wise guys say, “yeah, f16 at 200 and be there.” You know, that’s a
smartass, meaningless remark.
Buell is the former Head of the Associated Press Photography Service.
He is the author of Moments: The Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs and
editor of Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue.
Wayne Yang: In Moments, you separate the great
Pulitzer photos into technological eras. You were key
to digitalization at the Associated Press, both on the archival side
and in the way the service’s photography is distributed. Can you talk a
little more about the importance of digitalization in photography these
days? What’s your opinion on whether it has made photography better or
Hal Buell: Digital
The essence of photography and the essence of
picture journalism has
not changed much since the camera and film were invented. What’s
changed is the technology of making and distributing a picture. The
impact of photojournalism has increased as more people see the pictures
that photographers produce, and that was largely a technical issue, not
a journalistic issue. [Civil War photographer Matthew] Brady faced the
sheer problems of long exposures and having to process on dusty
battlefields. Compare that to the digital photographer who in a war
situation can flash his pictures. Brady’s photos were never seen, in
fact, except in his gallery, whereas thanks to digital, now a
photographer can make a picture in a battlefield and have it everywhere
in the world before the battle is over. What technology allows picture
journalism to do is to deliver pictures in the time frame that is
unique to journalism. All journalism is really about speed of delivery.
Digital has allowed the photographer to deliver those photos faster.
a day or two days or three days, because
the communications out of Vietnam were not very good, even though the
journalists in Vietnam had greater access to the war than any
photographers before or since. The journalism was incredible, but the
technology for delivering those pictures was shaky at best. And as much
as we had wonderful pictures and wonderful stories, how much different
it would have been if we had had the digital capabilities we have now.
But digital is nothing more than a tool.
have seen a lot of evolution in picture taking during your time, but
with all the different changes in technology that we have seen—you
talked about photography’s evolution since Matthew Brady—do you think
the quality of images has suffered with this greater immediacy? It
seems people like Brady, or more recently, the Vietnam era
photographers, had more time to think about their picture taking, at
least in terms of the distribution anyway.
the editorial quality hasn’t suffered. What has suffered, since
Vietnam, is access to the stories. In Vietnam, photographers had
complete access. A photographer could go out to the airport and call
his shots. All he needed was the pilot of a helicopter to say “yeah,
hop aboard, we’re going to Da Nang"
or "we’re going to Cu Chi,” and the photographer went along. There was
absolutely no restriction on their coverage. Then, in the Gulf War,
which was the next big war, there was virtually no access to the story.
And there is something in between in the current Iraq War, so the
pictures from Iraq are better than the pictures from the Gulf. But they
still don’t capture the essence of the war in the way that the pictures
did from Vietnam. The time to make pictures is the same. I mean, things
happen, and you have to make the picture, so the act of making the
specific picture doesn’t change much. What changes is the ability to be
where the action and the story are.
Yang: Along those lines, it seems that information
gatekeepers have become savvier about the power of a lot of the image
I think that an appreciation for picture journalism has grown
spectacularly because of the Vietnam war. Pictures are more relevant
because the coverage is more timely. Television has this immediacy, and
newspapers have immediacy minus a couple of clicks, and magazines minus
a couple of clicks, and books minus a couple of clicks. Today’s picture
seen today is better than seeing today’s picture a week from now.
Pictures have so much more impact when you have them in the same
terms of that immediacy, there are some people who argue that those who
capture still imagery need to be better at capturing other kinds of
media, like audio and video. Where do you fall on that?
I believe that picture journalism in the still world is different than
picture journalism in the video world. If you take the time to
carefully analyze what you see on the screen of a news program, or even
a documentary, what you actually see are still pictures. Yes, they
move, but they have the essence of still pictures that are stitched
together. So when a video photographer shoots a story on this
conversation we’re having—if you and I are in the same room, he shoots
a picture of you, which is a mug shot, talking. And he shoots a picture
of me, which is a mug shot, talking. And maybe he inserts a picture
that we’re talking about. And he takes bits and pieces of that picture.
