The power of pic­ture-tak­ers

Their fu­ture’s out of fo­cus but their work is im­por­tant

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - MEDIA& MARKETING - PABALLO THEKISO

WHAT is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Nel­son Man­dela’s re­lease from prison in 1990? The iconic pic­ture of him and his wife Win­nie Man­dela hold­ing hands, their fists in the air while mul­ti­tudes formed a guard of hon­our and cheered.

What comes to mind when I speak of xeno­pho­bic at­tacks? Ernesto, the burn­ing man from Mozambique.

What comes to mind when we think of Septem­ber 11, 2001? The fall­ing man who jumped out of a win­dow high in the World Trade Cen­tre as it was con­sumed by fire.

More re­cently, what comes to mind when we think of the Marikana Mas­sacre? The iconic man in the green blan­ket or the life­less bod­ies on the ground. That’s the power that still photographs have.

As Mag­num photo agency pho­to­jour­nal­ist Bruno Bar­bey once put it: “Pho­tog­ra­phy is the only lan­guage that can be un­der­stood any­where in the world.”

An­other leg­endary French pho­tog­ra­pher and film-maker, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, said: “The earth is an art, the pho­tog­ra­pher is only a wit­ness.”

While I’m in full agree­ment with Bruno and Yann, I’m equally wor­ried about the fu­ture of pho­tog­ra­phy and pho­tog­ra­phers, es­pe­cially in the news­pa­per space.

I grew up in a pho­tog­ra­phy en­vi­ron­ment/space where a photograph was ev­ery­thing. An en­vi­ron­ment where pho­tog­ra­phers were re­spected, val­ued and seen as an as­set wher­ever they worked.

A place where the qual­ity of a photograph was the or­der of the day. But to­day any­thing goes and photographs and pho­tog­ra­phers are in dan­ger of be­ing re­duced to noth­ing.

I re­cently at­tended an in­ter­na­tional me­dia con­fer­ence in Sand­ton and was sad­dened by a grow­ing be­lief among my peers that seeks to de­value the im­por­tance and role of pho­tog­ra­phers in our in­dus­try.

News­pa­pers are dy­ing… this is what ev­ery­one is say­ing and no one has a plan to res­cue them. But who said pho­tog­ra­phy should die too?

On the side­lines at the con­fer­ence, I came across a col­league from an­other coun­try and even af­ter I in­tro­duced my­self to him as a pho­tog­ra­pher, with­out hes­i­ta­tion or sen­si­tiv­ity, he said: “We are an on­line news­pa­per.

“All we care about is hav­ing a pic­ture to go with our sto­ries; qual­ity does not mat­ter. Whether it was shot on a cell­phone or not, our read­ers do not care.”

I was crushed and, as you can imag­ine, that was the end of our con­ver­sa­tion.

Iron­i­cally, my so­cial me­dia guru friends tell me that if they want to get trac­tion on their posts, they use photographs. They say, gen­er­ally, peo­ple will en­gage with a tweet or post if there is a photograph.

If you ask me, I see more need for good photographs than ever be­fore.

But then my spirit was quickly re­vived when I had an­other con­ver­sa­tion with Goran, a col­league from 24Sata in Croa­tia.

Un­like other news­pa­pers in the world that are strug­gling to come up with a model that works, he claims they have found a dig­i­tal model us­ing YouTube and Face­book live that has seen their com­pany grow from strength to strength.

How­ever, what re­stored my hope was not their new busi­ness model, but his next re­mark.

“We had 30 pho­tog­ra­phers across our busi­ness and dur­ing our busi­ness re­struc­tur­ing and re­design we did not fire or re­trench even one of them; we would be noth­ing with­out good qual­ity photographs,” he said.

Sadly, he shared this with me stand­ing around a small ta­ble on the side­lines while sip­ping a cold beer.

How I wish he had said this dur­ing his for­mal pre­sen­ta­tion to hun­dreds of del­e­gates that were in at­ten­dance.

Goran also ex­plained how his com­pany spent lots of money start­ing and main­tain­ing a photo agency for their pho­tog­ra­phers as a new model they un­der­took to mon­e­tise photographs.

He added that though the agency is not per­fect, it is now an en­tity that gen­er­ates its own rev­enue through pic­ture sales and daily as­sign­ments for clients.

This would not have been pos­si­ble had the com­pany not seen value in their pho­tog­ra­phers.

To this day, at The Star news­pa­per, where I have the priv­i­lege of be­ing the deputy pictures editor, we have al­ways be­lieved a good photograph is what sells a news­pa­per.

Peo­ple are at­tracted to good qual­ity photographs and that is why all our front pages are pic­ture-driven.

This com­pany is cur­rently re­struc­tur­ing and I hope the process doesn’t fol­low the same path as in other ma­jor news­pa­per groups around the world, where pho­tog­ra­phers pro­por­tion­ally bore a higher num­ber of re­trench­ments than any­one else.

If pho­to­graphic qual­ity drops, there is a dan­ger sales will drop.

Our com­pany has a rich his­tory of great pho­tog­ra­phers. My own men­tors in­cluded the late Alf Ku­malo and Juda Ng­wenya, who sadly passed away this week.

But there are plenty of oth­ers who have helped put South African news pho­tog­ra­phy on the world map, in­clud­ing Ken Ooster­broek (shot dead on the East Rand), Kevin Carter (who com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter win­ning the pres­ti­gious Pulitzer Prize), Themba Hadebe (also an in­ter­na­tional award-win­ner), An­ton Ham­merl (killed in Libya) and Siphiwe Sibeko.

This trend has not stopped; our news­pa­pers con­tinue to at­tract tal­ented pho­tog­ra­phers.

Pho­tog­ra­phers are not a thing of the past. We be­lieve they are needed more than ever.

Ev­ery­one can take photographs… but not all have the eye to cap­ture, for­ever, a frag­ment of his­tory.


Boys play at Water­wax (Protea Glen) af­ter the rain.


Nomsa Ncube lost ev­ery­thing when her shack burnt down at the Man­go­lon­golo squat­ter camp.


A po­lice he­li­copter flies low and scat­ters a crowd of for­eign­ers at the Kya Sands squat­ter camp in June 2008. A stand­off had de­vel­oped be­tween im­mi­grants and a group of South Africans liv­ing in the squat­ter camp. Xeno­pho­bic at­tacks swept across Gaut­eng.

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