The immediate witness

Photojournalism snaps at the truth

By Alison De Graff

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, when 52 American embassy workers were held in Tehran by Iranian radicals, the images captured by photojournalists documented the truth of the situation.

“When the Americans went to rescue the hostages in Iran, a bunch of them got killed in the desert and the pictures that were broadcast in Iran changed Jimmy Carter’s presidency forever,” says Nick Didlick, a Vancouver-based freelance photographer with 30 years of experience as a photojournalist covering international assignments for Reuters.

“In Iran it was seen as a big victory because the pictures that the Americans never saw were of the dead soldiers and the blowing sand that looked like Iwo Jima from the Second World War. If they saw those, Jimmy Carter would have been thrown out on his ass!”

The truth of the crisis was never fully realized by the American people because they didn’t get the chance to see all the photos.

Pictures as a ‘Witness’

Didlick predicts that the technological advancement of cameras will cause an increase in photojournalists.

“As cameras get easier, we’re going to see not only contract photographers, but they’ll be augmented by citizen journalists who will be able to capture and send in pictures the same way they can submit to Reuters right now online,” he says. “If anyone sees a world news event breaking they can actually submit (their photos) on the web. If Reuters chooses their pictures they will get paid for it. I think everybody’s going to become a photojournalist in some form or another,” proclaims the photographer.

Didlick was once given the Journalist of the Year award in 1988 by Reuters and has shaken hands with several world figures, including former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He was also nominated twice for a Pulitzer award by Reuters North America and received recognition by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

On two separate occasions, Didlick was shot at in Belfast, Northern Ireland while covering assignments. His work has been seen in publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.

Didlick doesn’t subscribe to ‘brand loyalty’ and believes that photographers need to understand how their equipment works, rather than relying on a certain brand.

“I think a camera is a tool and there are a lot of people who are emotionally invested in them. All cameras have limitations and you have to know the limitations of your tool if you want to be a great photographer,” he says.

Pictures as Activism

The power of a photo lies in its ability to act as a mirror reflecting real images of the world we live in with cutting immediacy. It’s this unique quality that Andrew Stawicki, founding photographer of PhotoSensitive, a Mississauga-based organization of photographers whose mission is to affect social change, believes is what really helps raise funding for social projects.

After a presentation led by Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, to bring awareness of the orphanage crisis in Tanzania, Stawicki says his pictures were what really moved people to reach for their cheque books. “The affect of the images was so powerful. The people responded so much because they saw the reason why money needed to be raised. Image has a tremendous impact because you can see where your money is going.”

Stawicki has been snapping pictures for the Toronto Star for 20 years and has worked for CM magazine, a Canadian publication dedicated to the review of books, video and audio of interest to children and young adults. His work has taken him all over the globe.

But even more than his ability to unearth the sometimes buried truths of the world, Stawicki has more personal reasons for his love of photojournalism. “There’s an instant reward because I can see the image right away. I got an assignment about a five-year-old girl who was kicked off of her hockey team. I went and took some pictures and on a Friday, it was on the front page of the newspaper. On Sunday, the hockey organization had a meeting and she was back on the field.”

The socially-conscious photographer cited the political orientation of the publication as an obstacle to the impact of his work. Often people don’t want to face the harsh reality of what is really happening in their community, so publications tend to err on the side of what sells. “Very often newspapers don’t want to print the picture of a homeless person because the paper is driven by the bottom line,” Stawicki says.

In the end, editors have a huge stake in deciding what kinds of photos will be published, meaning the photojournalist’s flexibility in terms of the range of their shots is often limited. What the photographer can control is the style of the image, which PhotoSensitive believes if taken in black and white places more emphasis on the subject of the image, rather than the photograph as a whole.

Pictures as Power

David Gollob, vice-president of public affairs for the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) says the development of photojournalism has done wonders for the newspaper industry. “The evolution of photojournalism has helped newspapers to continue to remain at the cutting edge of taste.”

 Gollob’s Ottawa-based organization represents the voice of the Canadian daily newspaper industry.

He believes that the advent of technological advancement in the area of high quality colour reproduction has made a significant contribution to newspapers. “This has transformed newspapers in significant ways,” Gollob says. “If you just look at the re-launch of Saturday’s Toronto Star [which occurred last year], the cover page of the paper was one single photograph, one single visual image that was used to be the banner of the newspaper and that in itself was a tremendous reaffirmation of the power of photojournalism. Its place of preference in newspapers is the platform on which that kind of message is best delivered.”

Many question the staying power of photojournalism in the digital world of the internet, but Gollob has faith in the timelessness that still photography offers. “We have not lost our fascination with the fact that still photography captures a moment in time. It freezes time if you will. We’ve all had fantasies of stopping time. I think it’s part of the human experience that time does not stop and time is unstoppable,” he says. “But to the extent that we can stop it, we can exert our will on this continuum that is time and freeze it, the better to understand it, the better to marvel at it, the better to experience or re-experience it, even vicariously. I think this is really the power of the still photograph.”

He says the intimacy that still photography evokes makes it more affective than moving images. “Still photography has this almost analytic power because it shows you the precise moment that a diver’s face comes into contact with the water. It captures in a way the feeling of that, which a moving picture often cannot do because you are swept away with the movement.”

The power of the still photograph can be understood best with a photo dubbed, “The Falling Man" taken by Richard Drew of a man plunging to his concrete grave from the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was printed only once in several American newspapers, but still managed to evoke very strong sentiments from readers who felt it both exploited and disrespected the victims of 9/11 and their families. MW