Powerful beyond words

From Vietnam to Bosnia, Rwanda to China, it is the photojournalist who preserves the decisive moments of history
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The Independent Online
The study by two photographers, Tom Stoddart and Alastair Thain, of Sarajevo under siege provides the most effective exhibition of photojournalism I have ever seen. It can be found at the Royal Festival Hall, London, under the title Edge of Madness.

The phrase is taken from General Ratko Mladic's exhortation to the Serbian forces looking down on the city from the surrounding hills: "Shoot at slow intervals until I order you to stop. Shell them until they can't sleep, don't stop until they are on the edge of madness."

At the show we do not actually see exploding shells and bloodshed, though they were ever-present during Sarajevo's 1,000-day ordeal.

Instead the photographers have covered daily life during the siege. How people had to dodge bullets as they hunted for water, food and fuel, and even as they buried their dead. How Sarajevo's citizens kept going when their homes were shattered or they were disabled by war wounds.

We gaze not upon soldiers loading their guns or crouched in trenches, or upon the wounded being rushed away on stretchers, but on middle-aged women, dressed as for a visit to the local shops which no longer exist, clasping their bags tightly to them, running across streets where enemy snipers are at work. Some half-smile as if they are reflecting upon the absurdity rather than the horror of civil war.

In this way, photojournalism makes its unique contribution to the record. It captures the decisive moments as events unfold and holds them for all time.

This is different from the role of television news, powerful as it is. Nobody will look at old television footage of the Sarajevo siege, even if they could get hold of it, to find out what happened, but they will examine the newspaper cuttings or news pictures of the period.

The notion of the decisive moment is the key to understanding the power of photojournalism. Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the finest photojournalist of all, used to quote a phrase of Cardinal de Retz: "There is nothing in this world which does not have a decisive moment." For Cartier-Bresson the important thing was to choose from the flow of images which strike the eye and seize the telling one.

But in the fraction of a second, the time span in which the news photographer habitually works, there is a further, equally onerous requirement: to compose the picture, to work with what Cartier-Bresson called the rhythm of surfaces, of lines and of values.

He said it was putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis. This gives the image its intensity, its emotional force.

The centre-piece of the exhibition is a series of pictures of people having to cross an important road in the middle of Sarajevo, a main artery of the city, which was riddled with sniper fire.

What do we see? A father running with an infant son in his arms, giving a rueful grin to the photographer as he passes, his wife behind him, trying to keep up. Rushing the other way, a few frames later, is a young girl carrying what must be her favourite doll. There is the woman pushing a trolley-load of water containers in front of her as she hastens along. Water is heavy! You wonder whether she made it.

Two women cross the danger zone at a fast walk, arm in arm, the one resolute, the other trembling with uncontrollable fear. And a Bosnian soldier guides a blind man across the deadly street, both especially vulnerable, the soldier in his uniform, the blind man with his stick.

There are also two pictures which convey joy in the midst of tragedy. In one, a mother with both legs amputated squats on a low stool with her skirt tucked under her stumps, and cheerfully greets her young daughter eagerly running towards her. In the other a blind, deaf woman, raped during the war, holds her baby in her arms; both of them are ecstatically happy.

The show has an extra significance for me. It makes the case for photojournalism as an activity when it too is at the edge.

As compared with the situation five years ago, there are far fewer newspapers and magazines interested in reportage. Partly this is because there are no great dramas which grip the imagination nowadays, as did the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, or student protest in China culminating with Tiananmen Square, or the ending of white rule in South Africa.

Tragic events in Afghanistan or Rwanda are only momentarily interesting. Moreover, in the minds of too many publishers and editors, photojournalism has become associated exclusively with grim black-and-white pictures, with death and destruction.

Indeed its power to shock has been weakened by the repetition of a particular kind of image. But this is to assign a limited role to photojournalism. It can tell a story in its own way in a wide range of situations.

Seize the image and compose the picture: this is the point of Cardinal Retz's remark about everything having a decisive moment.

The Independent, for example, has published some wonderful photographs from general election campaigns. Last week Mrs Thatcher went back to the very site where, 10 years ago, the newspaper photographed her walking alone across an area of derelict scrubland on Teesside, with her back to the camera, her black coat and handbag silhouetted against the long grass and weeds. It powerfully illustrated how Conservative economic policy was seen at the time.

Is that why the former Prime Minister returned, now that the site has been redeveloped? Photojournalism has such power. It conveys aspects of a story which words cannot reach. It speaks directly to the heart rather than to the head.

And it makes an essential contribution to what journalism is often said to be: the first rough draft of history. That is the meaning of the Sarajevo show.