Still Powerful

I saw a picture today that I’d prefer not to have seen. It was the shot of a three year old child on a beach in Turkey. Nothing remarkable in that – except that this child was in the arms of a Turkish policeman and was dead, drowned on his family’s flight across the Mediterranean from Syria.

It made me think because once again the still photograph demonstrated its power to move people more powerfully than other media. Think of Don McCullin’s pic of the mother trying to breast feed her starving baby during the Biafran war. Think of Nic Ut’s shot of the little Vietnamese girl running, terrified, from the inferno of a napalm bomb. The emaciated Bosnian prisoners who sparked memories of the second world war concentration camps.  These pictures are among the many that have sparked a sea-change in the public perception of the events from which they arose. All stills.

I can think of no movie  sequence which has had the same effect, nor news report. Interestingly, movie sequences were shot of some of the events I mention. Yet it is the stills which we remember and which have become emblematic. Even more telling, the Bosnian image I mentioned was in fact a frame extracted from an ITN video. Yet who now remembers the video image from which it came?

What is it about the still photograph that gives it its unique power to access our emotions directly ? It isn’t novelty value that is for sure. Probably the first photograph that could be considered a news photograph was taken getting on for two centuries ago, the great fire of Hamburg, By the end of the 19th century half-tone printing had developed such that a photograph could be printed in a newspaper at the full speed of the run. And so news photography, the mass reproduced still photograph was born. It has changed little since then, other than colour becoming the norm. You might have though that as the novelty wore off, so would the impact. But it hasn’t. Why?

I think that the old phrase “the camera cannot lie” is buried deep in our psyche. The camera is still seen as an objective, cold recording instrument. Point it at a scene and it captures it. It is ironic that the earliest found use of the phrase  (in the Evening News, Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1897) goes on to say that “it can [lie], as badly as the canvas on occasion”. Even in these days of image manipulation software, when ‘photoshopping’ has become a byword for falsification, people still see the still photo as truth. The photographer was there, he pressed the shutter release, the camera recorded it, now I can see it.

But doesn’t that apply to words, a report, too? The reporter was there, he saw it, he reports it, we read it. I don’t think it does. We all know how subjective we are. We know how colleagues embellish stories and we know we do too. We know how easy it is to do and we know that a reporter works for an organisation with a viewpoint. In our age of communication we are aware of being manipulated, that the same story can be angled and bent, that the same information can form a dozen different stories by the time it reaches us.

But not the photograph! The photograph of a triumphant jihadist standing over a dead enemy is the same photograph in all those dozen different media outlets. It may be bigger or smaller or cropped but it is demonstrably the same image. If it is published on an ISIS recruiting web site it will portray a hero. If it is published in a western newspaper, it will portray a wanton murderer. But the interpretation is in the viewer’s mind, not the editor’s or the business interests of the proprietor. The photograph just gives you the facts.

Surely that applies to video, too? Video is just as native to web and new media use as stills and words are. An event unfolds and the camera records 24 or more stills a second which are simply strung together to give the impression of movement. Isn’t that just the facts? It obviously is but I think the difference here is not in believability but presentation.  A video starts, things build up and the video reaches its headline event. That passes and the video winds down. The whole thing might take 30 seconds or more.  Video leads us in to the main event, shows it and then leads us out. It softens the impact.

In a commercial movie or even a documentary you can shoot and edit for impact. In straight news reportage you can’t. There often isn’t time and anyway, in a violent or upsetting event, just to show the ‘good bit’ over and over leads to accusations of sensationalism and possible censure. That’s the heart of my point. The still photograph is unmatched for the portrayal of dramatic real life events precisely because its very creation represents an editing of reality to an irreducible minimum. Here is an event. Here is the salient fraction of a second of that event. You don’t have to show it over and over because if the reader wants to see it over and over, he can look at it over and over.

Sometimes the picture captures not only the immediate drama but something longer lasting. The photograph of little Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, naked because the clothes were burned from her body by the napalm will live on forever because it speaks of the plight not of just her or the Vietnam war but of the thousands of innocent, helpless children suffering in any war, any time, anywhere. In the picture are soldiers and two children holding hands as they run from the fire in the background. You can stare at the horror and fear of these children and see it all and understand it all.

Do you remember the video? It is shocking but it is but it is footage of an awful event. It doesn’t imprint itself on your mind or make you think much beyond the incident itself. It unfolds whereas the still just smacks you in the face. Every time you see it.

As does Joe Rosenthal’s  Iwo Jima image as the U.S. flag is raised on Mount Suribachi. The drama! The triumph! Was the winning of a battle ever better portrayed? Or Robert Capa’s loyalist soldier at the moment of death. The sheer sudden, random violence of it!

But it’s not all strife. In spite of all the movies that Marilyn Monroe made, the image everyone remembers is of her standing over a ventilation grill with her skirt blowing up. It doesn’t have to be war or violence. The early photographers tried to emulate painters but that was a blind alley. The real art of photography is the more art of the novelist. The ability to observe an event and recognise its meaning, draw it out and show it to other people.

