I’ve been a fan of baseball since I was a kid and my son now plays in college, so the game is firmly engrained in my head and heart. It is the ultimate strategic game. The players must be able to jump into action at a moment’s notice, which they practice to perfection, balancing a complete understanding of the situation in the game at that moment, which could determine what split second decision they must make if they get the ball. To the untrained eye, baseball is boring and slow. Nothing much seems to happen, someone throws a ball and another tries to swing and hit it. Each individual player has a task that is assigned specifically to them, and the success of a team depends on how well each individual link supports all the others, with each situation requiring a different action. I love baseball because when a player and a team execute a perfect play, where all the elements of strategy come together seamlessly, it’s like poetry or ballet. It is a beautiful thing to watch. But the reality is that it is rehearsed to perfection, which makes it more impressive than if it were all happening by chance.
This baseball example is a good analogy for the process behind great photojournalism. There are those who suggest “straight” or documentary photojournalism is simply a matter of ‘snapping your surroundings.’ Considering that Apple suggested the world now has 7 billion photojournalists, I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with snapping your surroundings, but that is not what my cadre does. We take issue with this attitude because it implies that straight photojournalism is somehow devoid of real process. For photojournalists who also want to market their work as artistic, the implication of this outlook is that because what they do is so easy, it is not as valuable or unique as photography where the process is more visibly complex or where it is reliant on technique, direction and manipulation.
There is absolutely a process to the kind of pictures I make. There’s a process of research to understand what I’m looking at, there’s keen observation once in the situation, there’s anticipation based on my knowledge and then there’s quick and decisive reaction. The work that goes into making a great photojournalistic picture goes far beyond ‘snapping my surroundings.’ It’s disappointing to me that there’s so little appreciation for great photographs made in the unpredictable chaos of the world, as they are absolutely the product of a rigorous process. You learn to look for visual cues that have meaning, and the ability to translate those cues into great imagery that also conveys important information requires a tremendous amount of training and practice. You have to be able to make the right decision in the right moment. Just like in baseball, it is possible to create something beautiful when in the midst of either chaos or boredom, to approach perfection through practice and instinct.
When I work I’m not looking to manipulate materials. Having a strong understanding of my equipment, though it may be considered simple, allows me to be ready to catch the ball. I use my knowledge, perception, anticipation and reaction to tell a story that I think is important. To me, the higher calling is a wider and broader appearance of images that can be the most impactful. As a photojournalist, it has always been my goal to convey the stories that need to be told, which is why I believe in the importance of this discussion.
What I would like to see is more of an appreciation of what goes into the process of journalistic image making. There are many photojournalists who have successfully crossed the boundaries I am alluding to, whether you look at the work of early pioneers like Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson and W. Eugene Smith, or more contemporary greats like Eugene Richards, Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress. The list is endless and ever growing – as demonstrated by the new crop of emerging talent. These individuals also reflect the evolving nature of this craft, where work is increasingly produced with a greater sense of authorship and conceptual complexity.
Despite this, photojournalism is consistently overlooked and undervalued in spaces reserved for art. The different approaches to photography are symbiotic: they are equal and interwoven. If everything becomes interpretive, it blunts meaning. The same is true of work that is literal – if all photography were straight photojournalism, it would be predicable and uninteresting. The diversity of photographic processes provides the medium with its beauty and power, as well as it’s dynamism. When I see photojournalism denigrated because of its perceived simplicity, it leaves me hungry for a more robust and inclusive dialogue, because I see it as no more or less than an essential component of an incredible form of expression. We must not forget that people still believe that images convey reality and truth, and while it’s important to play with and bend the truth in the pursuit of greater authorship and creativity, there is still a responsibility for visual storytellers to inform and illuminate our world with images that can be trusted.