Photojournalism Technique - Thoughts and Theory Behind Capturing Images of Conflict, Crisis and Disaster
A young boy peers through the barbed wire fence of a refugee camp in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, in the wake of the South Asian earthquake of 2005.
Working with a new interpretation of Robert Capa's famous quote:
There is a quote that is often told to photography and photojournalism students from practically the first day they set out with their cameras: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." It is an amazing quote from one of the most respected war photographers of all time, Robert Capa (please read NOTE at end of post.) Unfortunately, I think there is deep meaning in this quote that is neglected by most photographers and photojournalism professors.
Yes, proximity is important in gathering good images. However, I have found that it is much more important to be emotionally close to your subjects.
I remember the point in which this really clicked for me. It was during the South Asian earthquake that struck Pakistan in October of 2005 and I had just arrived in Muzaffarabad, the quake's epicenter, and set up my tent on the outskirts of one of many refugee camps. Within minutes of pushing in my final stake, I was overcome with fatigue, muscle cramping and dizziness. I laid down in my tent and within a few hours was shaking uncontrollably, sweating and vomiting like I never had before. There I was in a city with no hospitals, few standing buildings for that matter, winter setting in, stuck in my tent with no English speakers nearby, the sound of AK-47's shooting back and forth in the hills to my right and left, seven hours from the nearest city on a collapsed road—which killed a busload of people directly in front of the bus I was riding in only hours before—no food, out of water and scared out of my mind.
Several hours later a Canadian nursing unit (thank you again Valerie and the rest of your team) found me and dragged me into a field clinic where they put me on IVs for two days, then transferred me to the U.S. M.A.S.H. hospital (another heartfelt thank you!). Obviously I ended up surviving, they never found out what I had but the best guesses were Typhoid or Malaria. Whatever it was, it was truly unpleasant and took me six weeks to recover from.
When I went back out to shoot around Muzaffarabad, with an IV running from my Camelback into my arm, I saw my subjects in a completely different light. You see, I had spent six years skydiving, four years of deep/night/wreck SCUBA diving, two years of motorcycle racing and various other adrenaline type sports, but it was that week that I realized that I had never really been scared before.
It is hard to explain, but there is such a massive difference in the way it feels to be in control of something compared to having no control. In extreme sports you have control, you know what you need to do, how much time you have to do it and you can always walk away. So while these sports are thrilling, they are not scary.
Scary is knowing that you have no options. Scary is knowing that without someone to help you, you will absolutely die. And once I felt that, once I knew that feeling in my gut, I saw the people I photograph in a completely different light.
Since that experience I have been in many others in which I have felt what it is like to live the lives of those I photograph, and that has allowed me empathize with those I photograph and become emotionally close to them, not just physically close to them. There is a horrible misinterpretation of the idea of objectivity in the world of journalism that makes people believe that they must not feel or think anything or it will negatively affect their journalistic integrity. So we produce journalists and photographers who are programmed not to think or feel—and that is reflected in their work.
Journalism students need to be taught that objectivity, listening openly to both sides, considering all points of view and entering stories with no bias is something completely separate from empathizing with your subjects and learning to understand what they are living through as fellow human beings.
So, for all of you who want to improve your images, think about Robert Capa's words regarding physical proximity, then think about them again in terms of your emotional proximity to the subjects you document. I promise that when you start photographing PEOPLE and not just STORIES, there will be a night and day difference in what you capture.
A shot of me being nursed back to life in the Canadian clinic in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.
Note: Since making this post it has been brought to my attention that there is some controversy as to the origin of the quote "if your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough." A very reliable, gifted and world renowned photographer friend of mine sent me an email stating that it was not Robert Capa who first said these words but his girlfriend Girda Taro. It is commonly known that Girda was not only an inspiration to Capa but also taught him a great deal about his craft.
I am leaving Robert Capa's name in this post and attaching this note since most people still attribute the quote to Capa, but the subject is open to debate and I would love to see reader comments on the subject.