Photos That Tell Stories

The changing world of photography

When your craft becomes a hobby every second person believes they have the knack and you question its very nature. There have been countless occasions when I’ve held my tongue as yet another person adopts the title ‘photographer’. I don’t buy a saxophone and walk out of the store a saxophonist, do I? Everyone who reads can write, yet only a small number call themselves writers. And yet.

Enjoying photography has become synonymous with being a photographer.

Freddie Israel, unemployed, Grahamstown, 28 April 2009. During the South African voting process, voters get a permanent mark on their thumbs.

Freddie Israel, unemployed, Grahamstown, 28 April 2009. During the South African voting process, voters get a permanent mark on their thumbs.

Granted, most people are above-average these days. Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook – we are an image-aware generation. People are now using words like vignette and bokeh; phrases that were indigenous only to people who spent long hours in darkrooms. This rapid ‘photographising’ is intimidating, I’ll admit. I can only imagine how the professionals of previous generations felt when digital cameras arrived.

After completing my studies and moving to Cape Town, I began working with a well-known food photographer. He had digitised a few years prior, and we had many long conversations about the changing world of photography. Some of us gripe and look back nostalgically at the good old days, but he was excited about the new possibilities and challenges. I realised that it makes much more sense to embrace the situation. I began to see that it’s a wonderful thing that people are becoming familiar with photography and that it is available to so many people. It makes the competition tougher, but it also makes the standards higher.

The beauty of journalism, whether it’s writing or photographing, is that it’s more than a craft. With practice and skill, you can master a craft. In photography, there is a tool, and you learn how to use it. Learning that piece of machinery though is just halfway there. And that’s where real journalism comes in. There are ethics, there is context, there is story-telling and there is real questioning. It’s not as simple as pointing and shooting.

People buy their seafood from markets on their way to restaurants where the purchases will be cooked. The interesting assortment of characters, from fishermen to businesswomen creates a bizarre scene.

People buy their seafood from markets on their way to restaurants where the purchases will be cooked. The interesting assortment of characters, from fishermen to businesswomen creates a bizarre scene.

Most of the time, I’ll start in one place and end in another. It is being open to the endless permutations that make stories possible in the first place. I could see a place that looks interesting and end up spending hours with an old man sitting on a doorstep. Dolly (the woman on the pier) is one such example. It was a cloudy Cape Town day and I was photographing at the Kalk Bay Harbour. I saw a woman peering into the water and started chatting to her. She was looking for submarines. I ended up spending most of the morning with her. Dolly’s portraits are some of my favourites.

Photojournalism is more than just pictures of starving children, crying women, war-torn cities or blood-soaked streets. There are subtleties within these headline-grabbing situations. As with any craft the beauty and real meaning often lies hidden in these subtleties. Photojournalism is, at its most simple, using images to tell stories. Yes, some photojournalists risk their lives at work. Others don’t. But we all risk our hearts. When there is a compelling story to be told, it starts with an image; an image in the mind or an image out there in the field.

I was originally drawn to photography because it seemed self-reliant. You need only a camera, really. You don’t need to be in an office all day. You see new things and meet new people. You learn. These are priorities that I hold dear. I love details and I love people. I want to get to know a person or a place and I want to be able to contextualise that. I want to spend time with a subject. That’s the driving force behind my craft. Engaging with the details of a person’s existence in order to bring meaning, provide context and perhaps beauty. I hope that’s what makes me and my colleagues stand out from the hobbyists on the Pinterest boards of life.

BACK TO TOP

Discussion