As I immersed myself in the subject, I came across a statement by Henri Cartier-Bresson, explaining that with a camera the discovery of the external world simultaneously reveals the internal world. I found this prospect electrifying: it had to be the key to a meaningful life! (...) The industrialized nations are performing a slow genocide on the peoples of the world by the eviction of peasants from their land, the urbanization of society and the imposition of a uniform consumer culture... no need to weave, sing, dance or even talk when the latest soap hits the dish.
The twentieth century was the time of photography, when almost everything of importance was recorded and considered true because it was photographed. Nowadays nearly anyone can produce a photograph of Ladybird Johnson standing on the grassy knoll with a smoking gun in her hand and no one can prove it’s a fake.
Virtually the whole of society believes in what they believe not by direct experience but by what they’ve been told. We photographers are in this exalted, privileged position of actually going out to find out for ourselves, and that’s why we’re so dangerous. Because we were there. We saw what happened.
Today, the photographer is sent off to illustrate the preconceptions, usually misconceptions, of the desk-bound editor—an editor biased not by any knowledge of the subject but by the pressure to conform to the standard view ordained by the powers that be. Any deviation from the ‘party line’ is rejected. We are probably the last generation that will accept the integrity of the photograph.
I’ve always understood the “decisive moment” to be the moment in which one captures the significance of a situation, and yes, in the blink of an eye. When one achieves this, looking through the viewfinder, the reward is an on-the-spot confirmation that amounts to a visual orgasm. I never have to “find” pictures later on my contact sheets; I know whether or not I got the shot before the film is developed.
I want to look at a photograph and learn something; I want to receive a message, and the message should be comprehensible not just to an incestuous cabal of “artists,” but to everyone. Real photography is a wonderfully inclusive, democratic medium, whereas “art photography” is more often a private pursuit by conmen.
I’ve always been able to take the picture. I attempt to channel my anger into the tip of my forefinger as I press the shutter. I’ve often said, perhaps tritely, that one can’t focus with tears in one’s eyes. My view is that a photographer who becomes emotional is as useless as a surgeon who faints at the sight of blood. I may have shed pints of tears over what I’ve seen, but only later, when editing and printing the pictures.
The problem with photography is that you can decontextualize war. What does a picture of a wounded body, or a mother clasping her wounded child mean? Why is it happening? I want to know that. I’m not satisfied just photographing little sorts of visual climaxes to a conflict. I want to know what led up to it and what’s going to happen next.
Let’s assume that all the cassettes of monochrome film Cartier-Bresson ever exposed had somehow been surreptitiously loaded with colour film. I’d venture to say that about two thirds of his pictures would be ruined and the remainder unaffected, neither spoiled nor improved. And perhaps one in a thousand enhanced.