Johann van Tonder

'Informed' photojournos excel

2005-03-18 12:51

My apologies for skipping three weeks of column writing without prior warning.

I had the small matter of an examination to prepare for. A post-graduate business course, nothing related to photography or journalism, ostensibly.

Actually, it's incorrect to say that the course was unrelated. Any subject has a connection with photojournalism.

"What on earth do you want to do with all of that?", a friend wanted to know.

I find photojournalists' fascination with photography amusing. Heaven forbid you should ever be caught in the cross-fire of photographers' shop talk when two or more of them get together. There's even a magazine aimed at photographers, called "Shop Talk".

This film is compared with that one, so-and-so has dangled from a chopper just once more than the rest, and what can be done in Photoshop without overstepping the line is spoken about. Which is more like what can be done to overstep the line without getting caught.

Oh, and the favourite of press photographers, a debate which is now entering its tenth year: Canon versus Nikon. As if it really makes your photography any better. That's like weighing up Mercedes Benz against BMW.

It makes me think of the poster I once had: "My girlfriend complains that I don't pay the same amount of attention to her as to my photography. At least, I think that's what she said - I was changing from f8 to f5.6 at the time."

Sir Richard Branson

In an interview with Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire who started and grew Virgin to what it is today, he admits not understanding much business terminology and theory.

Someone had recently sat him down to explain the difference between "gross" and "net". Admittedly, that's how I often feel with all this talk of pixels, chemicals and camera brand names.

So, back to why I did an "unrelated" course. I was shocked to hear from a young photographer - one who can talk about things not photography - that her photo editor had advised against doing a course in psychology. Rather, he thought, she should be advancing her photography.

Advice clearly as narrow-minded as his insight into the variety of subject matter that he, as a photojournalist and editor, has to deal with every day.

In Truth Needs No Ally, the legendary Howard Chapnick quotes someone from the famous Black Star photo agency: "... tell the young photographers you see that they have to be educated in the arts, sciences and humanities, so that they can bring understanding and intelligence to every assignment."

My recent course won't make me understand any of this alienating techno-speak any better, but it informs my work as a photojournalist. If you let that speak for itself, shop-talk won't be necessary to make up for something you can't even articulate.

And, I understand the difference between "gross" and "net".

  • 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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