StoryTech Episode Seven – How digital changed photojournalism with Pulitzer winner Carolyn Cole

Jeff Kofman talks to Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Carolyn Cole about how the transformation from film to digital has impacted her work and career. Listen now on all major podcast platforms or read the full transcript below.
April 11, 2023

In episode seven of StoryTech, Jeff goes back to his journalistic roots by speaking to Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist and staff photographer with the LA Times, Carolyn Cole.

With an impressive career covering war, social change and the environment for more than 30 years, Carolyn has seen her share of new technologies. She explains to Jeff how one particular change - the shift from traditional film to digital - has had a profound impact on her craft, for better and for worse.

You can listen to episode seven of StoryTech free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music right now. Or if you’re more of a reader, just scroll down for the full episode transcript and highlights from this week’s episode.

This week’s storyteller – Carolyn Cole

Beginning her career in 1986 at the El Paso Herald-Post, Carolyn worked with many established publications before moving to the LA Times in 1994, where she has been working as a staff photographer ever since.

With a suite of awards already under her belt, Carolyn won a Pulitzer in 2004 for her cohesive, behind-the-scenes look at the effects of civil war in Liberia. You can see the powerful photos on the Pulitzer website.

Episode transcript and highlights

This 25 minute podcast episode was transcribed in 9 minutes by Trint’s super-powered AI. View the full transcript below or jump ahead to notable points from Jeff’s interview with Carolyn Cole.

  • 01:09 – Meet Carolyn Cole
  • 03:58 – The joy of 35mm film
  • 07:13 – The transition to digital photography
  • 10:35 – Early digital photography: What the world lost
  • 12:09 – Today’s world where everyone has a camera
  • 18:02 – Carolyn’s new beat: Environmental disaster
  • 22:11 – Carolyn’s favorite and least favorite tech


Jeff (V/O): [00:00:04] This is StoryTech. I'm Jeff Kofman. So I know we're in an audio medium here, but work with me for a second. I'm going to tell you about a photograph. Four children are standing in a row. They are in a refugee camp in Liberia, West Africa, the year 2003, the country torn by civil war. The children's clothes are tattered, but the colors are vivid blues, yellows, oranges and reds. They're standing so close together that it's difficult to tell whose limbs are whose. And they're in a crowd of other children all jammed up against each other in their hands. Large plastic bowls, empty. The focal point of the photo for me is their eyes. They're wide searching. Not one of them is looking at the camera. It's like a Renaissance painting. The photo is called Hunger. The cut line reads: Refugee children line up for a meager handout of rice on the outskirts of Monrovia. Photojournalist Carolyn Cole won a Pulitzer Prize for it. [00:01:09][64.7]

Carolyn: [00:01:09] I'm not a documentary photographer. I'm going out and looking for images that I feel represent the news of the day. And I don't necessarily have all day or all week. I'm sending something for the newspaper that night. [00:01:21][11.7]

Jeff (V/O): [00:01:22] Carolyn doesn't revel in rattling off the make and model of her cameras, the focal length of her lenses. For a woman whose storytelling, her photojournalism as a war photographer, is utterly reliant on technology, she is defiantly not a photography techno geek. [00:01:37][15.5]

Carolyn: [00:01:38] I've never been a real techie person, and then once I got on with newspapers, I was always giving my equipment and I did my best staying up with the technology. But technology was not something that I really focused on, so I just pretty much used whatever they gave me. To me, it was more like a pen than it was, you know, having the latest and best of every lens and camera. [00:02:00][21.3]

Jeff (V/O): [00:02:01] Carolyn Cole has been a photojournalist since 1986. Since 1994, she's been a staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times. Over her long career, Carolyn has adapted again and again to the shifting technology of photography from 35 millimeter film cameras and makeshift darkroom set up in hotel bathrooms to the instant world of smartphone photography. [00:02:25][24.2]