Where the photographer is lucky is that people still haven’t lost their intrinsic trust in the mechanical nature of image making and therefore its plain truth. “I f I had been there with a camera”, they think, “I’d have taken that picture”.  It’s true that some of the greatest pictures were made by just by being at in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t alter the image or its worth but being in the right place at the right time once isn’t much of a qualification for a career.

Modern cameras have removed much of the need for raw photographic technique but what they cannot remove is the necessity for sensitivity to the world around you and the ability to recognize and portray the telling moment from it. If you can do that for current events , you can become a journalist, a movie maker, a script writer, a director, many things.

If you can do that and you want to express it directly to your fellow humans with maximum effect in minimum time, you need to be a photographer.

14 thoughts on “Still Powerful

  1. MJ

    I have completely different thoughts about the boy on the beach and crossing the photo/journalistic line. ~~~Another day.
    On the camera.
    At this point in my life, I have absolutely no brand loyalty.
    The Olympus OMD-E5MkII seems to be a GREAT camera from my vantage point. I have review photos shot this past July in Paris am I’m astounded! Really, really nice.
    But—no loyalty. So I ask, what model of Panasonic are you and the previous writer talking about?
    Better handling than the OLY?? Really?
    My next purchase was planning to be Leica M9. OF COURSE IT’S NOT NECESSARY. But none of this is. We do it because we like it. Its fun, fulfilling.
    So tell me about the Panasonic.

    1. Post author

      I don’t know what brand loyalty would mean – loyal to a hunk of glass and metal and plastic? If I found a better format for my needs than MFT I’d ditch that too.

      I was talking about the GX8 in particular but the GH4 is beautifully laid out too. I currently have an E-M1, EM5ll, GX7, GX8 and GM5. There’s no question in my mind that the Panasonics are more logically laid out, less crowded, and the menus are much better. The EM-1 is the most ergonomic of the Olympus cameras in my opinion, especially with the battery grip. The GX8 is pretty much intuitive to use and could be just picked up and used from the box without recourse to the manual at all. I write how to use books on all the cameras I buy and get a good bit of correspondence on them as a result. Olympus owners’ emails are invariably on the menu system, Panasonic usually on some complexity, such as when and why you would use AFS or AFF. The difference is that Panasonic are a consumer company and have long experience of industrial design. Olympus are a camera company and assume knowledge in the part of their users.

      The GX8 is more like a film camera in its simplicity of use. Every parameter you would normally change has a dedicated marked button or dial. It has space so your fingers don’t poke or prod anything accidentally. I find myself using it more and more simply because it is so enjoyable and intuitive to use. The EM-5ll is a lovely camera but I don’t think your Paris pictures would look any different taken on another MFT. The IQ of all of the MFTs is pretty much identical these days. Of course, all of this is essentially a matter of opinion and if you think the Olympus handles better than the Panasonic after extended use, then it does. My opinion has no more value than yours or anyone else’s. I do think that Olympus have tried to cram too much on a small body, though, which is the only reason I prefer the E-M1

      The Leica M9, it’s like a boat, it’s the sort of thing I’d prefer a friend to buy so that I could play with it occasionally but not fork out the money. I used to have a couple of film Leicas, an M2 and M3 but I didn’t like them at all and just needed them for situations where the clack of a Nikon was intrusive. The M9 wouldn’t be much use to me since MFT cameras have all the IQ that I need. I also expect my cameras to earn their keep and I doubt with its price the M9 would be a good investment. but – as you say, it’s not necessary but it is fun. That’s the point in the end!

  2. MJ

    What makes a picture special and the reason it’s so important to take the right picture is that the viewer of the continues the thought that the photo first depicted. That is why the angle, the light, the color, etc. is so important–you have to make sure you’re telling the correct story.

    1. Post author

      Yes – I’ve always been an advocate of thinking about a picture before taking it, even if momentarily, to make sure you know why you are taking it. It leads me to taking very few frames on a given subject (not moving or difficult ones, of course) so if I went out to shoot some landscapes I wouldn’t expect to shoot more than 3 or 4 of any given scene.

  3. Dustin

    Dear David,
    Well said (as usual), David. I like the idea of remaining sensitive to the world around us. I look forward to your posts like a frog enjoys time on a lily pad.
    I’m hoping you get a little time with the new EM-10 Mark II. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Post author

      I’m hoping to get hold of the Mk2 at some point but I can’t say when. Glad you enjoy the blog.

  4. Sam Kanu

    You raise some useful points, Mr Thorpe. But I think what’s missing in all this that we dont know how to manage the power – the responsibility – of photography.

    The image of the child’s body as he was carried in the policeman’s arms was understandable, if borderline. It served the purpose of creating awareness, without going over the top. It was factual. It touched the heart and created immediacy and urgency. Without exploiting.

