Photojournalism is Not About Getting ‘A’ Picture
This story was originally published in July 2013.
Sure, it is a cliché that a picture must speak a thousand words, but I do believe that a photograph has the responsibility of uncovering truths and making a statement. It should not just show you what you are being told. It is meant to shake you, excite you, anger you and transport you to the event that is happening.
I am dying to see a day come back, when one impactful photograph will be carried on the front page in a six-column size. The single-picture era should come back. Imagine a day when a magazine would carry photofeatures of 16 pages or just spreads of photos, one after the other. It used to happen earlier, and we need visionary editors like Pritish Nandy, M J Akbar, M V Kamath and Khushwant Singh to come back, for something like this. The reason why I mention these risk-takers is that magazine making is anyway becoming more expensive by the day. What are publishers gaining by sticking to the tried and tested? More losses? So why not try, why not risk something unique?
I sometimes equate photojournalism to what has happened to the city of Mumbai. There are so many people, so many buildings, so much noise… with all the chaos that has increased, there is always confusion. And with the sheer number of photojournalists one sees at news events, there is no surprise that there is so much confusion. I had a simple way I would try to break through the clutter, and it is even more relevant today.
The point is to not get a picture. Get the picture. And for that, one needs to explore. One needs to constantly ask oneself whether something else is possible. How can I make my picture different from some else’s? Competition is important, it spurs you on.
Of course, the bigger competition these days is the nature of the media itself. People have already seen visuals of the event, as it has happened, the previous evening on television. Why would they want to see the same visual twelve hours later in a newspaper, or a week later in a magazine?
But if a photographer is smart, he should realise that news TV’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The thrust is on immediacy, not depth. That was the way papers were earlier. But since technology and media has changed, as must the approach. News is never just about the thing that one sees immediately. It’s not about the scene. It’s about what is behind it, why it is happening, the context, the history.
It is always important to include visual references in your photos. Know your audience and use the kind of references that they will identify with—it could Mukesh Parpiani be a place, a symbol, a colour that depicts a certain feeling… but remember, there is a very thin line between a visual reference and a visual cliché, and that is exactly what we need to run away from, clichés that make everyone’s images look the same.
For instance, every summer, we see countless photos of young kids jumping into water. Every Budget day, we see a standard photo of the Finance Minister holding a briefcase. I remember the time I had photographed the Budget day in 1993 for The Indian Express. The Harshad Mehta scam was being spoken of at that time, and I managed to get a photograph of Harshad Mehta watching the announcement of the Budget. Since these were the days of film where it would take us 12 minutes to wire a single frame to the office, we would caption our print for the desk guys, as published below. Today, it is so much easier. Maybe that itself is a problem. To be good enough, to be safe… that doesn’t take much today. But is that all we want? As a photographer, you need to be greedy. Making a safe, but standard shot may get your picture published in a small size. But only if you risk something that seems crazy will the editors be convinced enough to print the photo in a large size.
I am referring to photojournalism, but the more I think about it, I realise that these things apply to every kind of photography. Whether you are a hobbyist or pro, whatever genre you like, it is only dissatisfaction and curiosity that will help you strive for more.
About Mukesh Parpiani
Mukesh Parpiani’s photojournalism career has spanned nearly four decades, working for a decade each at ‘The Daily’, ‘The Indian Express’ and ‘Mid Day’, leading the photography teams of the latter two. He is currently the Curator of the Piramal Gallery and the Centre for Photography as an Art Form at the NCPA, Mumbai.