What am I bid for fine photojournalism?

Rob Tucker and a few of his old mates thought they would flog off a few pictures to raise a few dollars for a good cause.

To be honest, it was more than a few pictures and last Saturday it raised more than a few dollars. The Photojournalism Auction in New Plymouth featured 122 of New Zealand’s most iconic press photographs and it raised almost $200,000. The beneficiary is Hospice Taranaki, which has provided Rob Tucker with comfort and care as he deals with terminal cancer.

The auction was Rob’s way of saying thank you to the hospice, and fellow photojournalists like Ross Land rallied to help as a thank you to Rob for a lifetime contribution to photojournalism and to mateship.

I have known Rob and his journalist brother Jim throughout much of my working life so I’m not going to say much more about the auction than what I said to my two friends on Sunday. Jim and I agreed it was a “bloody fantastic effort” and when Rob and I were talking about the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of journalism, I told him I was “proud to call him brother.”

Today, I want to concentrate on what the auction told us. Not just about the generosity that was there in abundance, but about photojournalism and the enduring qualities of a photographic print.

There were images in the auction that have become part of the fabric of our history. King Korokī’s coffin being carried to his final resting place on Taupiri Maunga, the blasted hull of the Rainbow Warrior, lifeboats from the stricken ferry Wahine coming ashore, Air New Zealand’s chief executive Morrie Davis announcing Flight TE901 had crashed on Mt Erebus, Dame Whina Cooper at the beginning of her land march, Prince William with a quintessentially New Zealand Buzzy Bee.

There were others which, when you saw them, recalled events that had receded in memory. Visits to this country by Boxer Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II, and a host of rock stars. David Lange and his backers consoling themselves with fish and chips after his first (failed) leadership bid. Rob Waddell winning the single sculls at the Sydney Olympics. Tunnellers losing their hats in the blast that signalled the hole-through on the Manapouri tailrace.

Then there were those photographs that simply captured the New Zealand landscape or society at a moment in time. Images such as mustering in Otago, a waterfall on Mt Taranaki, wild Kaimanawa horses, surfers and paragliders, native (and exotic) wildlife, a schoolboy haka, and portraits of ordinary and extraordinary New Zealanders.

All this is the stuff of photojournalism, a craft and profession that enriches our understanding of what has gone before. It does so in a curious way: a two-dimensional medium that somehow puts flesh on the bones.

I can recall many, many great news stories but the events being described are what stick in my memory and not the words themselves. I can recall stories I have written but not the exact words I wrote. Yet images are recalled in their totality.

No, it is not because a picture is worth a thousand words. Quantity has little to do with it. An indifferent picture is worth less than the 20 word caption required to explain what you are looking at.

Nor is it a simple interpretation of quality. A nicely framed and technically correct image may still be no more than a ‘nice picture’.

The quality that sets apart photojournalism is a form of alchemy that transforms subject, location, and action by bringing them together at a precise moment in time. It is the photojournalist’s skill and judgement that determines whether the result will be gold or an untidy mixture of base metals.

One of the most perceptive essays on photography was penned by the American intellectual Susan Sontag. In it she said: “After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed. While real people are out there killing themselves or other real people, the photographer stays behind his or her camera, creating a tiny element of another world: the image-world that bids to outlast us all.”

It is this sense of permanence that, in part, gives photojournalism its power. Yet it is more than that. It is an intervention whose power also depends on the integrity of the person taking the picture.

Judgement is not limited to deciding when to press the shutter. The photojournalist must compress journalism’s 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where, Why – into a timeframe that no reporter would care to contemplate. The 5 Ws are the elements of circumstance, or what gives context, and that is what gives real value to the best of photojournalism. The image should help us to understand without distorting reality, and that is the photojournalist’s judgement call.

Philosophers like Sontag will say any intervention – like taking a photograph – is an automatic distortion because it requires subjective decision making on the part of the photographer. The enduring work of photojournalists, however, compensate for that form of distortion by choosing the moment and frame that best preserve reality – seen not only through the lens but by photographers being aware of what is happening around them.