    However the publication of the photo of the boy lying face down on the beach was out of order, in my opinion. There is a line somewhere of human dignity and it felt like it was crossed there. In that photograph we had moved into the territory of “gratuitous” – this is a human being who was being portrayed and to all intents and purposes iconified in a way that denied him any dignity in the memory of him . It just was not necessary to go there.

    That photographs are powerful is fairly obvious. What I fear is increasingly lacking is the judgement to go along with it. The understanding of where it all turns into exploitation and we cheapen our own humanity in the process.

    As a side note, I want to thank you for your great work as a blogger. Very few match up to the standards of quality that you bring to this medium. From both the photography and journalism sides, you really bring the “less is more” ethos to life. Thank you.

    1. Post author

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog, Sam. I think you raise the most important point and probably an unresolvable one. Opinion probably ranges from ‘we should never see these images at all, they are too upsetting’ to ‘it is our world and we should be shown it warts and all’. Most will be, like us, somewhere in the grey area between. I personally don’t find the image of the little boy I saw as borderline because the boy’s face was hidden and the story it tells is so important. Had the boy’s face been shown I would have said it had gone too far and, I would argue, made it less effective as a news picture.

      It’s awful talking about a dead child in such remote terms but in situations like this someone has to make decisions. The danger in these days of instant communication coupled with intense media competition is that decisions are made on hoof for commercial and competitive reasons rather than ethical ones. In my days in newspapers the picture would have been discussed at a senior level in the daily conference. That didn’t guarantee a correct result – who could say what that is? – but it would at least have been a considered one with an arguable rationale.

      I’ve covered situations with dead bodies all around and it always raises the question of what limits should I set to the level of horror of the pictures I take. Is it up to me to not take a picture and thus self-censor? But then I decide what you can see too. Do I have that right? Or should I photograph everything and let the office decide? In my personal case I’ve always had good communication with picture editors and I don’t recall ever having to arguing about such things.

      In the case of the child face down on the beach, I am in complete agreement, gratuitous and unnecessary and beyond the pale. Putting on the hard hat of a news photographer and acknowledging that I wasn’t there and don’t know the full situation, I would have photographed the beach looking as beautiful and touristy as possible with the little body a detail, near enough to see it was a child, far enough away for the viewer to have felt that keeping at a distance allowed some dignity in death and that a point was being made rather than a gruesome spectacle presented.

      Having said all that, I’m sure the photographer will have done that too with the choice of what to circulate being made at a higher level than his. It is all very complicated but I couldn’t agree more that judgement is often lacking. Sometimes it is simply pressure that causes that. Perfectly reasonable people, pushed hard enough, make hasty and regrettable decisions.

      1. George

        I would agree with the points and conclusions you make in your article David. As someone one who was born towards the end of WW2, I remember all too well the press images from Vietnam, and the wars and disasters that have occurred since. To my mind the single image, is very powerful and acts as a kind of hook and reference point in people’s consciousness about events as they unfold.

        On a different matter, I have been through most of the M4/3 since the first G1 and EP1, the camera I take with me everywhere is the Panny GF7, much better than the GM1 and GX7 which I have owned. I use the 12-32 and 35-100, both tack sharp, and also the second version of the 20 1.7. In April I consolidated most of my camera gear ( I suffer from G.A.S) and bought the Olypus EM5 II, I had also owned the original version, in truth I have hardly used the Olympus, it is a beautiful looking camera with its 12-40 lens, but the Panny is such a perfect fit for me. Thank for a great blog, and of course the guides which I have purchased.

        1. Post author

          The still certainly drills into the consciousness in a way few moving pictures can. I find with cinema films I remember the good lines of dialogue more than the visual images. Maybe that’s because I’m a similar age to you and movies weren’t so accessible then – a family needed to be quite well off to afford a film camera, the stock and the projector.

          On the camera, actually I hardly use my E-M5ll and I’ll probably sell it. I can’t fault it in any photographic way way, it is that it is too small and crowded and I find myself fumbling with it in a way that I never do with a Panasonic. The E-M1 is much better but, again, for me, ergonomically nowhere near as fluent to use as a Panasonic. I’m reviewing a GX8 at the moment, about the same size as the E-M1 bit styled more like a GX7 and it’s the first digital camera I’ve had that feels simple to use. I think that that is because every parameter that I ever alter, which amounts to the basic ones only, is on the body mostly with a marked function. Especially the compensation dial.

          1. Sam Kanu

            “…I find with cinema films I remember the good lines of dialogue more than the visual images…”

            There are some great contemporary directors out there that really work the visuals. I saw on DVD recently Samira Makhmalbaf’s “At Five in the Afternoon” and she had an incredible number of really memorable shots in there that were great stills in their own right.

            Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films are also great on that front.

          2. Post author

            Thanks for that Sam – I’ll seek out those two film makers.

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