Sunday, August 17, 2008

Momentous Photographs of Momentous Events

Unless you've been living under a rock for most of your adult life, more so if you're a serious photographer, you've surely seen, at one time or another, National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry's, 1984, iconic and enigmatic photograph of a young Afghan refugee commonly referred to as "Afghan Girl."

McCurry's image is an indelible portrait, etched forever in the minds of millions and millions of people world-wide. For nearly 20 years, McCurry's young Afghan Girl with those haunting green eyes remained a mystery-- an anonymous, adolescent female, photographed in a refugee camp somewhere in Pakistan while the Soviet Union's War in Afghanistan raged on. Then, in 2002, after a long and arduous search, NatGeo announced they had finally located their nameless Afghan Girl and, all at once, she had a name: Sharbat Gula.

If you're curious to read about NatGeo's search for the Afghan Girl, you can do so HERE. But that search isn't what I'm writing about. I'm writing about how momentous photographs captured during momentous events are sometimes labeled as being exceptional examples of extraordinary photography. Which, in the case of McCurry's Afghan Girl portrait, happens to be true.

From a photojournalism perspective, average images of powerful and dramatic events are sometimes all that's necessary to qualify a photograph exceptional and extraordinary. I don't have a problem with that. It is as it should be. But, occasionally, I do take exception when average images, i.e., photographically average images, are lauded as extraordinary for their artistic and technical merits which, IMO, aren't really there. I see this happening on more than a few forums and blogs that feature photojournalism, as well as editorial and stock as their general subject matter.

In recent days, there are images coming out of Georgia, a nation that was once part of the former Soviet Union, that are being hailed by some as incredible photographs. Personally, I don't see these images as incredible for their photographic qualities. Instead, I see properly exposed and composed images snapped by good, sometimes great, photographers who happen to be in the right place at the right time to capture these photos. Many of the images I'm seeing might be powerful from a photojournalism perspective but they aren't necessarily exceptional from a purely photographic perspective. Yet, some of these images, often depending on who shot them, are being touted as exactly that: Photographs of exceptional and extraordinary photographic quality.

Photojournalists are, for the most part, documentarians. They might be really good shooters, both for their craft skills as well as their vision and story-telling talents but, when you boil it down, their chief job is to document events as they unfold. Please note I don't mean to belittle photojournalists, especially those in hot zones. It takes immense courage for them to travel to places where danger abounds. Often, they don't have the luxury of setting up a shot. Their job is to get the shot first and worry about photographic quality second. They follow rules like the Sunny 16 Rule which is about getting a close-to-correct exposure under certain daylight conditions, i.e., when the time it takes to actually measure the exposure isn't available. If I were a photo-journalist, snapping away as bullets flew around me and bombs exploded nearby, I wouldn't be worried about taking a meter reading or checking a histogram to insure my exposure was on-the-money. I'd be snapping away, sometimes from the hip, while I ducked and ran for cover!

Who could forget Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the 1968 execution of a suspected Viet Cong operative? Mr. Adams, in later interviews, admitted he had no idea what was about to happen as he simply snapped away during, what he thought was, a rather routine street interrogation of a suspected Viet Cong agent. Is Adams' photograph a thing of beauty for it's artistic compositional elements or for it's creative use of exposure? Nope. But it is extraordinarily powerful in so many other ways.

I'm not sure why it bugs me when images of dramatic events are applauded for their photographic artistry when such artistry is not apparent. I'm not saying those very same shooters, the ones who capture incredibly moving and dramatic moments, aren't capable of producing photographic artistry. I'm just wondering why praise is sometimes heaped on these praiseworthy images but for reasons beyond why they should be praised?

Have I mentioned the content of this blog might be all over the photographic map? If not, be advised, it probably will be.

Post Script: If you want to see images that are extraordinary for both their journalistic elements as well as their technical and artistic prowess, check out's, "The Big Picture" images of the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremonies.


Lin said...

Jimmy, you need to read Sontag's "On Photography" (if you haven't already.) She questions this very subject in excrutiating detail, and answers your question better than I ever could.

Excellent post, BTW. I'm just lovin' your new direction...

joshua said...

Well said. This is one of those posts that I would think about, but not get to writing. I'm glad you put it out there.