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.