The Notebook

'Imagination will take you everywhere'

Photojournalism: Tradition and Originality

For over 60 years, photographs have determined how we view and remember important historical events. Arguably the most defining events of the last century are battles, conflicts and war; the atrocities of which were exposed to mere mortals at home by the development of hand-held cameras during the early 1930s. Ever since the daring Robert Capa took to the frontline of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – armed only with his trusty Leica – modern photojournalism was born. Intent on not only documenting the fighting but also the day-to-day lives of the soldiers, Capa didn’t just capture a conflict through a lens; he was part of it. His notorious motto “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” has inspired generations of war photographers to follow in his dangerous footsteps.

However photojournalists today have to face another challenge: the attack of technology. The sudden and vast proliferation of media in this modern age echoes the boom of technology which led to the increasing accessibility of cameras during the 1930s. But there is a distinct difference: compared to the development of hand held devices specifically for professional photographers, now anyone and everyone seems to have a smartphone with a wealth of possibilities available to them (least of all a camera). Furthermore the average person can easily become a photographer with the likes of Adobe Photoshop and the photo-sharing site, Instagram. This digital revolution has meant that there are increasing numbers of citizen journalists – normal people who photograph, film or post something online for a mass audience to view. If a protest or major event occurs, then images of it will immediately appear on Twitter from bystanders. News broadcasters, such as the BBC, will also use spectators’ photographs or footage to report on a freshly breaking news story. For example, Instagram had more than 80,000 photos uploaded of Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath. Consequently Time Magazine decided to send five photojournalists out to document the savage storm via the magazine’s Instagram feed (the resulting photo gallery was one of the most viewed ever), thus proving how new technological inventions are still changing the world of photography today. Surely this blurs the line between the professional photojournalist and the average person? Furthermore, are photojournalists in danger of extinction all together?

Spontaneity, newsworthiness and rapidity are the key features which form the holy trinity of photojournalism. It’s similar to documentary photography as both styles capture a fleeting moment in time whilst catching their subjects unawares, thus producing a candid and natural image. This lack of illusion is what makes it so appealing; the job of the photojournalist is to unmask the truth and tell a story, whether it’s the plight of Syrian refugees or the bravery of soldiers. However some disagree; Jimmy Fox, the Magnum picture editor says that “People want the truth from war photography more than they do from any other kind of photography, but a flat surface of an image is not the reality and never can be.”
The viewer will not know if an image has been posed or set up, which is why there has to be an element of trust between the viewer and the photojournalist. Hans Hildenbrand was one of 19 official German war photographers assigned with documenting the First World War from the view of a German soldier. Despite the fact that the first colour photograph had been taken in 1861, the Great War has almost always been depicted in black and white. Hildenbrand was one of the only photographers to use colour – experimenting with the ‘autochrome’ colour technique. But the main reason hardly any photographers shot in colour was simple: speed. The shutter had to be open for longer than if you were shooting in black and white; therefore the subjects had to stand still for a while (not good when trying to focus on killing the enemy). Also Hildenbrand used film that wasn’t sensitive enough to capture movement. This resulted in the images having a posed and slightly unnatural feel – arguably losing the true essence of photojournalism. Thus explaining why none of his photographs depict actual fighting – most of them show soldiers in relaxed social situations or waiting to shoot with gun in hand. Despite this, Hildenbrand undoubtedly paved the way towards colour photojournalism. By pushing the traditional black and white boundaries, his photographs exude originality and depth. The colour almost makes the images appear more perceptible and distinct; noticeably contrasting with the usual stark and dull depictions of war.

A scene over Hartmannsweiler Kopf, summer 1916, Hans Hildenbrand

A scene over Hartmannsweiler Kopf, summer 1916, Hans Hildenbrand

A German soldier posing with a machine gun, summer 1916, Hans Hildenbrand

A German soldier posing with a machine gun, summer 1916, Hans Hildenbrand

After World War II, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour founded the Magnum photographic agency in 1947. It was formed out of relief for the ending of the war – all of them were deeply affected by covering the conflict – yet they also had a fresh curiosity for the world they wanted to document. Magnum has a world-class reputation for beguiling, shocking and diverse images from the foremost masters within photography. Originality is its forte. Henri Cartier-Bresson described the collective as “a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Robert Capa was undeniably the leader of the collective, which has gone on to grow into a prestigious agency chronicling global events, issues and people. If Capa is the father of photojournalism, then Magnum was his baby.

Robert Capa was blown up by a landmine in Indochina in 1954, camera in hand, yet his legacy still lives on – as does his reputation for taking photographs whatever the risk. The Spanish Civil War was what made his name; after he captured a Republican being fatally shot by a sniper’s bullet, his images became synonymous with the war. Death of a Loyalist Militiaman is his most celebrated photograph, as it’s not only an icon of the Spanish Civil War, but also symbolises the pain and suffering triggered by wars the world over. The image acts as a metaphor for the Republicans; the militiaman’s outstretched arms and look of pure sadness and disappointment on his face encapsulates the Republican’s sense of hope for a free, just, egalitarian society – which was ultimately crushed by General Franco. The beautiful, undulating landscape in the background represents the peaceful land they are fighting for; while the gun slipping out of his hand portrays the power of the opposition and the eventual repression of the Republicans.

Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, 1936, Robert Capa

Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, 1936, Robert Capa

As well as being famous for Death of a Loyalist Militiaman Capa is also renowned for being the only photographer to capture the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach in Normandy during World War One. He was right amongst the action, having been in the first landing craft with American troops of the16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, as they were dropped off on the shoreline and then had to wade through the water to the beach, while being fired at by the Germans. His images are tense, arresting and powerful depictions which encapsulate the courage, chaos, daring and danger of war. The blurry, slightly out of focus images portray the immediacy and urgency of the situation – he simply didn’t have time to set up the composition, instead he prayed for his life, swam, ran and clicked (while his hands shook uncontrollably). Grey sky and sea pervades the images, evoking a haunting and surreal edge. Capa’s photographs were one of the first that were from the soldiers’ point of view – thus offering the public an unprecedented yet shocking view into what the soldiers were experiencing. He took 106 pictures all together, but sadly only eleven survived as they melted while being dried in the darkroom back in London. Interestingly this seems to make the surviving images even more poignant – they successfully convey the hostile and heroic atmosphere of war; thus cementing Capa’s status as one of the best chroniclers of war.

Robert Capa 1 Robert Capa 2 Robert Capa 3

The D-day Landings, Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6 1944, Robert Capa

The D-day Landings, Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6 1944, Robert Capa

The Robert Capa Gold Award was created in 1955 to reward exceptional and courageous photographic coverage. One such individual who received the award in 1980 was the American photojournalist, Steve McCurry, for his reporting on the war in Afghanistan. McCurry travels the world documenting conflicts, threatened cultures and ancient traditions, however it was his series of photographs documenting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which launched his internationally successful career. In many ways McCurry’s development as a photographer is closely interlinked with the hardships the Afghans have experienced. It all began in 1979 when the young reporter was smuggled into the country by mujahideen fighters so he could photograph the bloody civil war between insurgents and the Soviet-supported government – something considered very dangerous even today. But his risk-taking paid off; his photographs were some of the first the public had ever seen of the fighting. Soon enough the Afghan conflict became a major international story and McCurry’s photographs were in high demand; thus becoming a starting point for the photographer’s lifelong fascination and love for the people, culture and landscape of Afghanistan.

Mujahideen fighters, Nuristan, Afghanistan, 1979, Steve McCurry

Mujahideen fighters, Nuristan, Afghanistan, 1979, Steve McCurry

McCurry’s early images from Afghanistan foreshadow his maturing visual style which would later prove iconic. His photographs portray the trust and loyalty between not only the militiamen but also between McCurry and his subjects, thus allowing the viewer to immediately connect with the people – although they could not begin to imagine their struggles – McCurry showed them the truth about what was occurring in this foreign land. This enables his images to achieve a profound depth which all photojournalists strive for. It’s as if McCurry took on the baton from Robert Capa and is protecting his legacy while pushing boundaries for the modern photojournalist. McCurry’s photographs balance both the natural and candid, with the powerful and striking. For example, the above photograph encapsulates the intensity and courage with which the mujahideen fought; their eyes glued to their target, yet completely at ease with McCurry’s camera, which allows him to capture the day-to-day lives of the fighters, from morning prayers to action shots. The rocks and debris surrounding them conveys how their country is crumbling and breaking – falling out of their control – yet it also acts as a reminder of how they are fearlessly trying to protect and lift their country up from the rubble. By the conclusion of the civil war in 1989, a million Afghans would be dead.

Not only did McCurry push physical and mental boundaries to capture these ground-breaking images; he also unknowingly followed in the (albeit treacherous) footsteps of Robert Capa – proving that originality can work hand-in-hand with tradition. A knack for becoming so engrossed in his work that he is unaware of a potentially dangerous environment, is something all great photojournalists share, from Robert Capa to Remi Ochlik, the French photographer killed alongside the Sunday Times journalist, Marie Colvin, while reporting in Syria in 2012. In the future McCurry would come to make many more trips to Afghanistan, to not only document conflicts, but to tell the people’s story and to catch the rare glimpses of peace within a troubled land.

Returning to Afghanistan in 1984, McCurry captured his most famous image – one which would go on to be heavily reproduced worldwide and even continues to do so today. On assignment for the National Geographic magazine to photograph the refugee camps springing up along the Afghan-Pakistan border, McCurry entered a makeshift girls’ school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp and was immediately spellbound. Sitting in the corner was Sharbat Gula, a twelve year old girl with piercing green eyes and a shy disposition. Little did she know that her portrait with that haunting, wounded and penetrating gaze would soon stare out of the National Geographic cover and become the most recognised photograph in the history of the magazine. The ‘Afghan Girl’ portrays the innocence, vulnerability and confusion of the civilians during the conflict. The portrait is like so many of McCurry’s images of people; the photographer and subject share a connection, consequently that intimate contact is then felt by the viewer of the photograph, thus producing an enduring power which touches the viewer. In other words, this simple yet profound portrait captures not only the plight of the Afghans, but also represents the suffering of children in war and the impact conflict has on ordinary people.

