The Photojournalist: the challenge of rightly interpreting the Story

The Photojournalist: the challenge of rightly interpreting the Story
By Kevin Casha

A recent statistic I encountered was that it is calculated that over 250 million images are posted per day on Facebook alone (source: Infographic Labs)! When one looks at the large majority of these pictures, one is many times at a loss in finding images worth investigating and reflecting on. This is rather a paradox, because with the amazing technology mankind has today, it should be more the case of equipment taking on a more diminutive role and the photographer’s brain and eyes doing most of the work. Alas it feels rather the opposite. Practitioners do not seem to be interested in mastering properly their equipment, taking this for granted and not concentrating enough, even before they put up their camera, on why they are shooting the picture, at what they want to convey, at what should be included or left out. Today there is also no real excuse at producing sub standard and defective work. Post processing software has given current photographers all the necessary tools to perfect and to create their images. Like the painter with a blank canvas, today’s photographer has the same accessibility and capability of producing whatever they have in their mind’s eye.

In this day and age of a plethora of, at times, meaningless digital imagery, the publication of a book like The Times Picture Annual (2013) is a proverbial breath of fresh air. I consider Photojournalists as a very purist breed. They mostly work in very difficult and challenging circumstances. They cannot, (thankfully), manipulate their images as it is ethically forbidden to manipulate their pictures. As several historical examples have shown, what one actually sees in a photograph is not ‘reality’ in the sense of the world, but an ‘interpretation of reality,’ influenced by the way that the photographer has cropped, selected or composed the image. So, primarily it is the photojournalist’s responsibility to depict the ‘story’ in a truthful, ethical and correct manner. Subsequently, this responsibility also falls on the editor or picture editor who is at a later stage entrusted with the photographer’s work. As Salman Rushdie rightly stated, “A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second.”

I have now been heavily involved in photography for over thirty five years and one good trend I have noticed over the years is the increase in the standard and improved quality of local photojournalists. Do not get me wrong, there have been other great previous photojournalists, such as the evergreen Frankie Attard as well as Michael Ellul. Yet the current crop of relatively young photographers who have taken the medium by storm, during the last fifteen years or so, have managed to really raise the value and status of this vital genre. At this stage, I think that there is a person that has had a lot to do with this. He is none other than the editor of this Annual – Darrin Zammit Lupi. Darrin, who started working in photojournalism in 1992, is undoubtedly the standard bearer and champion of many current and future photojournalists. He has shown, despite the limitations, that even on a small island such as ours, it can be done. His journey has been a bumpy, difficult and highly challenging one but his passion has managed to surmount great obstacles. His work and dedication to the genre is inspiring and, together with other factors, has lifted local photojournalism to international level. I am positive that most of the talented current crop of photojournalists we have today look up at Darrin as their yardstick. We are lucky to have such a dedicated and talented person to inspire a number of true photojournalists who, due to today’s technology, are perhaps becoming a rarer breed.

Coming back to the eight edition of the Times Picture Annual, it is encouraging to notice the superb work of local photographers as well as the vote of confidence given by the book publisher in acknowledging their work. As is the norm, this yearly Annual gathers in it the best and most meaningful work of the photojournalists working for the Times of Malta and the Sunday Times of Malta. It is in fact a picture book with relatively little text – and that is how it should be. A striking image should not really require much text to convey its message. If a picture can hit home primarily through its visual impact, then it can truly transcend the barriers of time and language and be ‘read’ by any individual of whatever race, religion or creed. It is a delight to browse through this publication. The selection of images covers the salient points of what the island has undergone in 2013. The body of work as a whole is an obvious testimonial to the high standards of local photography that is perhaps sometimes taken for granted, yet the effort and dedication shown by the photographers should not be taken lightly. There are a great number of iconic images which not only tell a story, capture a fleeting or elusive instant but also evidence the admirable sensitivity, aesthetic and compositional sense of the photographers. One of the first pictures which made me stop in my tracks was Darrin’s haunting image of a Palestinian migrant child (p.14). Although depicting a tragedy, the hope in the child’s eyes makes us reflect on being optimistic of a possible solution. Darrin’s work with immigrants is well known and his other picture on p.19 is another ‘portrait’ with immense impact. This is not the same look as that of the child, but a look of desperation and fear of the unknown. The photograph by Chris Sant Fournier on pages 30-31 is a fantastic example of a picture which needs no text. There are so many stories in there: The plight of circus animals, the Arriva bus service, the boredom perhaps of the bus driver. The more one looks at this image, the more one uncovers interpretations and meanings. Jason Borg’s capture of an armed forces guard (p.35) is evidence of a keen eye and a calculated handling of light. A group of tourists at a bus stop is another subject which has been well captured by Jason (p.43). The irony of seeing the tourists in holiday gear miserably sheltering from a thunderstorm in a bus shelter contrasts heavily with the usual good weather that our island is blessed and promoted with. Jokingly, a more humorous interpretation could be that the seasons changed whilst these hapless tourists where waiting for the bus! On a more serious vein, the photojournalist has his work cut out when tackling ecological concerns. Lately, unfortunately, such subjects seem to abound and the photograph of dead fish in Marsascala (p.62) by Chris not only captures the moment but also tries to kindle awareness at such dangers.

