Descendants of All Worlds

The Picture and the Page

The following extract is taken from the introduction to ‘Pictures on a Page’, the famous book produced by Harold Evans, Editor of the Sunday Times, in 1978. It is difficult to present in a better way the benefits, roles, pitfalls and many other aspects of photography and photojournalism. We are now using this book as a core part of the project with the Hopscotch Photoeditors. It would be worth getting this book to use as part of your own projects to help you as you create your exhibition for ‘Descendants of All Worlds’. Here is a short section from the introduction to the book:

 ‘The camera cannot lie; but it can be an accessory to untruth. Political enemies smile at each other for a hundredth of a second and the next day the newspaper reader absorbs the warmth of their friendship. Bullies can be shown as men of charity; the pompous as folksy and honest girls as tarts. Mountains are moved with the effort it takes to fit a 500mm lens, a backyard swimming pool instantly enlarged to Olympic standards and, thanks to photographic montage or editing, we can ponder events, irrefutably down in black and white, that never happened. In such everyday illusions there may be benevolence or malign conspiracy, but chance always affects the final perception for no single person controls the process.

 The photographer may begin it, selecting the moment and the composition which fit his belief, or his ignorance. There is a set of pictures of President Truman and Eisenhower, meeting for a hand-over ceremony, which faithfully records their mutual animosity. One photographer finally and momentarily coaxed the smiles he had expected at the event; and that was the picture which went round the world. From the Korean war the world saw an appealing picture of an American soldier ‘sharing his last drops of water with a dying peasant’. Bert Hardy, the famous Picture Post photographer, told me: ‘I set it up. Everybody was walking past but I had the idea and asked a GI to give the old man some water for the sake of the picture. He said he would if I was quick, and if we used my water ration.’ Was the photograph truth or fiction? Hardy, who won prizes for his brave photographs of the landing at Inchon under fire, can recall scores of ‘news’ photographs he staged. His candour nibbles at the credibility of photojournalism, but it cannot be any more corrosive of our confidence in the truth of what we see than the assertion of some of today’s photographers, hand on innocuous heart, that they take pictures to change the world.

 Next there is the unseen influence of the picture editor. He can decide what is photographed. He can select, suppress, distort. He can juxtapose images to provoke derision. He can blow up a single frame in a hundred and crop it to give a tiny detail the greatest significance; the yawn in a crowded political meeting rather than the candidate in the centre of a warming crowd. He can, by selection from the picture library, manufacture stereotypes of heroes and villains – Castro is, depending on the editor’s whim, a scowling belligerent or the idol of his people. Mark Godfrey has said: ‘I would send my film in from Vietnam and a picture editor in Saigon would pick the frame he felt dramatic enough to transmit. Often I was horrified to find that the photographs made high drama out of field situations, which were boring and tedious.’ Gloria Emerson testifies, from her research for a book on Vietnam, that picture desks preferred even the ersatz excitement of the test firing of a gun to photographs which told a great deal about the exhaustion, isolation and despair of the war. The newspaper reader is unaware of the judgements that open and shut his eyes. Everyone can remember the sensational photograph of a police chief shooting a prisoner on a Saigon street because it was front-paged round the world. But nobody was allowed to see a similar picture taken six years earlier in 1962 by Dickey Chapelle, again showing a Vietcong prisoner about to be executed by his captor, a South Vietnamese soldier with a drawn gun. It was universally rejected and published only in an obscure little  magazine. In 1963, Malcolm Browne photographed a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire, but John G. Morris, picture editor of the New York Times has recorded that the paper’s editors thought it ‘unfit for the breakfast table’, and a great many other newspapers would not run it. If these pictures were part of the truth about the war, part of the truth was concealed for years. Almost every photographer can tell such stories, significant or absurd. Stuart Heydinger photographed Prince Philip spreadeagled in the mud under the belly of his polo pony. For fear of royal disapproval it was kept out of circulation by the agency, INP; now it is lost.

 There are two more layers in the sieve of reality. The photographer often does not write the caption which goes with the picture and never the heading. Words can turn images on their heads: the photograph of a couple locked in embrace may be captioned ‘Love’ or it may be captioned ‘Rape’. Time and again in war both sides have used one and the same photograph to attribute crimes to the enemy; and that yawn in the political meeting can be attributed as the response not the candidate but to an opponent. Finally, there is the honest reader who can make a monkey out of all this analysis by seeing what he wants to see. His mind is a blank, ready to absorb the image only in the sense that photographic printing paper in the chemical bath is blank in the seconds before the outlines of the picture emerge. The reader imposes on the photographers’ work a matrix of memory, appetite, prejudice and sophistication and when his emotions are strong he can see the opposite of what was intended. Hundreds of people  wrote to the Associated Press about the picture of the girl war protester with the American flag; but they had formed contrary impressions. Some saw it as a moving demonstration of patriotism by a young American; others as an insult to the flag.

 ….Most editors today would testify that for causing them anxiety and provoking the readers there is still enormous power in a single still photograph. Hundreds of newspapers published photographs by the Boston Herald American’s Stanley Forman of a woman and two year old child plunging to their deaths from a fire escape, in 1975; and thousands of readers reacted angrily against cheap journalism, voyeurism, irresponsibility, poor taste and invasion of privacy… giving our kids a nightmare. The power of the news photograph is such that it brings difficult judgements for all of us. At the conclusion of the Bangladesh war, photographers in Dacca were invited to a ‘photo opportunity’ in a polo field. It turned out to be the bayonetting of Biharis who were alleged to have collaborated with the Pakistan army;  people were to be murdered for the camera; and some photographers and a television camera crew departed without taking a picture in the hope that in the absence of cameramen the acts might not be committed. Others felt that the mob was beyond the appeal to mercy. They stayed and won Pulitzer prizes. Were they right?

 …..It is perhaps, the proliferation of the cliche, the death of ‘Life’ and ‘Look’, and the necessary scepticism about what we see which is leading to a disturbing passion for ‘creativity’ in photography. Is photography art? …..Cartier Bresson said, ‘I don’t know if photography is an art or not an art’. Edward Steichen, who did not give a hoot in hell about the photograph as art, wanted it to explain man to man. That was, he recognised the most complicated thing on earth ‘and also as naïve as a tender plant’. It has not been brought nearer, and photojournalism has certainly been set back, by the idea that what matters is the soul of the photographer. John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, told us recently that the more public kind of statement has been replaced; ‘Many photographers now are working with their private understandings, observations and sensibilities.’ And Gerald Rosenkrantz, librarian of the great Magnum agency, comments; ‘photography has shifted from the external to the internal environment’. Photographers are suckers for this kind of narcotic. Some of them may be inspired to imaginative explorations, but it will be a pity if concern with technique and the externalisation of inner fantasies suborns the value of content….’

Harold Evans