But when he puts it all together, it’s a series of pictures. A still
photographer really looks for the essence of the story in one or two or
three pictures, unless he has a luxury of doing a book or extensive
photo essay. But basically a still photographer shooting our
conversation would have both of us in the picture with maybe a picture
on the wall or on the table, so it would all be in one frame as opposed
to separate shots. And I believe that the discipline, what I would call
the mechanical discipline, to put all that material together, is
different in stills as it is in video, and it’s very hard to do both.
they moved closer in any way? In terms of mindset, one of the things
that digital allows the photographer to do is to shoot a little more
loose. Obviously, when you go back to the time when photojournalists
were using plates—in your book, you talk about the Iwo Jima
photos, for instance, and during that era how you literally had maybe
half a dozen plates at most during certain assignments. You obviously
had to be incredibly disciplined about waiting for those perfect
moments. Do you think the mindset has changed, then, where the still
photographer is becoming a little bit more like the video photographer?
don’t think so. I think the digital era, and even 36-exposure rolls of
film, and the Life magazine era, and the early days of 35mm
photography, and daily picture journalism, the freedom of getting out
of the 4x5 mentality has allowed the still photographer to experiment
more. He still is looking for that one great picture, but because he
has more shots available, he can do it this way and that way, and he
can experiment. He can use a wide lens, he can use a long lens, he can use a medium lens. He can do
He can work up, down, sideways. It’s like if you were writing, you
would write stream of conscious, but then you go back and you edit it
down. What did Mark Twain say, “sorry
my remarks are so long tonight, I didn’t have time to prepare?” So it
is now with the still photographers too. He can now shoot 20 pictures,
but there’s still the essence of one or two that tells the story. But
he has an opportunity to make those one or two much better than in the
days when he was limited to four or five plates. It is a freer kind of
an atmosphere, which leads in the end to better pictures. Sometimes
experiments work. So if you have the chance to experiment, you should.
guess in many ways the professional mindset hasn’t changed, but one of
the issues that seems to be troubling younger photographers is the idea
that a lot more people suddenly are in the game.
Buell: That’s a different issue.
those lines, you were talking about war photography, for instance.
Obviously, soldiers have been taking pictures since they’ve had access
to cameras, but it seems like in this particular war, and maybe I’m
wrong about it being new, but there’s a lot more immediacy to their
sharing of images, and they’re self-publishing in ways that they
haven’t in the past.
trouble with participatory journalism, and this is where you get into
some pretty fierce arguments. I have to speak from what I believe to be
the way journalists should operate. I do not believe that journalism
gives anyone the right to express a point of view, that
is the journalist’s point of view. That’s not the purpose of
journalism. The purpose of journalism is to relate factually what
happened, or to show factually and as honestly and as fairly as
possible what happened, and let the reader make up his mind. I do not
believe the ethic or the professional training is available to people
in participatory journalism. Those who practice participatory
journalism on a regular basis tend to tell the story they want to tell,
as opposed to the story that is there to tell. Those can be two very
out the occasion when someone is on the scene and
has a camera, and something happens that makes for a great picture.
That’s the serendipity factor, and I exclude that from this
conversation. I’m talking about the participatory journalist who does
it on a regular basis. That’s someone who has a lot of spin, in my
mind, and I think that I would rather go with the trained, ethical
journalist, although there are many cases where a trained, ethical journalist can also put spin on a
story. That’s why the idea of what a journalist is is so very, very important.
Yang: What do you think of embedded journalists?
don’t have any heavy quarrel with the embedded journalists if the
embedded journalist is the kind of journalist I just described. There
is a fear, a belief in some quarters that if a journalist is embedded
with a certain unit in the military, that somehow he or she develops
some kind of affection or some kind of loyalty to the people that they
are covering. Well, you could say that about a writer who covers a
beat, who covers city hall,
who covers a police beat. They develop friendships and contacts also.
The journalist that I’m speaking about, this ideal journalist is one
who is able, because of his training, to seek out the essence of the
story and photograph it, whether it is supportive or detrimental to the
people that he is covering. And I think there are examples of that out
of Iraq. There are a lot of photographers who were embedded and who did
marvelous jobs of what I call very good journalism. On the other hand,
photographers who were not embedded, who were racing from place to
place and point to point, spending a lot of time racing up and down the
highway putting themselves in considerable danger, sometimes clicking
and getting wonderful and meaningful pictures, that’s not the way to go
either. You’ve got to come out with a story. The idea is not to get
killed; the idea is to get a story.
of the things your book tackles well is the myth of serendipity. A lot
of people seem to have the fallacy in their minds that a lot of the
great photos are mostly about serendipity. You happen to be in a
particular location, so that enabled you to make a great photo.
wise guys say, “yeah, f16 at 200 and be there.” You know, that’s a
smartass, meaningless remark. And I won’t say that some pictures aren’t
made that way. But you also come to realize when you look at the
pictures that are made, that over and over again you see the same
photographers making the really wonderful pictures. And there’s more
than “f16 at 200 and being there.” It can be very risky, and it can be
very time consuming, and it can be very unproductive. So the
photographer has a lot to worry about besides just being there. He has
to know what to do once he’s there. We talked about that earlier, the
difference between video, and how that’s done, and how stills are done.
