Monday, October 20, 2008

The importance of documentary photography

Colin Powell, on yesterday's "Meet The Press," endorsed Barack Obama to be President of the United States and referred to this photograph in his eloquent statement. More than just making an endorsement he rejected the "anti-Islamic" prejudice that pervades the negative campaign rhetoric.

Powell said, "I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his country and he gave his life." Photograph for the New Yorker by Platon.

The editors at Vanity Fair have a gallery of what they consider to be the greatest "news" photographs ever made.One in the collection is this photo, left, from the Viet Nam wa by Nick Ut, Associated Press. The images are well worth seeing and contemplating their historical relevance. As with any list that attempts to define the "best of," there is plenty of room for debate. The real importance is that these images and many more like them are remembered and still being discussed. My top 25 list would include Alfred Eisenstaedt's image of the soldier kissing a nurse in Times Square, 1945, Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Gestapo Informer,"W. Eugene Smith's Minimata mother bathing her child,Stanley Forman's Pulitzer Prize image of a black man being stabbed by a white man with the American flag,, Dirck Halsted's photograph of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and the Challenger shuttle explosion.
What troubles me now is that the next great news photograph may not be seen. Given the plethora of on-line 24/7 news sites that change several times a day, blogs and other means of journalistic expression, it will be harder for new photographs to enter the general consciousness. Many newspaper websites now include "pictures of the day." There are also specific websites dedicated to showing great photojournalism. The trick is that you have to know where to go to see what's being done by the world's photojournalists. is one of the best. The Digital Journalist is the best site displaying work of photographers out in the field today. It's published monthly. Noteworthy in this month's issue is the work by Callie Shell on the campaign trail with Barack Obama. Should he win these images will take on an even greater historical value. When you think about the value of documentary photography consider the world without it.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Well stated, Jay... and glad to have you back well enough to blog!