Sontag also calls photography “non-intervention” and, rather unfairly in my view, notes that part of the horror of some of the most memorable acts of photojournalism has been “how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph.” In the vast majority of cases, that choice is not open to photojournalists who have to suppress their own sense of horror to bear witness.

The stereotypical view of the photojournalist is of a character who cultivates a rough-around-the-edges look, a healthy sense of irreverence, and a toughness that makes them ‘bulletproof’ (figuratively speaking, because most have a sensible regard for self-preservation when real bullets are flying around).

It is no more than a thin shield. The best of the breed are deep thinkers while behind the camera. It may not be a conscious form of deliberation but a subliminal process that leaves the impression that they are not thinking beyond the two dimension they are trying to produce. That impression is a mistaken one.

When I looked through the catalogue for the Photojournalism Auction, and when I pore over books I have on the subject, I see an intellectual quality to many of the images: Thinking that goes beyond the simple portrayal of a scene or event.

I could hear the response from photojournalists even before I had finished that last sentence. “Bullshit,” they would have cried, “we’re taking pictures. Good pictures, yes, but just pictures.”

I would disagree and point out that they buy into their own stereotype. There’s more thought behind those images than they admit.

These inner qualities give the images an enduring value. So, too, did the way they were presented at the auction. They were prints. Hard copies that you could hold in your hands and realise that, in addition to their intrinsic qualities, they had physical substance.

Electronic storage of the sort of images that photojournalists have created makes me nervous. I feel there is an ephemeral quality to digital data. It seems too easy to lose or destroy it and I worry there will be great gaps in the history of the human race because someone hit ‘delete’.

Photographic prints have an enduring quality, a sense of permanence. They can be stored or displayed. They can be archived so we know what is where. And, like the 122 prints in the auction, they can be printed in catalogues and books. I hope the stories behind the taking of the auctioned pictures will now find their way into book form.

One of those pictures will find a proud place on my wall. I was the successful bidder for John Sefton’s ethereal black and white photograph of One Tree Hill sitting like an island in a fog bank.

Now, don’t get me started on why black-and-white photographic prints are so wonderful.

3 thoughts on “What am I bid for fine photojournalism?

  1. Jim Tucker – Supposed to be retired, after quitting journalism teaching in 2013 (after 25 years, preceded by 22 years as a newspaper journalist and editor), but find myself busier than ever with various book projects, advising law firms, and writing articles for magazines like North & South and Live.
    Jim Tucker says:

    This may be one of the first in-depth analyses of the quality of New Zealand photojournalism ever published in New Zealand. Thank you, Gavin, for giving it the full power of your insight. I was a picture editor, once, at the Auckland Star, and what appalled me was the scant regard those running and producing the paper gave to the precious pictures they were given each day. Photographers, as we called them then, were thought of as a bunch of prima donnas who were never happy with the size, cropping and placement of their work in a newspaper that, like them all, was regarded as foremost a repository of wise words. The pix were almost an afterthought to help give the dog’s breakfast of a layout some semblance of order and presentability. Of the 19 photos with which “my” team cleaned out six of the seven Balm Photo Awards in 1979, not one made the front page when it first appeared. When I became editor of that paper, the Auckland Star, I made pictures sacrosanct and banned small ones. I instantly became the subeditors’ enemy. What my brother has done with his magnificent effort is remind us all of the intrinsic value of images, something most of society has never given much thought to. Thanks, mate.

  2. simonsaidthis – Auckland, New Zealand – Simon Said This. CoAuthor, Social Media MBA; conference speaker & host, Head of Advisory and Community Manager at RCN Asia, Leading China Commerce Influencer in New Zealand. Loves Earth and specifically New Zealand and China. Building a cultural bridge to Value.
    Simon Young says:

    I have never given, or been given, so much thought to the fine art of photojournalism. Thank you for sharing. I wonder whether todays media environment buries the lead because of the sheer volume of images available. The defining images of the past, taken on film cameras with limited shots per roll, required much skill. Perhaps the skill required now is identifying the needle in the haystack. Just a thought.

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