Jeff (V/O): [00:02:29] From Attica Productions, Trent and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in cooperation with WAER Syracuse an NPR member station. This is StoryTech. This is a personal journey I want to share with you. I spent the first 30 years of my career as a broadcast journalist, foreign correspondent and war correspondent, and the last eight years as founder and CEO of Trint, a tech company focused on transcription and streamlining the workflow of storytelling. We have seen so much technological change come at us so fast. The idea behind this podcast is to explore how those changes have shaped what we watch, what we read, and what we listen to. Today, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist on how digital technology changed her craft, for better and for worse. [00:03:31][61.4]

Jeff: [00:03:35] Do you remember your very first camera? [00:03:38][2.8]

Carolyn: [00:03:39] I certainly do. My parents gave me a Pentax K 1000 for high school graduation, and soon after that I took a summer trip to Europe and spent the three months, you know, exploring Europe and getting to know people through the camera. So as a shy person, it opened up a whole new avenue for me. [00:03:57][17.6]

Jeff: [00:03:58] Are we talking 35 millimeter film? [00:03:59][1.4]

Carolyn: [00:04:00] Sure. 35 millimeter black and white film. [00:04:02][1.9]

Jeff: [00:04:03] Black and white. That was who you were? [00:04:05][2.1]

Carolyn: [00:04:05] Well, yes. I mean, it was a long time ago. And, you know, it's been a very slow process from the Pentax K 1000 to digital. [00:04:14][8.9]

Jeff: [00:04:16] What was that that process back then for people who weren't born and never used those kind of cameras? [00:04:22][5.7]

Carolyn: [00:04:23] Well, it was a lot slower, that's for sure. My first job was basically in El Paso, Texas, at a small newspaper, and we'd go back into the darkroom, develop black and white film, get out the big printers. It was a fun process involving a lot of chemicals and bad chemical exposure. But it was fun to just see the film come up and see the prints that resulted from that. Soon after that, which would be the late eighties, we transferred to color film and started processing our own color film in the darkroom, started getting color pictures in the newspaper, and then I think we switched to slide film. I mean, so it's just been a constant changing process from from one media to the next. [00:05:04][41.1]

Jeff: [00:05:06] So I was with you on part of that journey. I remember when I was maybe 13 or 14, I borrowed my dad's camera. It was before the Pentax. It had a bellows on it. It was a really old 35 millimeter camera from the 1950s, and you'd open it and it would fold out. And I have to confess, I can't remember what the make was, but I used to love opening the lens and the bellows would come out. It was hand-held, and I started doing exactly what you did. I got a little enlarger in the basement of my family's home and all those chemical baths and, you know, in the dark, taking the film out of the cassette and trying to get it to click into the whatever that thing was, where you develop that little plastic bin, where you expose it and wash and rinse and do all those funny things. I loved it. It was magic, wasn't it? [00:05:52][46.4]

Carolyn: [00:05:54] Yeah. I mean, first you had to get the film out of the canister onto these reels so you would roll it onto a round reel, and then each one of those steel reels would go into a steel drum. You put the top on it, and then you'd pour the developer in there first and, you know, continually rotating the developer for I can't even remember how many minutes. But yeah, I mean it was a very, very labourous. [00:06:16][22.5]

Jeff: [00:06:17] And you had to do a lot of that in the dark, right. [00:06:19][1.8]

Carolyn: [00:06:19] Yeah. You were loading the canisters into it in the complete dark. I remember going to Haiti in the early nineties when the Americans went in there to Haiti and have to take the whole darkroom with you. You know, you take all your dry chemicals and liquids and set up a bathroom set up using the hairdryer, and you'd have to seal the bathroom in the hotel so you'd bring black plastic and tape and you'd taped everything down, and then you'd hang the film on the shower curtains on the shower rod. And once that was done, there would be at that point, the transmitter was something called a leefax transmitter. And so each individual newspaper couldn't afford to have one of these leefax. So we'd have to take our little film to another hotel room where the probably AP or Reuters or AFP had the leefax machine, which we would pay to use and send the photos back to the newspaper. So that was a whole another fun process. [00:07:11][51.8]

