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“ What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism ”

by John Mraz



Nacho López’s notion of “previsualization” offers a useful jumping-off point for understanding how directed photojournalism has differed from what might be considered to be the “metaphysics” of classical modern photography. Gretchen Garner argues that the paradigm for photography from the 1930s up until relatively recently might be encapsulated under the term “spontaneous witness,” and asserts, “The act of photography has been cultivated by most modern practitioners as one of openness and alertness to chance and hardly ever with a mind-set of directing the world or, most of the time, even directing the picture.” Garner bases this assertion on an overview of the ways in which different photographers of the 20th century have related to the question of direction versus discovery, citing Edward Weston, for example, “I never try to plan in advance.... I start out with my mind as free from an image as the silver film on which I am to record, and I hope as sensitive.... One becomes a discoverer.”

Garner also cites Minor White, another important photographer and thinker about photography: “The state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank.... It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time.” The invention of the small, light, and portable 35mm camera led to the development of an esthetic based on attention to what was happening around one, receptiveness to chance, and commitment to revelation; this resulted in a “hands-off authenticity” grounded in the belief that fakery was not acceptable within this convention. Of course, setups have clearly been based upon the credibility created by this esthetic, just as they have taken advantage of photography’s new and unique status as an authentic index of the phenomenal world.

The supposition that the impulse behind the photographic act has been one of discovery and non-interference is particularly relevant to photojournalism, which combines the apparently transparent veracity of photography with journalism’s seeming objectivity. A classical formulation of how photojournalists are expected to work can be found in Ed Reinke’s statement published in “The News Photographer’s Bible,” the Stylebook produced by the Associated Press: “As for photojournalism, and I emphasize the word journalism, we make photographs from the circumstances we are given and we don’t try to alter those circumstances”(Horton).

Now, there is certainly a difference between what is permitted in “hard news,” where the event largely controls the photographer, and “features,” slices of everyday life and human-interest stories in which photojournalists feel freer to intervene. Almost all of the directed images we have seen above would come under the category of features, and their credibility is, to some extent, a result of certain “seepage” from the faith generated by “hard news” imagery. While the public may be somewhat tolerant of staging in features, they -- and the editors of periodicals who know that their sales depend upon the credibility of the stories they print -- have little patience with direction in “hard news.”

Notwithstanding the direction present in many of the greatest of its images, photojournalism has a particular relationship to "reality." Though a discussion of what constitutes reality is beyond the scope of this essay, let it suffice to say that there is a real world independent of our perception of it. Though our way of seeing is mediated by a priori constructs -- “I’ll see it when I believe it” -- we are most aware of that otherness when we bump into it; as Fredric Jameson is fond of saying, “History hurts.”

Photojournalism deals with reality in at least two senses. On one hand, there is a requisite interaction with the social world; as Mexican photojournalist Julio Mayo stated, “We photographers are the infantry of journalism, because we always march in the front line. We have to go to the news, they can’t tell us about it.” On the other hand, because photojournalistic images are indexes as well as icons, they offer evidence of presence that can be summed up in the words of Roland Barthes, "That has been." As indexes, photographs are traces of material reality, deposited on film as a result of the collaboration of mind, eye and camera: the real key to photojournalism is having the sharpness of vision to discover, and the technical capacities to capture, the phenomena of the world. If it is an art, it is -- at least in the classical ideal -- an art that attempts to find, rather than to create, the juxtaposition of the socially and formally significant.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is the photojournalist who most readily embodies the classical approach. He concisely defined his pivotal concept of “the decisive moment”: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression” (Cartier-Bresson 1999). The “decisive moment” is essentially a metaphor for hunting, the search for that confluence of content and form that the photographer must discover and be able to catch in an instant: “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life -- to preserve life in the act of living. I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”

Cartier-Bresson has been explicitly critical of directed photography: “The fabricated photograph, or set-up, does not interest me…. There are those who make photographs that have been composed beforehand, and there are those who discover the image and capture it” (Cartier-Bresson 1991). Insisting that he “takes” rather than “makes” photographs, his very unobtrusiveness enables him to sneak up upon “Things-As-They-Are,” and capture the reality that he believes is far richer than imagination.

