Photojournalists and Responsibility for History
Editorial by Dirck Halstead

In this month's DIGITAL JOURNALIST we feature a chapter from Carl Mydans' book, in progress, about his personal experience during one of the most frightening episodes in world history...the Cuban missile crisis. 

His words, on paper, capturing those moments when we stood on the brink of a nuclear war, are as powerful as any photographs he ever made. 

Several years ago I visited Carl and his wife Shelley in their home. One huge, walk-in closet was filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of reporter's notebooks. 

During all of his professional life, Carl has made a discipline of sitting down at the end of the day and writing about what he has observed. Like any good reporter, he put in quotes from world leaders, the details, all the little things that he might later forget. It is these notes, carefully saved, that allow him now, in his nineties, to share with us the moments he was privileged to observe. These are the observations that complement and complete his responsibilities as a journalist, beyond what his photographs provide. 

I remember David Rubinger, the dean of Israeli photojournalism, telling me, one summer day in Jerusalem, how angry he had become when he saw a young photographer's car trunk filled with shoe boxes overflowing with negatives from previous assignments, rolled up with no protective sleeves. David, furious, reprimanded the photographer..."Those photographs are history. You have no idea how important they may be someday!" 

David and his wife Annie were among the first immigrants to Israel in 1946, after being released from the Nazi death camps. They started then to document the birth of the new nation. David's work, spanning five decades, is now the key resource of the photographic history of that country. He has received Israel's highest civilian honor, not only for the historic photographs showing the country during peace and war, but for his efforts in preserving those photographs. 

When I was covering the Vietnam War for United Press International, I diligently did what a staff photographer was supposed to do. Every day, I shipped all my negatives to the New York headquarters. There, those photographs entered the UPI system. Some were sent directly to the library, while others went to the commercial picture sales department. Unfortunately, as time passed, a majority of the photographs wound up in a warehouse in Brooklyn, eventually they were discarded. 

Now, as I try to compile my own body of work, I find that most of the photographs that my colleagues and I risked our lives for, are lost forever. 

In the past month, a major wire service has dictated to freelance photographers who want to "string" for them, that in return for minimal compensation, the wire service wants to own all rights to the photographs these freelancers shoot while on assignment for them. Putting aside the arguments that can be made for the attempt by the wire service to receive the advantages of this ownership without any comparable quid pro quo in terms of a staff salary and benefits, the real danger of this arrangement is that it further undermines the appreciation of the photographer based on the value of his or her work. 

The reality is that when we are privileged to observe and photograph the momentous events of our time, we have an unspoken fiduciary responsibility as individuals to protect and preserve that legacy. 

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