Jeff (V/O): [00:07:13] It may seem like ancient history now, but the transition from 35 millimeter film to digital photography in the late 1990s and early 2000s was rocky. Those first digital cameras just didn't deliver. [00:07:25][12.6]

Carolyn: [00:07:26] You know, I wanted to be one of the first persons that started using the large digital cameras, and that was around the mid 1990s when we started getting these huge hybrid cameras from Nikon and Kodak. They were giant, you know, very big cameras that was hard to hold, could make your wrist hurt and the batteries were weak, the card size was small. The amount of information, I mean, each picture was like one megapixel or something. It was so small, the image sizes were so small that it's a shame because there was a lot of important things that happened during that time period that were recorded on very poor quality digital cards. The assignment that really stood out is Bosnia, because I went into Kosovo at that time where the refugees were coming out of Kosovo into Romania, and that was a very, very remote location. And so you definitely needed that digital capability. And then we started traveling with our computers and everything changed from there. You know, that was a big turning point. Once we got our computers and we got those first digital cameras. [00:08:29][63.0]

Jeff: [00:08:30] Those dial up handshakes that let you know that you'd connected to the system and...squeeak [00:08:34][3.8]

Carolyn: [00:08:34] Oh, it can be so, so frustrating. [00:08:36][2.0]

Jeff: [00:08:46] I guess. I was at CBC and CBS News in New York when we got those. And I remember being on assignment and, you know, you'd have local dial ups for every possible place on earth you could be. And here is the number to call from Mexico City or from Chicago. And you'd get through and then the handshake would happen, and then you'd sort of connect and then you'd upload the data and you download that. And it was really cumbersome that, wasn't it. It was a really imperfect marriage. [00:09:11][25.3]

Carolyn: [00:09:12] Oh, it was not only cumbersome, but it was a lot easier for the reporters because the file sizes were so much smaller for them. You know, we had in that time what were big files that we were trying to squeeze through these systems. And it was just so frustrating. I mean, you would literally watch it going and just pray that it would get to the end of the photo. Because if the line dropped and you'd spent 30 minutes trying to send a photo on a very poor line quality, you'd have to start all over. So sometimes you'd be lucky to get even one picture through to the newspaper. [00:09:44][31.8]

Jeff (V/O): [00:09:51] When you look back at the photos from those early days of digital cameras, you can see what's been lost. [00:09:55][4.9]

Carolyn: [00:09:56] Especially in those years. Around the early 2000s, when digital was not optimal, it was still struggling, you know, obviously 911, that was still fairly early in digital photography compared to where we are now and the quality of the images now. But I do have some digital images that are just don't hold up. People say, Well, can't you give me a bigger file size? And I'll say, No, I can't, because that's what the file size was at that point, you know, one megabyte or whatever it was. And that's very frustrating in a way. But to me, it was more important to get the information out than to be complaining that you only had one megabyte file size. [00:10:36][39.6]

Jeff: [00:10:37] I'm curious, as these technologies evolve and as the digital gets better, do you think your photography or photojournalism is changed by the technology? [00:10:46][8.8]

Carolyn: [00:10:48] I never felt that way. My process of the way you see and the way you are trying to bring elements into the photograph, that process for me has never really changed. You're looking for news content. You're looking for emotion. You're looking for good light. You're looking for a moment, special moment. You're looking for action reaction, and you're hoping that those things will all come together in an image. And the photography part of it, despite the fact that we have this new technology, it's still very difficult to get all those things to come together in one image and make a picture that's going to stand the test of time. So that does not change. What has changed is just the sheer speed of what's happening and how much more of a demand there is to get the images in more quickly. And the number of photographers that are out there doing that kind of work. [00:11:37][49.0]

