The power of picture-takers
Their future’s out of focus but their work is important
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.