Friday, July 3, 2009

why getting it right isn't enough: or, luck

Marketplace thespian, Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur
Nikon D200, AFS 12-24/4 DX G

If you're trying to tell a story with a single frame - possibly the ultimate challenge - then it all has to come together for that 1/100th of a second (or however long the shutter opens). HCB called it the decisive moment. I think it's both simpler and more complex: you have to be in the right place at the right time with your camera pointed in the right direction. That requires anticipation, since a photojournalist has no control over the elements in the scene other than how they are arranged in the viewfinder. It requires some pre-conception of how the elements should be placed, i.e. anticipation of composition and standing in the spot that allows you that composition.

Then you have the technical side of things, which is mostly taken care of by today's automatic everything appliance cameras. I mean, imagine if you had about two seconds to anticipate, compose, focus, meter, set many modern 'photographers' would be able to manage? If you have a DSLR, switch off the autofocus, put the camera in M, and try it by counting how many thousands pass every time before you take a shot. I'll bet it's quite a few.

But let's suppose you have that sorted, too. Then postprocessing? You can take your time and learn, and the more you shoot, the easier it becomes through practice.

So now we have the important photojournalistic elements sorted - timing, composition, technical/ postprocessing work. But obviously it takes more than that to be successful, otherwise I'd have a career here and not have to turn to corporate whoremongery to support my equipment destruction habits.

Which brings us down to the last factor in every great image - since by definition as a photojournalist, nothing is in your control. Unfortunately, it's luck. If you aren't physically there when it happens, no matter how good a photographer you are, you won't get the shot. I can think of at least half a dozen shots off the top of my head that fall into that category:

-Nick Ut's 1972 photo of Kim Phuc from the Vietnam War
-HCB's shot of the man reflected in the puddle outside Gare St-Lazare
-HCB's shot of the girl in Santorini
-That shot in Nat Geo of a bear at the top of a waterfall with a salmon leaping into its mouth
-Einstein sticking his tongue out
-The tourist on top of the world trade center with the plane in the background, moments before it crashed into the building

And then, after you're there at the right place at the right time, with the money shot, if you don't get discovered, or happen to know the right people, or happen to accidentally leave your portfolio in the john at Magnum (or whatever it is you need to do these days to get accepted), then you're pretty much screwed and resigned to the realm of obscurity, even more so these days since the number of photos being shot and viewed has increased exponentially since affordable digital hit the scene.

Amazingly though, the number of stunning images hasn't increased as much as you would think. So for a good photographer, that would make it easier, right? Not really. There's also a lot more crap to wade through. In fact, you would have thought otherwise, but it just goes to show large number statistics are nonlinear anyway (and that's another discussion for another time).

So if you want to be the next Salgado, better start being lucky. Burnish that horseshoe, or carry that rabbit's foot, or avoid shooting on Friday 13th, or whatever it is superstitious people consider lucky. And bloody well be ready when THE moment happens. Carry a camera with you all the time (I do). You never know.

And with that, it's 7.30am here. I'm off to make the most of the dawn with my busted 50 Lux. Sleep is for chumps, or if you've been up shooting late night urban decay. Sometimes I wish I knew the days when men were men, sheep were scared and real photographers ate a sixpack of Kodakchrome for breakfast.

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