Advert: [00:11:41] StoryTech is sponsored by TRINT. The automated transcription and content creation tool made by storytellers. For Storytellers, Trent can help turn audio and video files into articles, podcasts and videos faster and easier than ever before. A discount code Storytech25, is available on annual plans at [00:12:02][20.6]

Jeff: [00:12:09] One of the things that's clearly changed since you began doing this is that everyone has a camera in his or her hand now, and they may be in places where there's something so newsworthy that what they capture on their Android or iPhone is worthy of putting in newspapers and online around the world. Are those people your competitors or how do you deal with this landscape that is so saturated with images and people capturing the kind of action you're after? [00:12:37][27.9]

Carolyn: [00:12:38] No, I mean, I appreciate what they're doing. I mean, look, we need those people to be documenting what's going on in their own countries. I do think that professional photographers, we're looking at it a little bit slightly different, and we're looking for images that are going to stand the test of time, that are going to document news events. And hopefully those images will rise to the top and be what we'll see from now on. You know, I wasn't at the January 6th events in Washington, D.C., but so important that we had professional photographers that were inside there capturing what was happening. And that's, you know, that's going on every day. [00:13:13][35.4]

Jeff: [00:13:14] So technology and innovation have shaped the way photography has evolved, in part because this democratization of the camera means that we're getting images from places that we simply couldn't have had images a generation ago. [00:13:28][13.6]

Carolyn: [00:13:28] Exactly. For instance, going into Afghanistan in 2001, right after the events of 911, and there weren't one hour photo shops, the locals didn't have digital cameras, They didn't have transmission capability. They didn't have places to go get their film developed. So for a local journalist to do that was out of their reach. But these days, I'm very happy to see that almost in every country there are trained journalists that can do very good work and get the information out and have a longer view of what's happening in their country. Because remember, somebody like me is just dropping in for a very short period of time, whereas they're seeing the evolution. So there's two ways of looking at it. You can look at it as, I'm just parachuting in for a brief time or you can say, I'm coming in and I'm looking at it from a different perspective as somebody who lives in the country. I think it's a combination of two that help each other. [00:14:23][55.0]

Jeff: [00:14:25] There's so many photographs, so many images coming at us now, is there a danger that we're becoming saturated, that we're numb to the power of image? [00:14:32][7.3]

Carolyn: [00:14:33] There's definitely a struggle. Just so many images, just scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. I mean, you see, I do it myself. [00:14:40][7.7]

Jeff: [00:14:41] Oh, yeah, I know. [00:14:42][1.0]

Carolyn: [00:14:43] Scrolling through Twitter constantly or, you know. [00:14:45][2.6]

Jeff: [00:14:45] Makes me crazy. Yeah, the whole Instagram scroll thing, you know, 30 images in 30 seconds. [00:14:51][5.3]

Carolyn: [00:14:51] Very difficult. Yeah. Very difficult to rise to the top. But that being said, if you watch what's happening in Ukraine, if you watch the names carefully, you'll see the same names coming out of those images, the same people that are covering those conflicts, because it takes a certain kind of person to be on the front line and it takes a certain kind of person that's got the stamina really to do those kind of assignments. So certainly citizen photographers can contribute to that storyline, but there will always be a need for the professional photojournalist to go in there and help bring those images out. And especially in very challenging situations in places where access is very difficult. The more difficult to access, the more unique your image is going to be. There were not very many photographers in Liberia during the height of the civil war, and there we're not very many photographers inside the Church of the Nativity when they had the standoff between the Palestinians and Israelis. And even when we went into Iraq, there were only a handful of Americans that were in Baghdad to cover the Iraqi side of the story as we started to bomb Iraq. And so for me, what have been my most important stories are stories where there were very few of us to actually document what was happening. So I do think there'll always be a need for professional photojournalists, but I encourage photojournalists in every country to document what's happening in their country. And I'm glad that they're there because they can carry on that story. [00:16:23][91.1]

