Johann van Tonder

Intimacy reveals the pain

2004-06-23 09:34

Cape Town - Recent media coverage of funerals reminded me of how challenging I used to find this type of assignment. It would be one of a few situations in which my acquired defences would not go up on demand, where the concentration of emotions in one place would rub off on me.

In one of the often-repeated "this game is not for softies" - conversations between my colleagues and I, a seasoned news and conflict photographer also commented to me that the most difficult assignment is a funeral. Since that conversation, I have come to realise that most professional photojournalists share this view.

Given the powerful translation of human emotions into visual language made possible with photography, funerals almost always make it possible to make pictures with strong impact. Many may think that visual journalists - often painted as vultures hungry for grief and pain - will welcome such an opportunity. However, the general consensus remains that photojournalists would rather not cover these private events.

Of course, newspapers have to cover the news and, by definition, this is not always pleasant. Recently, a photographer described in an internet forum how he covered the funeral of a soldier who had died in Iraq. Later, looking over the pain and sorrow on his contact sheet, he felt that he had violated the mourners.

Two weeks ago South African media carried images taken at the funerals of the victims of Paul Johannes Meyer, who shot seven people before turning the gun on himself.

One image showed a family member collapsing at the gravesite. In another picture, a grieving woman, with tears rolling down her face, is supported by two people in what must be one of her most private, anguished moments.

Through good photojournalism, reading a news story becomes experiencing the news personally. According to Dr R Smith Schuneman, a fusion of the visual and verbal mediums occurs not on the printed page (or screen), but in the reader's mind. When you really connect with the grieving subject in a photograph, your own unique background facilitates your own unique experience.

Intimacy is key

For photojournalists, the intimate moments in any situation are the most valuable. They allow the reader to connect to a situation or person, to become part of the story. The much-respected Washington Post's photojournalists understand connecting with readers' emotions all too well, listing "intimacy" as the ultimate key to capturing an award winning image.

The challenge for the photographer is to find the compassionate approach in this uncomfortable situation. Starting with very simple fundamentals, I teach my journalism students to dress appropriately, for example.

Readers don't see the photographer's clothes, however. For the experience in the viewer's mind to be meaningful without being voyeuristic, the compassion has to be carried by the image. Professionals refer to honest, "concerned" photography.

The recent high-profile funeral of former US President Ronald Reagan produced an iconic image that sets a good example. The simple photograph taken with a long lens from relatively far, showing his wife Nancy touching the casket, speaks volumes. No obvious facial emotion, no obvious intrusion.

Funerals are uncomfortable assignments, evidently not photographers' choice. The cold approach often seems easier. Closing in on a contorted face is guaranteed to make an emotional photograph, but serves little purpose other than capturing the obvious grand emotions.

Evoking emotion with the reader as a result of concerned photography requires a different approach. Perhaps, this game is one for softies.

Sources: Shuneman, R: Photographic Communication Lester, P: Photojournalism, an ethical approach Kobre, K: Photojournalism: the professional's approach

Picture sources:
Robbie Schneider, Beeld (Meyer funeral)
Rick McKay, AP (Reagan funeral)

Do you agree? Tell Johann what you think.

  • 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.

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