The photographer has to bring together his experience and his knowledge
of the story; risks are involved. He has to put all that into the
equation, so there’s a lot more than being there. I mean, if that’s all
you had to do, a lot more people would be doing it.
would you say to those journalists who— I think, in this era of 24/7
(in terms of clips like we saw from CNN in North Korea, the photographs
from Abu Ghraib, and so on),
there’s a feeling among some younger photojournalists that they can’t
be everywhere. To compete against this kind of mass-grouping of people
throughout the world waiting with their cell phones to capture an
image, that are devaluing the picture-taking that they do.
sour grapes. When you look at all the pictures that have been made by
the so-called amateurs—you know, of all the Pulitzers the only one that
was made by a true amateur was the Virginia Schau
picture of the truck hanging off the bridge. All the other “amateurs”
were really people who were advanced amateurs and skilled photographers
who chose to work at something else, but they still enjoyed making
pictures. So it wasn’t that they weren’t photographers. They were
photographers. They just didn’t spend their life working at it. That’s
different. Never at any time in history was there anyone who could be
everywhere. “I can’t be everywhere.” Of course, you can’t. No one can
be everywhere. You’ve got to pick and choose, pal. That’s what life’s
shift gears a little, you’ve said that pairing a good photographer with
a good writer is like putting hand in hand, and I’m guessing you’re
talking at least partially about your experience in the book Moments as
well. You explained that this was because photographers and writers see
things differently. Why do you think it’s so difficult to be good at
both kinds of seeing?
I don’t know that it’s so difficult. It’s just that people don’t choose
to do it. And in my experience, I have found that, generally speaking,
it’s easier to find a photographer who is a fairly decent writer, than
a writer who is a fairly decent photographer. Now I can come right back
at you and give you 10 examples of writers who are pretty good
photographers: Mal Browne, who made the Burning Monk photo, Peter
Arnett, who made marvelous pictures in Vietnam, who’s a great reporter,
and I mean there are many reporters who are able to use cameras very
effectively. But when you look across the spectrum of journalists, it
is my experience that photographers who can write are easier to find
than writers who can photograph.
Yang: Is there any reason why you think that happens
to be the case?
because a writer sees something happen, and then creates the way to
tell it, so he has to master the vocabulary and the grammar. Now
photography has a grammar also, but the photographer has a lot less
control over the way the picture looks than the writer has over the way
the story reads. So a really talented writer can take a nothing story
and make it sing, because he knows how to use the language. It’s a lot
harder to make a mundane situation and make it into a sparkling
picture, though good photographers will make it a better picture than
mundane photographers or poor photographers. It’s a case of level, not
of brilliance. A good photographer can make an ordinary scene a little
more interesting. A writer can take an ordinary story and make it a lot
more interesting, because he has control over the expression, as
opposed to the photographer who has some control, but nevertheless is
still stuck with what’s there.
in some senses too, it’s almost commercial demand in the sense, writers
more often have something to say, even when there isn’t something to
no, I don’t think writers have more to say than photographers. I think
writers have the ability to say more; there’s a difference there. Not
that the writer is so insightful and brilliant, it’s just that because
he uses words, he can choose between five words to say what he wants to
say. The photographer has to deal with what’s in front of him. And the
writer can stitch those words together in a more entertaining,
exciting, elaborate, meaningful way sometimes than a photographer,
mentioned Mal Browne and Peter Arnett as two people who you think have
talent in both. Are there any other names that come to mind?
Buell: Well, Eddie Adams could write pretty well. Horst Faas
could write pretty well. Just off the top of my head, there was a guy
named John Wheeler who worked for the AP, who was a writer, who was a
pretty fair photographer.
there something about the fact that they were such excellent
photojournalists that enabled them to be so good on the writing front
I don’t think so. I think that some people have an innate visual
insight that others don’t have, and given a little practice tend to
exploit it a little better than people who don’t have it. They don’t
work at it professionally, and they don’t examine all lenses and films
and digital and zooms, and all the little specificities that
photographers use, but they nevertheless have a basic insight into what
makes a picture. It’s just a gift. That’s true of photographers, but
photographers, like the writer who learns to use the words, the
photographer who has basic instinct and instinctive talent learns to
use the tools of the photographer to make his pictures better.