Jeff: [00:16:24] Yeah, I mean, I think it's interesting you say that because that was one of the things that was a revelation for me as I covered more conflicts, that there's a lot of normalcy going on, not very far from where the horrors are happening. You know, sometimes just blocks away, people are I remember in Tripoli, people were fishing for sardines in the Mediterranean on the along the seashore and not very far away, a bomb had dropped and they just kept doing their thing. And you think, hmm, you don't think of war being like that. [00:16:50][26.2]

Carolyn: [00:16:50] That's an image in and of itself, Right? But I do think that the fact that there are so many cameras out there now and we can see the normalcy, too, because some citizen photographers are sending those images as well. So there there may be a broader look at what's happening in the country just because there are more cameras out there taking images. [00:17:08][17.4]

Jeff: [00:17:10] One of the things that I wonder is I did a lot of conflict reporting and I'm okay. Having moved on and not being in Ukraine, I have huge respect for my former colleagues and my friends who are there now and I worry about them. But it does take a toll on you, that stuff, doesn't it? [00:17:25][15.8]

Carolyn: [00:17:26] Oh, definitely takes a toll. Yeah, it's all consuming. There's a side of it, especially when we were covering Iraq and Afghanistan and Middle East. There was a lot of camaraderie. As I mentioned. We would see a lot of the same photographers at all these conflicts. And now, 20 years later, they're all coming back to Ukraine to cover what's going on in Ukraine. So I miss the camaraderie. It's something I miss, but also something I feel like I need to move on from. [00:17:53][26.6]

Jeff (V/O): [00:18:02] Carolyn has moved away from covering conflicts in recent years. Now she has a new beat. The environment. Though it's less risky than reporting from a war zone, it involves a different kind of challenge and different kinds of storytelling technology. [00:18:18][15.7]

Carolyn: [00:18:20] It's so difficult. It's so difficult because even with environmental photography, we know the narrative. We know plastic is bad, we know air pollution is bad. But how do we get people to change their behavior? And making images that will help that process is extremely challenging. Some of the most effective ones that I've taken personally were during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where you would see, you know, birds covered with oil dripping with oil. Turtles covered in oil. I've seen mutilated animals. But then, you know, closer to home, when you're talking about communities that are surrounded by oil refineries and somebody may have asthma as a result, that's much more difficult to make, really powerful images. So for me, it was far easier to go to a conflict and know, okay, this is what I need to do. I need to photograph this and this and this. And now I really have to sit down and think, how am I going to make people care about this story? How do I make them care about that plastic bottle? Or how am I going to make them care about the gas car that they're driving or, you know, whatever it is. It's a challenge of a different magnitude, to be honest. [00:19:35][74.9]

Jeff: [00:19:35] Do you ever use drones? [00:19:36][0.5]

Carolyn: [00:19:38] I do, yes. I have my drone license. I have my underwater gear. But it's still very difficult to reach that same kind of level that I was doing in the conflict photography. [00:19:52][13.6]

Jeff: [00:19:53] That opens up a whole new world for someone like you That's like your own private helicopter. [00:19:57][3.6]

Carolyn: [00:20:00] It does. You know, there's a lot of drone pilots out there now, but it gives us a different perspective. And I'm not opposed to any trick, if you want to call it a trick, that will encourage people to look at the story, read the story and find out what's going on. Because as you said, there are so many images out there and we're just saturated with imagery. You have to give people a different perspective. So whether that's underwater, I would try anything if I could get them to pay attention to the crisis that we're in right now in terms of our environment and what's happening around the world. So I'm not opposed to it. That said, you know, I'm more of a journalist than a photographer, but it's just another tool. [00:20:44][44.6]

Jeff: [00:20:45] But these are tools both underwater and up in the air that give you a whole new dimension to how you can tell stories with pictures. [00:20:53][7.3]

