Pictures worth taking

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The Independent Online
No snatch pictures of celebrities can be seen at the ninth Festival of Photojournalism being held at Perpignan in south-west France, which ends on Sunday. This is a meeting place for true believers in photojournalism, for practitioners who situate themselves on the line that began with Fenton's pictures of the Crimean war and runs through Cartier-Bresson to Don McCullin (who has an exhibition opening at the Barbican in London this week) and onwards. The young photographers who tour the cafe tables in Perpignan looking for picture editors to whom they can show their work have been shooting in slums rather than in Mayfair, in Kabul rather than Paris; they have been taking pictures of tanks, not of chauffeur-driven limousines.

The qualities they need are the polar opposites of the skills of the paparazzi. The first of these is empathy with the subject-matter, whether it be as a Russian war photographer, Pavel Kassin, describes the victims of conflict in Russia's rebellious border territories - "how tragic was their submission and how docilely their accepted their fate" - or the soldiers - "on either side I saw the faces of desperate men, ready to die, with no regrets". "Neither group", he added in his introduction to his exhibition, "could extricate itself".

But the most remarkable product of empathy at Perpignan is a set of pictures taken by a 12- year-old, Heloise Blier, of her twin sister, Morgane, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. A professional photographer had come to do a story on Morgane and was persuaded to leave his camera behind with Heloise. Her photographs are precociously good, partly because they are taken with love. Contrast this with the paparazzi. Perhaps it is too strong to say that they hate their subjects, but whatever the relationship is between the hunter and the hunted, there is no empathy in it.

The second quality on display at Perpignan is courage. The reporters and photographers - and TV camera operators - who cover the news from the world's trouble spots need to be more brave, in some ways, than the police, soldiers or rebels whom they find there. Their sole protection will be a flak jacket. They will probably have needed the say-so of the government to reach the point of conflict, yet they mustn't be seen as stooges. When injured they have no back-up forces to rescue them. These are not the risks run by paparazzi as they sit behind their cameras, waiting at a safe distance for their victims to walk on to the deck of a boat, or on to a beach or on to the tarmac of an airport from which private flights take off and land.

Then there is a third quality, or skill, required of good photojournalists. They will often have to earn the trust of the people they are photographing. Andrew Lichtenstein, whose interesting set of pictures taken inside America's prisons is on show in Perpignan, says that "I had to be the invited guest of the warden. But I never wanted to be perceived by the prisoners themselves as working for the prison administration. Being honestly interested in the lives of the prisoners required a lot more diplomacy than photography." How different are the skills needed by paparazzi. Their trade is burglary. It requires disguise, deception, secrecy, the bribery of people with access to or knowledge of the celebrity in question.

I do not want to argue that the only good photojournalism is pictures of war, poverty, cruelty, squalor. As well as the searing sense of outrage that often propels photographers into this kind of work, there is a gentler desire simply to express a point of view. Andreas Feininger, who was a Life photographer in the 1940s and 1950s, had a clear objective: to use his camera to explain what made America impressive to people seeing it for the first time. Anybody who has been to the US surely remembers his or her first glimpse of the New World. As I flew across the Atlantic in my late 20s, I feverishly tried to imagine what New York would be like. In the airport I quickly came across a typical newspaper stand and then a food counter; ah, I thought, somewhat prematurely, this is really America, this is what it looks like. In his picture of the crowds in Fifth Avenue on a bright morning 50 years ago Feininger miraculously captured the freshness and exhilaration of one's first images of New York.

Steve McCurry's recent pictures of India have a similar sort of aim. He wants to show a land where death and ageing are neither feared nor resisted, but expected; where cataclysm is not something you only read about or see on TV, but is so close, it is almost welcomed, whether it be monsoon or civil upheaval. Many of his pictures succeed but one in particular is in my mind as I write. It shows a man crossing a street, with flood water up to his shoulders, smiling cheerfully, carrying a battered sewing machine, still dry, to safety.

It is not so much the paparazzi that threaten this sort of photojournalism, guilt by association, but a wider phenomenon of the late 20th century: dumbing down. The growing appetite of newspapers and magazines for lifestyle features and celebrity coverage leaves less room for photographs that do more than merely illustrate an accompanying article, but which are strong enough on their own to communicate or to interpret events. There was a good example of this power in Brian Harris's picture on this page. It was originally published in The Independent to show bailiffs removing protesters from a house that was due to be demolished to make way for a motorway extension. The photograph is surreal, with its juxtaposition of the grim agents of the state and the embracing couple. In an unworldly way, the protesters seem to be saying to the bailiffs, hang on a moment while we kiss, then we'll complete our protest, then you can remove us. Please do things in the right order!

For photojournalists the issue is not whether a single, snatched picture could be worth pounds 100,000, but whether they can earn any sort of living. The money available for their work has declined. Perhaps the demand for paparazzi pictures will now suffer a setback, a "temporary correction" in the language of stock markets. But proper photojournalism, as I choose to call it, finds itself in a long bear market. Quite a lot of the work on show in Perpignan, the best there is, will never be published. Even the set of pictures which won the top competition of the year, the World Press Photo award, went unseen for many months - though the subject-matter is injuries caused by land-mines, photographed in Angola close to where Princess Diana went to see the horrors for herself.

Yet even in the best times, photojournalism finds itself at the edge. Newspapers and magazines are inevitably dominated by writers and they do not readily admit the power of pictures. They believe too easily that TV does the best pictures, not understanding that a "still" picture has a special quality, the moment frozen in time, which can have an eloquence of its own. Photojournalism is to journalism as poetry is to literature, a noble form, yet neglected.