One of the defining characteristics of photojournalists is a relentless willingness to step outside of their comfort zones. There's nothing so consciousness-raising as being in totally unfamiliar territory and forced to come to terms with it. To capture an image with understanding requires a dual response and instantaneous recognition: the photographer must allow him/herself to be impacted subjectively while observing objectively at the same time. Writers traditionally garner the lion's share of credit for covering unfolding events, but I've heard more than one seasoned journalist speak with great admiration for the skill and bravery displayed by photojournalists, especially in the heat of chaos.
Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term "The Decisive Moment" that for 50 years has defined photojournalism. John G. Morris further illuminated the subject in "Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism." "I am a journalist," he wrote, "but not a reporter and not a photographer." In his career as picture editor for Life, The Washington Post, The New York Times and as the first executive editor for Magnum Photos, his role was to select the images that would best illustrate the accompanying story. His choices time and again became icons worth the proverbial 1,000 words, underscoring the power of images to produce indelible memory and even to change the course of history. One of the most notable examples is Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the street execution of a Vietcong suspect in Saigon by Police Chief General Nyugen Ngoc Loan, which changed the course of the Vietnam War. Watch the trailer for Susan Morgan Cooper's documentary on Adams' life as a photojournalist, entitled "An Unlikely Weapon."
In order to capture the decisive, defining moment, photojournalists have to be up-front and close to the action while relying on all senses at once. Getting the picture requires a deft coordination of reflexes and judgment, the delicate balancing act between receptivity and objectivity. Maybe this is why the life force of those involved in photojournalism is often a palpable thing. The payoff for participating in a sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes death-defying profession is the experience of feeling truly alive. Whether to witness the exalted or the horrific (post-traumatic stress notwithstanding) stepping outside the comfort zone apparently yields benefit, be it personal inspiration or the satisfaction of reporting accurately what needs to be known.
It seems the entire country—not to mention the world—has been marching out of previous comfort zones toward a kind of collective nervous breakdown that's become increasingly evident and perhaps reached a crescendo in pre-U.S. election hysteria. Now that almost everyone is experiencing unfamiliar territory, we are all witnesses and must respond to changes at hand. Few in the U.S. have taken to the streets over wars, breathtaking domestic shifts, economic implosions, or the myriad other imbalances that warrant protest and rioting in other countries, but mass pre-election apprehension has been the highest in my memory.
Nature is full of examples that show the pendulum is always swinging to put things in balance again. History is full of cataclysmic events that show inevitable self-correction. Every era has its defining moments and we are all witnessing ourselves living in a world that is being rapidly redefined before our very eyes. Not everyone is a professional photojournalist, but almost all of us are capable today of citizen journalism or individual input as we participate in the mass witnessing of our world shaken loose and struggling for redefinition. Watch a short clip compiled by Magnum Photos on some of 20th and 21st centuries' most iconic images by clicking on the image of Robert Capa's famous "Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936." Capa's photo endures as an emblem of the Spanish Civil War.
As I write this a week before publication, the outcome of the U.S. presidential election has yet to be determined. By the time you read this, everything will have changed for better or for worse, depending on whom you're talking to. I'm thinking not since the Civil War has the citizenry been so existentially divided and outside of its ordinary zones of comfort, whether physical or metaphysical. It's hard to believe that we differ so much in opinion, but there is much evidence that we do.
Ultimately, we are an amalgam of what we observe and how we process information, and the competitive rhetoric that emerged to influence the course of events has become maddening. What goes in greatly determines what comes out, and I'm thinking that like photojournalists, we're all now in the position to observe for ourselves and must respond more consciously to events. Divided in opinion as we may be, aren't we finally getting the picture that whether we're yea-sayers or nay-sayers, we are interdependent? We're all in this thing together. We are all canaries, and each is now a bellwether. It seems more than ever that Lorenz was right—a butterfly flapping its wings might certainly have a far-reaching effect on subsequent events in faraway places. Witness the economic meltdown. As goes one, so goes the rest. I'm thinking it cannot be an "us vs. them" world anymore, but must be a "we" kind of thing. All stand up or all fall down, like the dominos in this video.
No matter the outcome of this very important election, I'd like to pay tribute to the photojournalists who willfully step out of their comfort zones in an attempt to accurately portray the images of this era. I'm of the opinion that never has resonance in symbolism and veritas in iconography been more important to lead us authentically from chaotic to more coherent times.
As for the election, hopefully, the most stand-up candidates have won, lest we all fall down.