Politics is a very hot topic in Malta, it could be our Mediterranean blood, so it is of no surprise to find a section allocated to this subject. The picture of the freshly elected Prime Minister, Dr. Joseph Muscat, saluting the crowds from the Palace after taking office is emblematic (p.64). The contrast with the staid classical architecture and the Grand Master’s bust adds that little bit extra to the image: what French philosopher Roland Barthes’ would term “Punctum.” Punctum refers to those obscure parts or details of a photograph that tend to produce or convey a meaning without invoking any recognizable symbolic system. Matthew Mirabelli has surely seen the potential of framing his picture in this manner. Another striking image of the new Prime Minister is that of Chris Sant Fournier on page 72. This is an exercise in keen perception also evidenced through Darrin’s daring crop in the image of Dr. Lawrence Gonzi and the newly elected leader of the opposition, Dr. Simon Busuttil (p.96). The image shows that compositional rules can be broken with a beneficial effect. Leaving politics aside and discussing a more pictorial image, Darrin’s depiction of two Red Arrows aircraft is a fantastic example of capturing the “decisive moment,” as Henri Cartier Bresson so aptly coined images which freeze a fleeting instant at exactly the right time. The same goes for Matthew’s photograph on page 106-107. The timing is just right. Jason Borg’s silhouette at the saltpans shows the effect of the photographer’s intervention. Here, Jason has not tried to depict or document detail but has gone for using light and form to the best effect. Darrin’s contribution on pages 123-124 also endorses his keen sense of composition and aesthetics. The use of tone, perfect exposure and the diagonal composition make this such a remarkable and striking image. Matthew’s photo of the new aquarium on page 143 is also another instant which ably portrays the enthusiastic love of nature that children possess. Matthew has not gone for a cliché picture showing the new building or general structure but has rightly honed in on the human element to instill interest and encourage interpretation.

Another interesting and important segment of the book is the Sport section. This genre of photojournalism has also seen a welcome growth during these last years. In recent years, photographers like Dominic Aquilina (in football) and Kurt Arrigo (in Yachting) have again proved great ambassadors for Maltese photography. Paul Zammit Cutajar is also another very valid photographer who freelances for the Times and so is also featured in this book. Paul’s enthusiasm shows through in his images. The image on page 172 of the Birkirkara Football club’s celebrations is an impressive photograph which, through its monochromatic and compositional factors, clearly brings out the fiery and celebratory emotions of that particular moment in time.

Naturally, there are many more images which consider further scrutiny and appreciation but I prefer to leave a bit of curiosity to the buyers of this book. Full marks to the publishers of this book for the support, belief and confidence they have shown with the continued publication of this series. Just one last word which I would like to end with: I know that printing and publication costs are high and it is not easy to commercially justify such books, but I would have loved to see this book graced with a hard cover. It thoroughly deserves it!

© Kevin Casha
President Malta Institute of Professional Photography

(this review was published in the Times of Malta, 31st December, 2013)

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