Why Photojournalism is More Important than Ever
This story was originally published in April 2013.
Mumbai’s iconic Azad Maidan saw a few hundred people on 11 August, 2012, protesting the inhuman treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Police investigations are painfully slow, so we will, perhaps, have to wait a long time before beginning to unravel why, around 3 pm, the crowd swelled to thousands and went on a rampage – burning buses, private vehicles, attacking policemen and journalists, even molesting female police personnel. Two people died, and 54 were injured, including 45 policemen and seven journalists.
In the middle of the mayhem, MiD DAY photographer Atul Kamble shot what became the symbol of the riot and the basis of a nationwide manhunt for the two men who destroyed the Martyrs’ Memorial. Over the next fortnight after MiD DAY published them, the photographs went viral across several media outlets and were shared close to a million times on Facebook and posted almost an equal number of times on Twitter. They were shown on television channels and made it to international newspapers and websites. Everybody had just one question: Who were these two men?
Two weeks later, they were arrested by the Mumbai Police. Atul’s pictures were instrumental in tracking down the two rioters; a classic case where news photos not only resulted in great journalism but also had a massive impact on society and law enforcement.
If Atul’s photojournalism was literally one of courage under fire, it was perhaps the same courage that led six personnel at Mumbai’s Mantralaya building to climb to the terrace and save the national flag from burning. If not for MiD DAY photographer Bipin Kokate, their valour while the Maharashtra government headquarters was on fire, would have never been highlighted. Overnight, they became national heroes. They had kept the flag safe for over two hours and it was only when the chief minister’s office told them to climb down with the flag did they do so.
As editor of a tabloid, I am often asked about the importance of photography to making stories more effective. The examples I mentioned are proof enough. Over the years, top-class news photography has brought down governments, created revolutions, stopped wars, changed laws, made us smile, and even brought tears to our eyes.
Richard Drew’s photograph of a man plunging to his death from the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept 11, 2001; Pablo Bartholomew’s picture of a boy buried in sand during the Bhopal gas tragedy in December 1984; Steve McCurry’s much talked about picture of an Afghan girl… every single photograph has had an indelible influence on our minds.
Often, the counterargument is that it is television that feeds on social or political unrest and is the catalyst of change. But television is really a series of moving images strung together. Therefore, it is the sequence that stays with us, never the moment. Admittedly, this helps in several ways. For instance, if there were no moving images of the planes hitting New York’s World Trade Center on Sept 11, 2001, we’d never have been able to understand the terror in its worst form. Or, for that matter, the battle between the NSG commandos and the Pakistan-trained terrorists who attacked Mumbai on Nov 26, 2008.
However, in both instances, it is that one moment—the photographs of the planes hitting the North and South Towers of WTC in 2001 and Sebastian D’Souza’s chilling close-up image of Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Amir Qasab—that defines the event for us. Photographs have always had that impact. It is this that makes photojournalism the most exciting and effective storytelling tool.
In the age of smartphone-photography and social media sharing, it is not impertinent to ask the question whether photojournalism is still relevant. To be sure, the relevance never diminished; it just got democratised further with the inclusion of citizen journalists—on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs, just about everywhere. Consequently, there are millions of photographers serving a larger cause, and potentially, each of them could go public with their pictures. And change lives. That, to me, is a good thing. That, to me, says that photographs now speak a thousand and one words.
About Sachin Kalbag
As the Executive editor of one of Mumbai’s leading tabloids, MiD DAY, Sachin Kalbag strongly believes in the power of the photograph. In the past, he has stood behind his staff photographers, whenever a photojournalist’s freedom has been questioned or compromised. He is active on Twitter as @SachinKalbag.