Carolyn: [00:20:54] They're an added tool. You know, I don't see them any differently than the other tools. I just think that we're at a very critical stage right now, and anything I can do to bring awareness to what's going on with the Earth is to me what's most important. I think because we were involved in so many conflicts in the Middle East, that for the last 20 years, our attention has been primarily on conflict. And here we are again now in Ukraine, and the attention is drawn towards conflict. But to me, the overarching concern is what's going to happen to our our earth. And, you know, a lot of conflicts are based on a struggle for water or land or oil or whatever the natural resource is. That's usually at the core of what's brought that conflict to bear. So it's all interchangeable, really. [00:21:45][51.1]

Jeff: [00:21:47] So there's a mission here? [00:21:47][0.9]

Carolyn: [00:21:48] Definitely. Definitely a mission. And, you know, it's sort of brought me full circle because originally I want to be a marine biologist, so now I have some sort of come back to the ocean and trying to focus on how I can help the environment. [00:22:00][11.8]

Jeff: [00:22:11] So before we wrap up, we'd like to ask everyone who comes on this show about their personal relationship with technology. So a couple of questions. What's a piece of technology that you couldn't live without? [00:22:24][13.5]

Carolyn: [00:22:26] Well, I guess it definitely would have to be the phone now, because it does have a camera. I could transmit anything from the camera phone. It's an all in one tool that you could use. So I could do photography. I could transmit it. You could reach the whole globe with your phone. So I don't think as much as I hate to say it, I think the iPhone is important to me in terms of communication. [00:22:48][21.7]

Jeff: [00:22:49] Do you actually use it for photos that have appeared in the newspaper. [00:22:51][2.2]

Carolyn: [00:22:52] Only just recently. I just upgraded to the 13. I've had an iPhone eight for a long, long time and that quality was not quite there. So I've only had one photo from my iPhone published in the newspaper on the front page, so I really have not used that as a tool. But if I were, you know, out on a island somewhere and that was all that I had, I'd certainly use that, you know, or if I was a witness to something newsworthy, then I would certainly take out my phone and transmit that image. [00:23:21][28.8]

Jeff: [00:23:22] Let me ask the flip side of that question. Is there a least favorite piece of technology that you've encountered on this journey? [00:23:29][6.8]

Carolyn: [00:23:30] I mean, I think, you know, those early days trying to transmit through a USB cord, I guess it was. Those years where I was just trying to watch that photo go and it would get to the very end and then the line would drop, you know, and you'd have to start all over. It was some of the most frustrating times. The early technology was super frustrating. So I am very appreciative of good wifi and what we have now. And, you know, there was a lot of chemical exposures when we were still using film and chemicals and we'd even blow on the prints and it'd be all over our hands. So I do appreciate new technology. You know, of course, the nostalgia of it is nice, but it's also very environmentally not good. So it's just trying to stay up with the technology is the most frustrating part, just staying on top of it all. I guess that's the most frustrating part. [00:24:23][52.9]

Jeff: [00:24:24] Carolyn, thanks. This has been really, really interesting. Thanks for letting us have a peek at your world and your work. [00:24:31][6.0]

Carolyn: [00:24:31] Well, thank you for inviting me. [00:24:32][1.0]

Jeff (V/O): [00:24:36] That was Carolyn Cole, a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times. You can see her Pulitzer-winning photographs at Pulitzer dot org under prizewinners. StoryTech is produced by Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in association with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. Our senior producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Emily Morantz. Mixing and sound design by Cameron McIvor. Our theme music is by Josh Speer. Stuart Cox is the president of Antica. Our executive producers are Laura Regehr. And me, your host, Jeff Kofman. If you have ideas, suggestions or thoughts, you can send me an email at Here at StoryTech, we are insatiably curious about how technology and innovation shape the way stories are told and heard. If you found this conversation interesting, you can help us get heard by telling your friends about us subscribing to StoryTech, and if you really want to help us, spread the word on your social channels. [00:24:36][0.0]

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