughts.


The flow of images through our daily lives increases at exponential speeds. Social media, photo-sharing sites with essentially unlimited storage and mobile hardware have created this sprawling (and it could be said, suffocating) visual superstructure.

At 60 billion photos, Facebook has a larger photo collection than any other site on the web. By comparison, Photobucket hosts 8 billion, Picasa 7 billion and Flickr 5 billion. Facebook’s photo data as an infographic.


What to make of this slew of imagery is something both Fred Ritchin and Joerg Colberg have addressed in the evergreen debate about ‘What’s Next? (for photography)’ now being pressed by FOAM Magazine.

Colberg asks us to think about the meaning of our own digital archives and impress upon them a meaning, perhaps even a strategy. Ritchin urges us to think about making sense of the world through all the images available to us. Both are concerned with us being actors in the real world, and knowing that the photograph plays a part in social/political action and decision.


Will all this media help us understand what we have done to our planet and what we should do about it? Will we want to help? Or will we remain increasingly oblivious, as if we don’t live here but in some virtual spaces? (This is the new immortality – avoiding not only who but where we are.)

So photographs are less useful for evidence, and as a result we are less sure of what is going on in the world. This can be a welcome change – without the photograph’s certainties we are invited to interrogate issues and events, to understand for ourselves.

Photographs, which used to sometimes prod us into action, even revelation, are now the domain of spaces like Facebook for which we repetitively (obsessively?) photograph ourselves so that we look as ‘good’ as we can possibly make ourselves look. The world and we are one, refracted together in a self-portrait.

But the problem is that few are engaged in such reflection, so the world is allowed to evolve without much effective oversight (moral as well as practical). By killing the messenger – the photograph – we no longer have to worry very much about what it has to say to us. In the information age, we are allowed to – even encouraged to – know very little, because knowing without ever doing anything about what one knows is hardly worth the effort.

Instead of becoming a photographer, figure out what to do with the enormous numbers of images – how to find the relevant ones, present them, contextualize them, link them, meld them with other media, use them effectively. This too is ‘writing with light.’


Interestingly enough, these questions tie in with the way the photograph has come under intense pressure, especially in a news-related context, where news organisations, in particular newspapers, have managed to blame photographs and photographers for the loss of credibility brought on by shoddy and superficial reporting. Photographs are not to be manipulated, we are told. Meanwhile the images we see on a daily basis are becoming ever more artificial.

Beyond our status as subjects within – and/or impulsive producers and passive consumers of – imagery, we are also to a very modest extent curators and distributors. In these last two roles, we can add most meaning and most weight. And it can be done through thoughtful and engaged blogging.

I have gone on record as saying the best bloggers writing about photography are those who can be relied upon to filter content meaningfully.

A good blog has a clearly stated goal and delivers accordingly. That’s how I judge success. Some blogs may cast a wide net, others focus on a niche, but in either case a consistent voice will secure the interest of readers. One hundred committed readers are more valuable than hundreds of thousands of browsers and “stumble-upons.” People need to be told why they should look at a picture just as much as they should be told in a lede why they should read a story past the first paragraph.


The iconic photograph – that is to say the stand alone image which communicates and resonates – is a rare and, for most photographers, an unattainable thing.

Understood within this context, writing about photography can be of paramount importance. And it can be an act of conscience.

Fine art photographers may argue explanatory text demeans a photograph; Robert Adams insisted that auxiliary captioning proved the image had failed in describing all it need to. But Adams’ is an out-dated philosophy. In current times, when photographs have diminished reliability, they require justification for looking.

During their role as World Press Photo jurors, Broomberg and Chanarin considered a photo of drawing of a battle plan from Darfur sketched into the sand on the floor of a hut, and noted:

Without a caption it is a meaningless squiggle. But together with the explanation the image is suddenly transformed into something truly menacing; a real insight into the low-tech horror of the genocide.

Blog posts can be considered extended captions, highlighting the meaning and purpose of photographs. As such, bloggers’ choices on their subject matter are significant. And political.

While much recent debate has been about if bloggers, indie-writers and stopgap-journos can find ways to make money, Brian Ulrich asks if many of us actually deserve to:

“It’s become fairly commonplace for one to put together a website or blog. Ask several questions of an artist by email, spellcheck and publish them.”


“An interview is not a questionnaire and all too many of these interviews are distilled down to a manufactured series of questions where it may even be obvious that the person asking the questions hasn’t even looked to see if those questions were answered somewhere else before. ‘What got you interested in photography?’, ‘tell me some of the inspiration behind your current project _____’, etc…. I hasten to say it but we would not stand for that sort of journalism in the printed press why should we stand for it online?”


“I feel we have a responsibility as publishers and broadcasters of media today. If we’re going to do it, let’s make it right, give us something we can learn from.”

[Bolding mine.]

I have kept well away from the cyclical discussions about pay-walls, introductory charges, donation buttons, ad revenues etc.

I simply don’t have the experience of publishing industries necessary to predict the futures of words and images across all media.

It is challenging to say something succinct in a cacophony of well-informed professional and amateur content-providers.

Expect this to be my only comment, here on Prison Photography, about new media and payment for content.


Mark Tucker has an excellent post summarising the contradictions of our thinking as regard our willingness to pay for rented, mailed and theatre movies; newspapers and magazines; blogs, websites and email; and cable TV. He doesn’t mention cell phones …

Here’s what he says about blogs:

Blogs/Websites: What if old Rob Haggart or Joerg started charging fifty cents a month to read his excellent blog? Would I pay that? I don’t know — fifty cents is a lot of money! But I know, even a measly fifty cent charge, and my brain would resist it in some small way. Because the internet is free. Imagine how much time he puts into it; imagine how much time the NYTimes puts into their website. We’ll gladly pay a dollar for The Times at a coffeeshop, read two articles, and then throw it away, but no way in hell are those greedy bastards gonna charge me three dollars a month to read it nonstop, 24/7, at the comfort of my own desk. (Why does the brain work this way?)