Halstead talks about how the rise of photo services like Corbis are
viewed as a threat by a lot of photojournalists these days. Corbis
itself said there was much less demand for hard news than soft news,
it’s all about lifestyle and celebrities, pictures that have much more
of a global interest: this is in their words. And some younger
photojournalists have talked about how they have to finance more
“worthy projects” on their own. Where do you think photojournalists
should be turning for venues…?
of all, it’s not that the demand for celebrity has put down other kinds
of news photography. It’s that the demand for celebrity photography has
increased. It hasn’t reduced the other demand. People are celebrity
nuts these days, and I don’t know if that’s a fad or a trend, but there
it is. And it’s easier for a photographer to make a living shooting
celebrities, although it’s very competitive, than it is for a
photographer to make a living getting news assignments. And the reason
is that most news assignments now are covered by newspapers and wire
services who can have wide areas of distribution and who can defray the
costs. It’s very difficult for a photographer to go out to Iraq on his
or her own, although many have done it, by making arrangements with
different publications—they manage to do it, but it’s extremely
difficult. There’s no question about that. It’s costly to equip
yourself now, it’s very costly.
those lines, some people argue that some photojournalists have tried to
compensate by trying to make their photographs more commercial, not
necessarily focusing on the news orientation. One recent example thrown
out was a photograph of the Tour de France of Lance Armstrong. There
were people that argued that some of the photographs were more
appropriate for posters than they were for their photojournalistic
would have to see the specific example that drew that observation, but
I will tell you that one of the aspects of what makes a good picture is
a poster quality, which I would describe as the need for simplicity in
composition and image, so that the picture communicates very quickly
and very easily. Now, I don’t know how that relates to the specific
image that you are talking about. Can you describe the picture?
one in particular where Armstrong is in a very steep lean, and he’s out
in front with a couple other cyclists right behind him. And there’s
emphasis on color. Personally, I don’t think I saw a difference from
other historical cycling photos.
Buell: Sounds like to me it was a picture of Armstrong
winning the race.
Yang: So you don’t think of it as any kind of trend?
no, I don’t think so. If a picture is made and has a poster quality and
someone sells it as a poster, well, god bless him, he made an extra
buck. And there are people who will shoot pictures, particularly of
celebrities, that are meant to be posters. That’s part of the celebrity
world, I mean the celebrity world is phony, come on. Everybody’s got
their own agenda including the actors and actresses, the producers and
all the rest of them, to put these things together. And a lot of the
media, celebrity publications, certain newspapers, particularly the
tabloids, buy into that, and play into that. OK, that’s what they do.
And then look at all the entertainment programs, the celebrity programs
on TV now. It’s a new market.
just touched upon, I guess, simplicity is one factor that can make more
photos memorable. One thing you talk a lot about in Moments is the
iconic power of some of the great photographs. If I’m quoting you
correctly from the book, you say a still photograph captures a moment
in time. You’ve also talked about the way that photographs elevate
moments into historical importance. A couple of the photographs you
seem to like are the Eddie Adams photo of the Vietnamese officer and
the Joe Rosenthal photo of Iwo
and there are a lot of people who feel that those two images changed
sentiment surrounding their particular wars. Can you talk about what it
is about still photography, especially as audio and video have become
more competitive, what is it about still photography that seems to
retain that kind of power?
problem with video, it’s fleeting. I like to say “it goes in one eye
and out the other.” It just goes by quickly. Whereas a still photo,
even when it’s used on television, it’s there for X amount of time,
whether it be five seconds or ten seconds, it’s a lot longer than the
video image that is there, the video image is 1/24 of a second, and
it’s on to the next thing. While video has an impact of its own, for
reasons I’ll try to describe, it does not last in the mind. Now having said that, there’s nothing more
dramatic than having a plane fly into the Twin Towers. But some
of those still pictures are pretty good too.
stops the event, and it gives the individual
viewer the time to look at it and study it and see not only the scene,
but the pictures within the picture. You take Eddie Adams’ picture, and
when you look at the footage, a man comes up, shoots a man, falls, and
it is gone. If you look at Eddie’s picture, you see the pistol, the
expression on the man’s face, you see the expression on the face of the
shooter, you see the wince of the guards in the background, you see the
straight line of the pistol being held out, which is almost bullet-like
in its impact, so that, because you see and have the time to see all
the elements, you see more than you see in the video image. Now, if the video image is played over and
over and over, sometimes you get to see it in some better detail.
