Photographic Journalism
Eugene Smith, Photo Notes, (June 1948) pp. 4–5.

Photography is a potent medium of expression. Properly used it is a great power for betterment and understanding; misused, it can kindle many troublesome fires. Photographic journalism, because of the tremendous audience reached by publications using it, has more influence on public thinking and opinion than any other branch of photography. For these reasons, it is important that the photographer-journalist have (beside the essential mastery of his tools) a strong sense of integrity and the intelligence to understand and present his subject matter accordingly.

Those who believe that photographic reportage is "selective and objective, but cannot interpret the photographed subject matter," show a complete lack of understanding of the problems and the proper workings of this profession. The journalistic photographer can have no other than a personal approach; and it is impossible for him to be completely objective. Honest—yes. Objective—no.

Working with different techniques, all of which are common to others in the field, photographers Lisette Model, Cartier-Bresson, Gjon Mili, rise far above mere technical proficiency. Yet each of the three, were they to handle the same subject matter, would be capable of giving the world fine and individual interpretations. Cartier-Bresson and Leonard McCombe are two photographers who work almost exclusively with 35mm cameras and natural light. Here again, it could almost be guaranteed that their interpretations of the same subject would be quite different. Which is the objective truth? Perhaps all of these photographers are telling the truth—truth being "many things to many people."

Up to and including the instant of exposure, the photographer is working in an undeniably subjective way. By his choice of technical approach (which is a tool of emotional control), by his selection of the subject matter to be held within the confines of his negative area, and by his decision as to the exact, climactic instant of exposure, he is blending the variables of interpretation into an emotional whole which will be a basis for the formation of opinions by the viewing public.

It is the responsibility of the photographer-journalist to take his assignment and examine it—to search with intelligence for the frequently intangible truth; and then very carefully (and sometimes very rapidly) work to bring his insight, as well as the physical characteristics of the subject, to his finished pictures.

It is important that the inspiration for the interpretation should come from a study of the people or places to be photographed. The mind should remain as open and free from prejudice as possible, and the photographer should never try to force the subject matter into his or the editor's preconceived idea. Too often, an assignment is given, the photographer reads the instructions and the suggestions, and then follows them without much more thought—except to photograph as closely as possible to what he believes are the desires of the editors. All too frequently, due to faulty research, to inadequate knowledge or to the preconceived notions just mentioned, the directional theme of the assignment is a misconception of the living actuality. But because he does not wish to offend the editors who pay him his bread money, the photographer frequently tries to make his story conform to someone else's shortsighted or warped judgment.

The photographer must bear the responsibility for his work and its effect. By so much as his work is a distortion (this is sometimes intangible, at other times shockingly obvious), in such proportion is it a crime against humanity. Even on rather "unimportant" stories, this attitude must be taken—for photographs (and the little words underneath) are molders of opinion. A little misinformation plus a little more misinformation is the kindling from which destructive misunderstandings flare.

The majority of photographic stories require a certain amount of setting up, rearranging and stage direction, to bring pictorial and editorial coherency to the pictures. Here, the photojournalist can be his most completely creative self. Whenever this is done for the purpose of a better translation of the spirit of the actuality, then it is completely ethical. If the changes become a perversion of the actuality for the sole purpose of making a "more dramatic" or "saleable" picture, the photographer has indulged in "artistic license" that should not be. This is a very common type of distortion. If the photographer has distorted for some unethical reasons, it obviously becomes a matter of the utmost gravity.

A personal belief of mine is that all the events in the world which cause great emotional upheavals, such as wars, riots, mine disasters, fires, the death of leaders (such as the reaction to the death of Ghandi)—these and similar happenings which tend to release human emotions from control should be photographed in a completely interpretational manner. Under no circumstances should an attempt be made to recreate the moods and happenings of these moments.

I prefer this unposed interpretive approach in the doing of all stories—that is, wherever possible. Regardless of the "how" of interpretations, the journalistic field must find men of integrity, openminded and sincere in purpose, with the intelligence and insight to penetrate to the vital core of human relationships—and with the very rare ability to give the full measure of their unbiased findings to the world. Few men are so completely equipped, but the standards of journalism should be measured high. And the individual striving for this perfection should not compromise. He must not knuckle down to those publications which would have it otherwise. He should be held accountable for any prolonged misuse of his work, and cannot seek refuge in the whine that he is just a working man doing his assigned job.

To have his photographs live on in history, past their important but short lifespan in a publication, is the final desire of nearly every photographer-artist who works in journalism. He can reach this plane only by combining a profound penetration.into the character of the subject with a perfection of composition and technique—a consolidation necessary for any photographic masterpiece.


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