Photography is powerful. One image can change the world, evoke tears, spur a laugh, imagine a unknown part of the world or a moment to pause and reflect. How the photographer creates the story is just as important. Photographs many times are reflections of the photographer’s emotions, dreams and knowledge.
Recently I was asked by students at a journalism conference, did I know I wanted to be a photographer when I was their age. Certainly not. But, I did know I appreciated art and the visual aspect of telling a story. I also knew one photograph could transport you to another part of the world or even into another era.
I remember being enthralled with an exhibit of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz at the National Gallery of Art so many years ago. His ability to capture the warm glow of a street lamp in the snow in New York City is embedded in my mind. The National Geographic image of the Egyptian standing in sneakers smoking a cigarette at the pinnacle of one of the pyramids still brings a sense of awe of the casualness yet powerful view from the top. Old, brownish postcards of lost destinations make me dream of of times past and bring a smile to my face.
And, then the powerful Associated Press photograph by Eddie Adams of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting the Viet Cong prisoner in the head on the street – which is attributed to changing the political dynamics of the Vietnam War. Even today the power of the photographs of the prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan shatters even the best laid political plans.
Photographs of the civil rights movement in the United States are powerful realities shocking to the very core of any sane humane individual. Jim Wallace, now retired director of the photography department at the Smithsonian shared a few old images from his archives for an exhibit at the National Press Club last year. The images were of the North Carolina sit-ins in 1963. Risking financial ruin and failing out of college, he photographed the demonstrations around him before the local papers or even national papers would cover the historic events.
Breaking tradition, the civil rights exhibit was held in March (not February Black History month) because the images were filled with white, black, young, old and absolute hate revealed in KKK rallies of both men and women. These photographs reveal American history. After the exhibit, I asked Jim what advice he had for young photographers. Jim said photographers should study art for the composition, the style, the use of light and even the subject matter. He also said, “F-11 and be there.” Which he explained – before automated cameras, F-11 – was the just in case setting. Show up, take the photographs.
I asked the the students who mostly work on school newspapers and year books, which photographer(s) did they admire. The students responded with Ansell Adams, sports photography, fashion photography, cultural and National Geographic images.
Photographers who have inspired me include Irving Penn, Joel Meyerowitz and Betrand Piccard and Brian Jones who took aerial photographs of the earth as they traveled around the world in the balloon. I also think of Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable’s photograph of an Afghan family re-settling into a bombed out home with their belongings surrounding them and in the center an old bird cage with a bird sitting quietly inside.
F-11 and be there – always.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C.