Even then, it doesn’t have that frozen power that the still image has.
And your memory works in still pictures if you think about it, rather
than a motion picture.
theory, and I have tried it out on neurologists. When you read a story
in a paper or a magazine or a book, you read one word at a time, and
the word delivers its message along with the other words one at a time.
Your brain may be doing other things, too, simultaneously… enjoying a
breeze perhaps, a perfume of
flowers… whatever. The brain can handle this… especially the one word
at a time. But when you look at a still picture you see it all at once.
The brain has to work harder to capture all that information and pass
it all into your being. The breeze and the perfume get less attention…
the brain focuses on the image. The picture for that reason sticks
longer in your mind. There is more focus of the intelligence on the
picture. The still picture lasts longer.
great icons also tend to be on stories of memorable impact, so that in
addition to the inherent power of the picture, you have the inherent
power of the event. The reason Joe Rosenthal’s picture was so great
was, yes, incredible photography, but also because it came at a time
when people were thinking other thoughts about the war. Despite what we
say about the Greatest Generation and that wonderful time in World War
II, people were getting a little fed up with the war by the Winter
of 1945. People understood what was going on in Europe, because we were
talking of datelines in Rome and Paris and London, and even Berlin and
cities and locations that were part of our own history. In Asia, we
talked about SaipanEniwetok and Bougainville, places
that you couldn’t find on a map, and along comes Iwo,
and the casualties were staggering. All these people are being killed,
and people are saying "stop already. Stop." And along comes this
picture that says "victory"; it says "American boys doing the job";
it’s working together, all those ideals. It’s the way Americans see
themselves. Think about how much that picture had going for it. Think
of all that. Plus it was beautiful photography. You couldn’t make it
any better. So, you put all that together, and Eddie’s picture and Nick
Ut and Malcolm Browne
Burning Monk,” the sheer horror of it, brought the Vietnam War onto the
front pages. Up until that time, it wasn’t exactly a back alley war,
but it wasn’t a major thing.
the front pages: it stayed there for 10 years. So
this is a very visceral impact that photography has, that still photography, that other forms of
photography, and other forms of communication do not have.
Yang: You’ve mentioned some of the photos that, I
guess, you would rank in that category of having that iconic power. Any other ones that stand out? Would
you include the Abu Ghraib
ones in that category?
Buell: Yes, Abu Ghraib
has an impact for a different reason, but it has the same impact. It is
not good photography, it’s bad
photography. Remember when I was talking about the Iwo Jima
picture? Its meaning, its impact, its translation, was of American
ideals that American believed in themselves.
of that time and attitude. Abu Ghraib
was just the opposite. It was exactly what Americans do not see in
themselves. They don’t see Americans as doing things like that,
it’s the complete flip side, which means it has just as much impact,
because it’s a negative picture as opposed to a positive picture. It
doesn’t reduce the impact, because it challenges your basic ideals of
yourself. And I think that accounts for its, frankly, what I think will
be a lasting value. The My Lai pictures from Vietnam were the same
thing. We don’t see ourselves that way. And all of a sudden there it
is. It has a very jolting, jerking of the reins kind of an impact on
book collects a lot of the great Pulitzer Prize winners. You just
mentioned the photo of, the name of the photographer escapes my name
right now, the little girl running from…
Buell: Yeah, Nick Ut
[Huynh Cong Út].
Yang: Yes, the Nick Ut photo. Any other photographs you would put in
that category of “turning points?” And why would you include them?
course, the photos of the Trade Towers being struck. There’s a case
there of the classic combination of event in graphic, spectacular,
indelible photography, that always will be iconic. An icon is more than
a picture of a specific event. An icon sums up what went on before and
after. On that same story was Tom Franklin’s photo of the fireman
raising the flag. There’s an, and
this takes nothing away from an incredible photograph, but there was an
instant comparison to Iwo Jima, and all the strengths of the Iwo Jima
picture came to support the same idea that Tom Franklin’s picture had:
we will rise, we will prevail, we will overcome, you’re not going to
put us down, we’re going to get this flag up, we’re going to be
Americans… So across the generations, one picture supports
picture, and a lot of icons have that kind of power, they relate back.
the case of the Hindenburg exploding—there were several pictures in
that period: Jesse Owens winning the four medals at the Olympics, Joe
Louis knocking out Max Schmeling—the
dramatic of the pictures. They were all
spectacular photos, they were also all anti-Nazi, and they combined
together to fortify the anti-Nazi feelings that were on the build in
the United States at the time, and therefore became icons themselves,
particularly Jesse Owens and particularly the Hindenburg.
