Johann van Tonder

Digital versus traditional

2004-10-21 11:50

A reader of this column observed press photographers at the Donovan Moodley trial taking numerous photographs of the suspect.

"Gone are the days of a photographer waiting for the right moment, the credit going to the one who got the shot," he says in his e-mail.

The recently deceased famous Henri Cartier-Bresson, spoke of "the decisive moment" in his book with the same title.

He defined it as "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression."

For this French master, it was not only a matter of capturing the most telling moment or peak action, but important to recognise the value of design or composition in every frame.

Cartier-Bresson wasn't necessarily referring to "spot news" photography though. Certainly not the competitive type of hard news situation where ten photographers fight for space to secure the best vantage point.

He was actually better known for his more softer feature subjects and "street photography." In fact, he wrote that "in photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject."

As a young news photographer, I quickly learnt that film (who still remembers those days?) was the cheapest commodity. And that top photojournalists were happy with a success rate of two good frames per 36-exposure film. And that photo editors are some of the most ruthless and untactful members of the newsroom.
One of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photos
on display at the Bibliotheque Nationale
de France. (AFP)

Trying to send footage from a conflict zone once, just about every bit of technology failed on me. It was completely beyond my control, but caused a delay which resulted in me missing my deadline by about five minutes.

A very unimpressed editor shouted by satellite phone: "Don't give me fucking excuses, just give me pictures." (For the sake of sanitary language in this column, I reduced the occurrence of f-words to a single one.)

That became my standard, and my own motto later as photo editor. Late photographs cause a chain reaction that could delay the paper too much to reach critical sales volume. In an agency environment, the picture simply doesn't sell.

So, pictures first, then excuses. By extension, sometimes a decent shot instead of a prize-winning shot.

Digital photography

Digitalisation has definitely made it easier to transmit material, even to ensure that you have something before leaving the scene. But it still doesn't make you a great photographer.

One thing that would piss me off more than a reporter-colleague introducing me as "my photographer" would be know-it-alls claiming that, if they had access to state-of-the-art-equipment, they too would be able to produce award-winning images.

It reminds me of the tale of another master, Edward Steichen, who is said to have been on assignment in Paris when a tourist with a miniature camera made a similar comment.

Steichen apparently accepted the challenge and used the tourist's camera to produce a cover photograph.

"The one who got the shot" will remain, as always, the thinking photographer who sees more than the peak action, the concerned photographer who is guided by a compassion for humankind, the visual anthropologist who studies the interaction of humans with their social and physical environment.

Whether they survived the extreme economic pressures in the industry, I doubt.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

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