Monday, 29 November 2010

Fireman v Corespondent

A fortnight ago I posted about Eid in Jerusalem and received a very interesting comment from Dominic Tyler about the way in which different kinds of photographers approach photojournalism.

To those uninitiated with the British journalistic slang, a Fireman is someone who travels to foreign countries to cover stories, often at short notice and in response to a breaking news story or emerging issue. A Corespondent is someone who moves to a foreign country (usually temporarily - but not always) in order to cover the news from that region in depth for an extended period of time.

In the course of my work I have been both. Initially I was a Corespondent based in New York for the better part of the Nineties and covering US news and features. Of course the US is vast and a Corespondent often travels within the country but essentially my introduction to working abroad was here.

During the best part of that decade, my friends and colleagues would occasionally visit and I was always surprised (and sometimes envious) at how they made great pictures of the things I overlooked. Familiarity can breed contempt and I think I was guilty of taking the everyday things for granted in New York.

Sometimes I would kid myself that these were tourist pictures and therefor not the kind of thing I would visit. In fact I used to pride myself on having done all my tourism in one day when I first arrived in NY and then set about the business of really knowing the city as a resident rather than an interloper.

Wow, what a trick I missed! Looking back, I wish that I had not striven for nonchalance. I shot several good news pictures in those years, some of them within shouting distance of iconic even. But my library of daily life in New York could be easily surpassed by a moderately talented photographer with a spare 48 hours in the city.

For seven years or so after 2000 I found myself in the Fireman role, flying at short notice to cover stories (both breaking and simmering) in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. In these places I tried to correct what I had come to see as the lost opportunity. Photographing the whole time, almost compulsively, determined to collect the strange, fleeting worlds I was seeing. Inevitably perhaps, it was too far in the other direction.

In 2002 I spent several weeks in Kabul on the anniversary of the fall of the Taliban. While there I met Steve Connors a British photojournalist living there for a few years who kindly took the time to point out the middle path. Learning how to have patience and to resist the temptation to immediately photograph everything one sees is about the hardest trick I have ever attempted.

Patience reveals the hidden facets. Only once people have grown accustomed to you without the camera are they likely to be candid and comfortable when it finally appears. Patience leads to atmosphere in pictures which in turn, gives them a lasting quality. Moments are like speaking a foreign language from a phrasebook, atmosphere is like speaking that language fluently.

Of course, the life of a Fireman is rush, rush, rush. Hard to show that level of patience on an assignment where you often have only a week or less to do a complex story. But Steve's advice did serve me well a year later when I spent several weeks in Baghdad. There were the usual hurry-ups on daily stories but whenever possible I went out and looked at things patiently and waited till I had a better understanding of the rhythms of daily life around me before trying to photograph it.

So what have I learnt from approaching things in these distinct ways? Not enough.. you can never know enough, but I am now more open to subtleties and nuance. I have learnt to re-examine what I might have previously dismissed as obvious, or overlooked as banal. So now its a question of constantly trying to blend the best of the different approaches to each situation.

A group of girls walking around old Jerusalem. Laughing and chatting, one of them carrying an assault rifle with double clips taped end to end for quick reloading in a fire-fight. Looks completely alien to me but it's absolutely normal behavior for them. If I lived in Jerusalem would I ever get to the stage where I just filtered-out this kind of thing? Don't think so, but maybe that's the fireman talking!

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