Cartier-Bresson’s respect for and interest in capturing the irreducible variations produced in the real world reflect the influence that Surrealism had over him. In speaking of Surrealism, this photojournalist is careful to insist that he was attracted to its ideas, above all, “the role of spontaneous expression, of intuition, and especially the attitude of revolt,” and he distances himself from its esthetics (Cartier-Bresson 1992). However, despite Cartier-Bresson’s rejection of Surrealist photography, his own strategy is in fact quite in keeping with the importance of the “found object” in Dada and Surrealism, for example, the urinal that Marcel Duchamp entered in a 1917 exhibit under the title of Fountain. A slice of ordinary life is picked almost at random, and acquires a new meaning by its recontextualization through the strategy of dépaysement, a well-known tactic of Surrealists that means literally to be taken out of one’s native land; hence the ordinary, torn out of a familiar context and placed in a foreign situation, which enables it to be seen in a new way.

The surreality of Cartier-Bresson’s photography is unrelated to the carefully orchestrated imagery produced by Man Ray or Hans Bellmer; instead, it is expressed in the capacity to uncover facets of everyday being that go unnoticed until the photographer reveals them through a process of intuition, and a mechanical reproduction akin to automatic writing. Hunting in the street for juxtapositions whose ironic contrasts would surprise people and make them see the world with new eyes, Cartier-Bresson carried forward the Surrealist project by linking it to the photojournalist ideal of the press photographer as a predatory animal lying in wait with a small 35mm camera to capture its prey: the real/surreal, the ordinary/fantastic surprises offered by world in its infinite variety.

Today’s best-known photojournalist, Sebastião Salgado has consistently taken issue with the importance that “the decisive moment” has acquired, stating that he has had many fights with Cartier-Bresson because he disagrees with this idea and much of this kind of documentary photography (Mraz). Instead, the Brazilian asserts that photojournalism requires something different, a density of experience which derives from the photographer’s integration into the context of that which he is documenting. In contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s formulation, Salgado proposes what he calls a theory of the “Photographic Phenomenon”:

You photograph here, you photograph there, you speak with people, you understand people, people understand you. Then, probably, you arrive at the same point as Cartier-Bresson, but from the inside of the parabola. And that is for me the integration of the photographer with the subject of his photograph…. An image is your integration with the person that you photographed at the moment that you work so incredibly together, that your picture is not more than the relation you have with your subject (Bloom interview).

Salgado believes that the primary mediations of the documentary esthetic are the rapport which you have been able to establish with your subjects, and the knowledge that you have acquired about their situation; and he represents the extreme example of the photojournalist committed to long-term projects. Among other undertakings, he dedicated himself from 1986 to 1992 to photographing labor around the world, an enterprise that resulted in a huge exhibit and a large book, both entitled Workers. In 1993, he turned his cameras on the plight of refugees and emigrants, producing the enormous exhibition and book, Migrations. Humanity in Transition, 1993-99, published and exhibited in 2000. Through such extensive engagements, he avoids remaining at the surface of seeing only what he expected to see, and on various occasions, he has articulated the necessity of getting inside what one is photographing:

When you work fast, what you put in your pictures is what your brought with you -- your own ideas and concepts. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him (Lassiter interview).

Salgado’s conceptualization of the “Photographic Phenomenon” may be new, but the idea that depth in photojournalism comes from the time you have spent with your subject has been voiced before. Phillip Jones Griffiths expressed it well when, in speaking of his experiences in Vietnam, he said, “As a photographer you see things first hand, things that haven’t been filtered through some process of manipulation, so the more you see, the more -- hopefully -- you understand. The more you understand, the more you see, and in this process you become wiser” (Miller). So, it is no coincidence that the best photoessay of Nacho López is also the one in which he invested the most time, “Sólo los humildes van al infierno” (Only the humble go to hell). And, the depth in Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor” is no doubt a result of the four weeks he spent working with the physician in Colorado. By the same token, recent critiques of FSA photography refer to the lack of investigation that characterized that project.


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