Johann van Tonder

Is photojournalism art?

2004-07-08 10:09

Working for a daily newspaper makes it rather difficult to attach too much value to one's own work. Yesterday's award-deserving masterpieces mean nothing today, particularly if you happen to have a less exciting assignment. By tomorrow, the product of today's sweat and stress is used for wrapping up fish 'n' chips.

Soon after I started my career as a photographer on a local daily, I was told by one of the senior editors that a newspaper is not a scrapbook. Readers, she warned, didn't care much about aesthetics and, as a result, pictures had to be taken according to a "specific" style.

She represented a breed of editor who mercifully became the victim of down-sizing and affirmative action. However, it made me think that if editors don't even understand photojournalism, how can we expect total outsiders to?

To make it more intelligible, ironically, photojournalism is often deconstructed as art.

But what the hell is art any way? I hate potentially embarrassing my girlfriend when admitting this in public, but I actually don't know. I find comfort in the words of Charles Rosin of Northern Exposure: "I can't criticise what I don't understand. If you want to call this art, you've got the benefit of all my doubts."

"Not every photojournalist has the ability to be an artist," says Heidi Erdmann, curator of the Photographer's Gallery in Cape Town.

"What about the other way around?" I asked defensively.

It's as if photojournalism will be elevated to something worthy by referring to it as "art". Even if artists themselves could agree on what art is, they clearly don't understand the end of photojournalism.

Former Professor of Fine Art at Rhodes University, and a famous 'art' photographer himself, Obie Oberholzer, shares my frustrations. He stresses that the definition of art in this country is controlled by academics and critics who set boring, one-dimensional standards. According to Oberholzer, "If a photograph has not been conceptualised, thought out in advance, it is not seen as art."

With reference to a recent award-winning art photograph, he says any one of
100 000 pissed people could have taken that picture of a blurred face. "It shows nothing," he said.

Photojournalists don't have the luxury of big catalogues explaining the concept behind something. Research has shown that readers spend less than a second looking at newspaper photographs, but that doesn't render the products of photojournalism any less moving or valuable. History is full of examples of how it can bring the truth home, sway public and even government opinion.

When a gallery exhibited the award-winning work of top Johannesburg-based photojournalist Ken Oosterbroek who died in the run-up to the 1994 elections, nothing sold. But in his career, he touched the lives of thousands with his emotive photographs, helped his readers understand the situation in our country at the time and exposed the truth in many situations.

For Oberholzer, art is about "who we are, how we feel... the greater us." It should "reflect and show something about our whereabouts."

I've always thought that about photojournalism.

But I refuse to have my own work de-valued to the point where I want to think of it as art, displayed in a gallery, its meaning imposed by a massive academic wank: solely for the scholar's edification, in a glossy catalogue and saying nothing.

Is photojournalism art? 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.

    Picture sources: Halden Krog, Beeld and Obie Oberholzer

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