I recently questioned Jonathan Worth for encouraging people to produce content for free, but only because I think many who were to do so would lose out. Jonathan and I could agree that providing content for free doesn’t always mean not getting paid as it leads to alternative opportunities and intangible benefits.

And yet, all I could worry about were those creators who were not diverse enough to plumb time and effort into an activity that didn’t return immediate funds. I suggested that it was possibly the older, less flexible creators (say those with mortgages) that will suffer most if they embrace the new culture of speculation in the creative market

Jonathan did make the clear distinction between blogging for free and creating (photographing) for free. At least for now the avenues of payment remain distinctly different.


Several friends have suggested I start making use of Google Ad-sense to at least get some money back on Prison Photography but my rapid answer that I never anticipated making money and truly don’t want to, garners only chortles and suspicion.

Maybe I am just a martyr. I feel while photographers should demand standards and rights to secure the best deal, I just don’t think bloggers have the gravitas to expect any monetary return on their efforts. The infrastructure doesn’t exist yet.

If you want to clutter your site with commercials, do it.
If you want to experiment with micro-donation, do it.
If you want to take the time to write about things you care about, do it.
If you want people to read and hear you, make it good.

Anything goes, still. The rules are unwritten.

But, don’t be so arrogant to presume that there is a magical solution to financial sustainability because your blogging activity is well-received.

Most often bloggers are relying on other income or other family members to sustain their activity. Recently, Tom White admitted his wife offers his career security. (You should read Joerg’s response and Tom’s counter response in which he also distinguishes between blogging and photography).

I have always been a firm believer that good quality abides. In the blogging industry (I called it an industry?) we are all newbies. We have come from nothing, we should probably be expected to go back to nothing. But, there is a chance that the good quality stuff will stick around. And, if the creators of the good stuff stick around also, then sustainable means may come to full order.

I’ll wait for any number of alternatives before I rely on the cents from Google Ad-sense.

Quite frankly, the web will be a better place when the mediocre disappears. Blogging is only one part of a digital revolution, or it might just be evolution, but I think the crap will be weeded out.

James Worrell‘s optimism is something I can agree with. Quoting Seth Godin, Worrell iterates that, “Every revolution destroys the average middle first and most savagely.”

What will be left, just might be worth paying for?

That the Ministry of Justice and Prison Service have embarked on a course of activity in an effort to disrupt my blog only reinforces my view that I was right to intrude on the public. That the MoJ and the HMPS have the brass neck to portray themselves as guardians of the law while traducing it reveals the very underbelly of criminal justice morality that my blog wishes to illustrate.

Ben Gunn, Guardian. Monday September 14th, 2009

There is an interesting debate growing in the UK. Should prisoners be allowed to blog?


Ben Gunn, who claims to be the only serving UK prisoner who blogs, had a letter to his wife intercepted by the prison governor and told “the content is interesting enough to be published on the internet” and on this ground it was stopped from leaving the prison.

Gunn set up the blog at the end of August. He writes the content and his editor posts it to the web.

Gunn has caused a stir with forthright opinions on politicised victims groups, spineless politicians and poor prison management. These, he argues, are not fallacious rants, but genuine problems of an overly-punitive system and disengaged society.

Furthermore, Gunn argues that despite his original sentence of 10 years, he remains in prison after 30 because he has continuously challenged the prison authorities. At present Gunn is engaged in research towards a PhD, focused upon the role of Human Needs Theory in prison conflicts.

My question “How do we feel about Prison Bloggers?” is largely rhetorical. How we feel about them makes no impingement on their lawful right to write and publish from prison. Let’s be absolutely clear here. Gunn is breaking NO LAW.

The only law that may pertain is that Gunn may receive no compensation for his writing while a ward of the prison service. But this was never the issue at stake. Gunn’s free speech was deliberately quashed by the administration of a system that stood to face criticism through his words.

The official position as summarised by another excellent prison rights blogger John Hirst (The Jailhouse Lawyer):

The Ministry of Justice writes: “There is no specific Prison Service policy on prisoners using or posting blogs, as they do not have direct unregulated access to computers or the internet”. However, the reply goes on to to say that it can be implied from Prison Service order 4411, that a prisoner cannot ask someone else to communicate what the prisoner is not in a position to do himself and which violates the rules. The MoJ has clearly failed to take into account the human right to freedom of expression guaranteed under article 10 of the European convention, and prisoners’ rights to contact the media “on matters of legitimate public interest“.

I agree with many of Gunn’s positions, I don’t appreciate his tone sometimes, but I think he must absolutely exist within the dialogue about British criminal justice. His thoughts as a serving prisoner are of central value to debate and an informed public.

The echoes ring true and far. Gunn’s concerns over misinformation, scare-mongering and codes of silence are as acute (if not moreso) in the US prison industry.

I’ll leave you with Gunn’s view on prevailing distortions to debate and his admirable defiance:

In reducing discussions to trite slogans and vote-grubbing soundbites, we debase ourselves as a collective and as people. I realise that I pose a challenge, but regardless of any efforts expended by the government I am not going away.


As well as the Guardian sources linked in this article, the BBC picked up on this story and includes a brief but informative audio discussion of the issue.


Editor’s note: It seems strange that in the UK this quasi-controversial issue has taken a long time to rear its head – after all, Michael Santos has been blogging from US federal prisons at his own Prison Journal and as a guest at since January 2009.


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