Johann van Tonder

The shallowness of it all

2004-07-01 08:52

What difference does a picture of a famous actor outside an upmarket restaurant make to your life? I need to know, because I'm trying to understand how we got to the point at which we are so shallow that news value depends on celebrity status - status that itself has more to do with an "x-factor" than ability.

I was fortunate enough to start working as a photojournalist at a time when newspapers and magazines were still interested in publishing stories about what was happening in the world.

Beyond the war and conflict coverage in the region, I was often assigned to photograph the lives of ordinary people with interesting stories. Foreign publications would send their reporters here to cover these "features", taking us to the most remote parts of Southern Africa.

Apart from one odd occasion when a paranoid reporter was convinced that our subjects were in fact out to kill us, the relationship was usually a professional one.

My job was to shut up while he was doing the interview and when my turn came, I would not be told to "snap this" and "snap that". Photographs were respected as a means of completing the unit and telling stories visually, not merely illustrating the text.

I still receive occasional calls from foreign publications, even though I'm no longer actively working in the field.

Only last week, I was offered an insane amount of sterling pounds to supply pictures of Colin Farrell, currently in Cape Town working on a film. There were rumours of a new girlfriend, and the tabloid was interested in any picture, however badly exposed or out of focus. The only lead was an exclusive restaurant in town, where he had been seen hanging out.

When sir Alex Ferguson allegedly groped Capetonian Nadia Abrahams, the British tabloids were onto local photographers like flies around cow dung (which, incidentally, was once the subject of one of my assignments). I was offered around R10 000 for any picture of Nadia.

In South Africa, the newly-established tabloids are outselling broadsheets. Even the more 'intellectual' newspapers are devoting prominent news pages to celebrity pictures. Editors aim to print the face of at least one personality on the front page every day in order to appeal to the increasingly shallow masses.

I'm from the school of thought that believes that photojournalism can make a difference in the lives of people. In the 70s, public support for the Vietnam War dwindled when pictures from the front line started coming in. Our own Kevin Carter's more recent photograph of a vulture waiting for the death of a Sudanese child focussed the world's attention afresh on famine in Africa.

What difference a badly-exposed snapshot of Colin Farrell will make in the lives of readers, I fail to see.

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  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer. He lectures photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University.

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