Just like Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier, the Afghan Girl symbolises war seen through the eyes of people experiencing it first-hand and portrays the consequences of such brutal conflicts. Both photographs have the ability to captivate and generate an emotional response with each new generation as war is an on going and devastating event which affects people worldwide, thus explaining why these images have become so iconic. Technically, McCurry’s technique of underexposing is visible in the portrait, which achieves the rich and vivid colours; the green in the background accentuates her eyes and the shadows highlight the creases and holes in her shawl. But it is those hypnotic eyes which express her curiosity and hope – a combination of vulnerability and strength that pervades the image. They say your eyes are a window into your soul; Sharbat Gula’s are not only a window into her soul, but a window into the soul of Afghanistan.

McCurry once said, “What’s important to my work is the individual picture, standing on its own, with its own light, tone, structure. I tell stories, but I strive for individual pictures that will burn into people’s memories.” The Afghan Girl is certainly one of those. For me, McCurry is the Robert Capa of this generation; a photojournalist, who explores, discovers and captures, making it hard for the rest of us to turn away.

Afghan Girl, Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984, Steve McCurry

Afghan Girl, Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984, Steve McCurry

The 21st Century is an exciting time for photojournalists; the ever-changing digital landscape has made taking and sharing photos much easier.
When Steve McCurry crossed the border out of Afghanistan in 1979 after illegally entering the country several months earlier to photograph Mujahideen fighters, he sewed the unexposed film into the inside of his clothes to avoid having them confiscated at checkpoints. Now however, photojournalists documenting conflicts all over the world can simply send photos digitally. Instagram in particular has had a profound effect on the way photographers share their images, as it allows them to communicate directly with the viewer and gain their feedback. David Guttenfelder is the Associated Press Chief Photographer in Asia and has long been fascinated with the totalitarian state of North Korea with its rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world, which he relentlessly tries to document. Recently he has been using his iPhone (less conspicuous than a proper camera) to take photos of the rarely-seen culture and then shares it on Instagram – so the world can see the strange and sometimes shocking way of life for North Koreans.

Pyongyang commuters push to read the news headlines and learn the fate of Jang Song Thaek who was executed as a traitor, December 13 2013, David Guttenfelder

Pyongyang commuters push to read the news headlines and learn the fate of Jang Song Thaek who was executed as a traitor, December 13 2013, David Guttenfelder

A mosaic of the late North Korean leader, Kim Jong ll, on the 2nd anniversary of his death, Pyongyang, December 17 2013, David Guttenfelder

A mosaic of the late North Korean leader, Kim Jong ll, on the 2nd anniversary of his death, Pyongyang, December 17 2013, David Guttenfelder

Guttenfelder’s photographs are similar to Steve McCurry’s; raw depictions of humanity that both astonish and move the viewer. However Guttenfelder’s iPhone images are far more fleeting than McCurry’s, which perhaps conveys the secretive nature of his work – especially in North Korea. In the photograph of Kim Jong ll’s mosaic, the wide angle captures the scale of the mural, while there is a stark contrast between the modern towering skyscrapers on the right and the old-fashioned, strict values which permeate from the face of the previous ruler. The huge, all-seeing, all-knowing face looks down on his subjects, radiating power and dominance, while the people in the foreground appear like tiny bugs scurrying along in a line in front of the mosaic – the ultimate depiction of juxtaposing power. The other photograph portrays what life is like for the people of North Korea; the Pyongyang commuters reading the news of Jang Song Thaek’s execution have fear and shock clearly etched on their faces, however this must be a daily occurrence  for them. Like McCurry, Guttenfelder uses the medium of photography as a method of awareness – alerting the viewer of what truly happens in far flung places that we only hear about on the news.

Hans Hildenbrand, Robert Capa, Steve McCurry and David Guttenfelder all follow the traditional path of photojournalism; they capture the truth and inform the viewer, yet they have each pushed individual boundaries to achieve original and never before seen photographs. In my view each of them are the personification of Capa’s legendary maxim, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, your not close enough.” This demonstrates that traditional skills and processes still continue to influence modern photojournalists to this day.


O’Hagan, S.  (2012) Robert Capa and Gerda Taro: Love in a time of war. The Observer. [Online] Sunday 13 May. Available from:

Victoria and Albert Museum. Photojournalism. [Online] Available from:

McCurry, S. [Online] Available from:

McCurry, S. (2013) Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs. Phaidon

Magnum Photos. [Online] Available from:

Guttenfelder, D. [Online] Available from:

 The Telegraph. The first colour photographs from the German frontline during World War One. [Online] Available from:

Beaumont, C. (2010) How the internet has changed photography. The Telegraph. [Online] Available from:


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