“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”
I first heard this many years ago when as a young freelance photographer working for AP in southern Europe I suggested to a visiting senior editor that lax security and one of the longest civilian runways in the world made the city’s airport an obvious destination for hijacked aircraft and that the absence in the bureau of any lens longer than an old 200mm would mean that we’d be hard pressed to cover it. “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” he said but what he meant was, “I have other priorities”.
I thought about it a lot a few weeks later when pieces of glass and the contents of the Turkish Embassy whipped past me as I sheltered behind a skinny pine tree on the other side of the street after the gunmen who had seized the building detonated explosives inside. I had arrived even before the security services and was closer than anyone else. True my pictures were better than those who had watched events from a safe vantage point beyond the line of police marksmen behind me — but I suspect that was mainly because for them, even with longer lenses, it was almost impossible to shoot a clean frame without including me in it and nobody wants to show their picture editors that someone else appears to be trying harder.
As I faced the inevitable chorus of ‘admiration’ from the other photographers I cited the Capa quote which seemed to fit so well, neglecting to mention that in our office an 80-200 zoom was long glass. After dashing back to develop and print my pictures, I was shocked by the total indifference with which they were greeted by the bored wireman in London. It was no big deal, clearly not a news story that he or anyone else cared about.
Now nearly 25 years on this just wouldn’t happen. Now it is routine to mitigate risks to our people in the field by equipping them appropriately. Local and international media are much more sophisticated and satellite TV and the internet have created a universal appetite for novel images from anywhere as a supplement to locally produced fare. Little goes to waste. In fact there is so much available to us we face the risk of becoming inured — creeping news fatigue — particularly to long running stories like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fact that we can see hard news breaking from anywhere in the world virtually as it happens makes it easy to forget the risks faced by those who bring it to us.
As of today November 15, in addition to local photographers on the ground, Reuters have at least 4 photographers embedded with frontline troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — Goran Tomasevic, Steve Lewis, Stefano Rellandini and Finbarr O’Reilly. These guys are right there at the sharp end. Non-combatant, they simply couldn’t get any closer and are very much in harm’s way.
There because they want to see and understand for themselves what goes on, they share their vision with us through potent images and eyewitness accounts and are prepared to take a calculated risk with their personal safety in order to do that, on condition that there are enough of us who care enough to look closely at the pictures and stories they produce.
If nobody wants to see or hear what you are trying to tell them, it really doesn’t matter how close you are or for that matter how good your pictures are.