The other day I was shooting (along c. 200 other photographers) when Usain Bolt – yet again – won the WC in 100m in Moscow.
And then did his compulsory round around the stadium.
Something caught my eye. Right on the track there was this young kid taking pictures of himself with Bolt on the background. Watching thru my 600mm lens I could read Bolts lips: “Get out!” and “Get off the track!”. The kid just grinned happily with his cell phone, snapping away.
I don’t know how the situation ended, I got swept away and it was kind of a mess with all the photographers swirling around and security not really as alert as they should have been.
Anyway, I was thinking: What is this guy doing? Is he going to post this happily to Facebook?
Shout to the world: “Hey, look at ME, I have a life, I am in the same picture with Usain Bolt!”
This is the high point of his life? His ultimate claim to fame?
But then I started thinking about our culture and I had to pause for a while. Is this really what we do with pictures nowadays? Try to convince those around us in the social networks that we really have a cool life?
Yes, being a photographer I also do post pictures from these games on FB – as I do from practically all events I work in.
I see my pictures/posts having several functions. They work as teasers (often in favor of the client): ”Wanna see more? Well, you know who do I work for…”
Or I try to illustrate something technical. Or I try to show something that I noticed, but which is not going to end up in the printed publication. Or – I confess – I am simply advertising my work and my skills: this is what I do for a living, so if you ever need a good photographer…
And sure, occasionally I do post something funny. To me Facebook has become a way to have at least some kind of social connections with people I know when traveling as much as I do.
Do I try to prove I have life? That what I do or where I am is somehow cool? I know it isn’t, it’s a job, but do I try to make that allusion? I hope not.
But I have to add: naturally, I could be wrong. You are most blind when it concerns yourself, I do know that much.
My motivation is simple. I am professional, I do what I am asked to do. Or should I say: hired to do.
But I also feel that I think through my camera. It is my way of relating to the world around me.
I see the world differently, because I am used to seeing through different focal lengths and different colors through a viewfinder.
Which leads to my second fragment of a thought: I saw this guy taking a picture of his friend in the Red Square with a cell phone. To show: I was here, I have a life. To be posted on the social media later on, I’m sure.
And totally ignoring the woman behind him asking for a coin.
Or the beggar in doorway who gets no attention… as the people are flocking behind her taking pictures of themselves with cheap Lenin and Stalin lookalikes.
So I started thinking: is it really so that our desire of getting pictures of ourselves on the stadium with Usain Bolt or on the Red Square so great that it really dominates our minds to the extent that we ignore the real world around us?
Yes, beggars on the streets and pictures of them is the cliché of all the clichés… but the point I am trying to convey: you don’t need to be a professional photographer to see them. Being a normal human being should be enough. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be so.
As I was watching the behavior of these people – tourists – what caught my attention was the amazing ability to ignore these people of lesser means, while setting full focus on ”I need a picture to share so I can show that I have a life…” -behavior.
Are we so busy proving we have a life that we actually in that frenzy manage to ignore the life we really have – the world we really do live in?
Seeing vs. Understanding
Which sort of kindled yet another thought. I travel quite a lot because of my work. Consequently and by the nature of my profession I see a lot. I have thousands and thousands of pictures from all around the world to prove it (would that be my motivation… :-) ).
But I realized: seeing and understanding are two totally different things.
I remember Hemingway saying: “Never confuse movement with action”.
And now – as I was walking thru the streets of Moscow the other day – I twisted my own, perverted one-liner out of it:
“Never confuse seeing with understanding”.
Meaning: here I was, roaming on the streets, taking pictures, seeing a lot… but what did I really understand about this culture, this society? Where (with no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet to start with) I couldn’t even read the street signs?
Not much, I’m telling you.
“The purpose of photojournalism is not to correct or amend human suffering or social injustice, but merely show its existence”.
I have heard that so many times lately… and while it is true on the surface, I feel something is missing.
I do not think it is enough that you show something exists – be it some form of social unjustice or simply something in a sports competition – with your pictures.
If you want to live up to being a “photojournalist” there has to be some more understanding and depth to your work. If you don’t have that element, you lack the “journalism” part of your professional role.
You become just an illustrator of things.
You become sort of skilled, professional version of a tourist, proving that something exists but not relating it to anything.
You should somehow be able to make the connection to a bigger picture. Or at least strive to do so. Somehow increase the level of understanding of your audience, their appreciation of the world as it is. Or how it shouldn’t be.
To me, that is photojournalism. Increasing understanding, not just showing yet another picture.
And that is very, very hard sometimes. As you feel you yourself are in the dark – and that by showing one aspect of a society/person, you might be misrepresenting by failing to show something you do not understand yourself in the first place.
So I guess the thing to do is to strive to increase your own level of understanding and skills. To be better prepared and positioned to tell the stories (be it with pictures, multimedia or text) you feel ought to be told.
Stories that matter – instead of snapshots desperately crying for affirmation of your own life and its worthiness in the social media.
Concluding with Sotchi
Sorry about this burst of seriousness. I guess the long summer break has something to do with it: lots of time to think about stuff… and not writing anything.
Coherence of thought is not what shines thru my words here… :-)
Which sort of leads to Elena Isinbaeva…
I was watching her struggling with her not so perfect English in the press conference the other day. And in the process, obviously and unintentionally making a huge, huge mess. Defending her opinion that guests should respect the culture and the law of their hosts. And obviously she was misunderstood, big time.
And I have to respect her: she tried to convey how she felt in public. With a foreign language. I’d be so proud if one day I could speak Russian half as good as she expresses herself in English. And as I said, the mess was to a great extent due to lack of understanding.
But I think the burden – or rather the responsibility to understand lies elsewhere than in her broken words. It lies in us.
So Sotchi (or Сочи as it is written in the local dialect) is like 6 months away. There has been all kind of commentary, pleas to boycott, etc.
I could naturally say: “I’m not going”. But I feel that’d be so stupid and childish, it’s like stating: “You are wrong and I will not talk nor play with you”.
It leads nowhere.
I try the other way: I decided to really make an effort to learn the basics of this strange language. I’ve started with the cyrillic alphabet and will see how far do I manage to get with it before the games start in February.
Just that I could understand a bit more.