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We live surrounded by images, sunk in a thick pixel soup we ingest beyond satiety. The way we can tackle them from the comfy chair of aesthetic theory might allow us, perhaps, to study their make-up and all that sort of costly trifles. We could also have a go at clever frills such as comparing The Raft of the Medusa with a shipwreck of immigrants in the Mediterranean. However, I believe I can be of more use talking as an insider: from where photographs are produced and chosen, since I am a press photographer as well as a painter.
Any incident, be it glorious, epic, tragic or deplorable, always becomes a hive of cameras. I know what photographers feel like when they must face a catastrophe. To them (to us, I mean) it is easier to look through a camera’s viewfinder than through one’s own eyes. That distance or that optical mediation should enable maximum objectivity but, as we will see later on, that isn’t always the case. The photographer experiences a contradictory emotion: he feels compassion while, at the same, he rejoices at seizing the chance to take a good picture that will grant him renown and, maybe, a promotion. Often enough, temptation will creep in to leave the camera aside and help in the fire, but it can be restrained by thinking one can prove more useful documenting than carrying a bucket of water.
Let’s not forget the almost perverse need for his picture to be better than his rival’s: that other photographer standing a few metres from him. They both keep an eye on each other, copy each other’s framing, vie with each other to get the best position on the ground. There is a kind of greed, of image fever, an unquenchable anxiety to get ever closer or to get around (more skillfully) moral quandaries in order to get a cover photograph. Sometimes, and increasingly often, the photograph also censors himself: he lowers the camera out of respect for a victim or a relative. It’s a matter of a few seconds during which one must measure the circumstances and decide whether or not he can shoot that picture. That’s the first screen, the first bulwark. When we see the picture of an accident with victims, we don’t see what the photographer has seen; we see what he has been capable of photographing. The boundaries fluctuate historically and there is probably less bleakness and more respect; in this part of the world, at least. The further away the victim lies, the looser the handling of images. Eventually, when the picture joins the stream at the editorial office, there will be further screens, of all sorts. Now the photo becomes information, and its publishing is subject to other particulars of editorial nature. The photographer seldom comes into play at this stage.
A press photographer acts as a go-between. Faithfulness to reality should accompany him always and conduct him to an impartiality of sorts: witnessing, not performing. But how can one avoid the extremely personal points of view and the heavy burden of vagaries and quirks? This is a profession packed with devious skills and tricks. Some of them spice up their pictures with a particular atmosphere. Invariably the same one: their brand of Baroque tenebrism, where the sun never comes out. Others are keen on offering awkward framings, obstinate low-angle shots which intend to add a certain tension they’re unable to achieve otherwise. Some (I’m one of them) insist on geometrising everything, using the viewfinder as a neoplastic battlefield. Placing the elements in the frame is their obsession and sometimes it distracts them from everything else.
All these peculiarities cause their pictures to be recognisable, to be what we call an auteur’s. To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind whether a press photographer should have a style of his own. This vice, which heals itself over the years, was more pronounced a couple of decades ago, when photography belonged to photographers. We used to see the world through their eyes (in all truth, through the way their eyes were trained). Nowadays, photography belongs to nobody: there is some kind of great collective camera carried by every passer-by in their hands and which operates from the façades of many buildings. An ATM offers his own gaze. It’s a tight net that sees it all. That has made work for TV news bulletins much easier: a dramatic crash in some remote part of Alaska involving a trailer and a hapless reindeer. There are no victims, it’s not news, but that is a picture. There is always a picture now. The news broadcast closes with a photograph of a sunset sent by a man from Cuenca. Photographers dislike citizens’ photography because there is an absolute intrusiveness about it as well as a complete lack of standards.
The pictures are dirty and contain no intention, no framing, no grasp of composition whatsoever. But, in fact, they dare not admit what really troubles them: those pictures are absolutely true. They don’t bear the stamp of their trade and they expose an unsettling feeling in themselves: a poor photo can be so much more “real”. Since access to ICUs and private homes has become complicated for photographers, many of the images of this pandemic have amounted to a massive global selfie, Warhol’s “do it yourself” taken to a fever pitch. An amateur party’s end .
Photographers feel threatened.
Newspaper graphic editors face similar problems. They are allocated limited materials and, dealing with a global piece of news, they only have the photos provided by the agencies they subscribe to. Anyone from social media is able to provide more variety because they have access to every picture from every source and they have no qualms to use them without name or credits. It might appear that images have become more democratic, but they have become more liberalised instead, in the wildest sense of the term. In order to compete with that photographic crowd, with that anonymous lens, photographers only have one thing left: the quality of their narrative. The style, once more. In my view, a good press photographer shows up when there’s nothing going on. Taking a good picture in the backdrop of war is relatively attainable (a good picture, not an exceptional one), but taking one in a local newspaper is a Homeric feat. The barrenness of the commonplace versus the seductions of the alien and exotic.
Besides from their cameras, photographers have a powerful tool at their disposal: the presses. The press is where I take refuge when I think I’m losing my faith. The pervasive smell of ink, the unstoppable turn of the gears and, above all, paper, tenacious and permanent.
I know photographers well. A press can print their photograph a hundred thousand times, so that an old man, eating breakfast in a bar, stains his fingers with ink while fiddling with what he has seen. There is no more powerful vehicle than a press. The photographer often thinks little of it, because he daydreams of the pristine solitude of the exhibition gallery, just like the illustrator or the cartoonist who demand their place at the sacrosanct, validating contemporary art centre. A place this old man, with his ink-stained fingers, will never go to. The photographer often hands his run-of-the-mill work to the press while keeping to himself what he calls his personal work, hoping that he will soon be able to frame it and hang it on a wall. On an important wall. That’s what we are, non-conformists and dreamers. I believe, however, that we will pine for the press if, someday, a very distant day, I trust, it’s gone forever. That’s why we should nurture it better.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)