Yang: You talk a lot
about your admiration for the Hindenburg photos. It seems like even if
Murray Becker had had a digital camera, I’m not sure if he could have
captured the moment better…
Buell: Oh, yeah, remarkable. Murray Becker did a
remarkable job. He made four pictures in 46 seconds on a Speed Graphic.
Really incredible, professional.
That’s a mastery of mechanics. It’s just like an artist who knows
exactly how to mix his paints, which is a mechanical thing. But he uses
that mechanical thing to create a beautiful painting. Murray used his
mastery of the mechanics to get these pictures, it was just
use this wonderful poetic phrase to talk about what makes photos
iconic. You said, in many ways they capture what came before, and what
will come after. Otherwise, you’ve said in your book Moments that there
are no hard and fast rules on what makes a photograph a Pulitzer, or I
guess, by extension an iconic photo, except that they capture a
universal moment. Besides this concept of capturing the before and
after, can you talk about what makes a photograph universal in your
Buell: Well, I think the essence of it is simplicity.
Most of the iconic pictures are extremely simple photographs. They’re
they communicate their message instantly, even though, as I had said
before, there are pictures within the picture, the overall image is
communicated instantly. What the still image allows is for someone to
see more than that first blast of image, the first impact of image,
than the cold water in the face effect that a really strong picture
has. If you look at it you see more. If you look at the Hindenburg,
there are people hanging on the roof, people falling down, the boiling
fire of the explosion, and tilted angle. There are all sorts of things
that communicate to the first blast, and then the details of it. But
the icons, generally speaking, have this very strong overall power. Now
that’s not true of the Abu Ghraib
thing, and I don’t know if we dignify those as being icons. They’re
certainly lasting. And they certainly have a before and after effect.
“Icon” tends to be very positive, and those pictures are not positive.
at the same time, very obviously, a lot of the photographs that we
remember seem to be borne of violence, and, paraphrasing you, I think
you said that, unfortunately, it seems history is written more in blood
than in moments of beauty. And looking through the photographs, some of
the photographs have this quality where you can’t turn away, even
though they’re so horrific, what’s depicted in them is so horrific.
Buell: It’s a voyeuristic kind of a thing.
Why do you think so many of the, and I guess you’re somewhat loathe to
use the word “iconic” for those kinds of photos, but let’s say
“memorable” photos, why is it that so many of them are borne of
Buell: Well, because violence is very dramatic. I like to
tell the story, people say, well, why does
seem too often to have this kind of a negative, violent,
harsh—whatever you want to call it. Well, let me tell you a story.
takes me three minutes to get to the train. I leave for work in the
morning, and I walk to the train station. And I come home at night, and
my wife says, “Well, what kind of a day did you have?” “Well, I went
down and I went to the train station, bought my Times, and I went up on
the track, and I saw Joe, and I said, ‘hi, how are the wife and kids,’
then I walked down and got on the platform, and the train came in, and
a guy fell down between the train tracks, he run over and cut in two,
and he got boxed up, and a couple of us went and got into a taxi and
they took us down.” That’s not how you tell that story. “What
a day did you have?” “Damn! It was great
A guy got killed on the platform this morning when I was getting to
work this morning!” That’s because it’s different, it’s unusual, it rises out of the routine. And all
too often, it’s the violence that rises up out of the routine.
which you will say, “you
know I went down to the train station this morning, there was the
cutest little girl, she had nice long curls, and she carried a dolly,
and she smiled, and it was a pleasant moment.” That happens, and that’s
what we call a feature picture, don’t we? That kind of a thing, like
the [Bill Beal photo of a] cop talking to the boy that won the Pulitzer
Prize? A marvelous vignette.
You just don’t see so many of those. You just don’t. And I can’t
explain it to you. Let me say this to you, when I was running the AP
photo service, I think many times people would bring an issue to me, I
used to kid the staff and myself too, “you think I go into my pocket
and I have a little book and go to page 23 and it tells me what to do
in this set of circumstances?” And the marvelous part of all this is
that it is unpredictable, sometimes it’s not describable, sometimes
it’s just interesting, because you look at it and say, “wow.” “That’s
really interesting.” Well, why is it interesting? You begin to
intellectualize it, like you and are doing now. And that’s fine and
dandy, and it’s helpful, and it’s useful. But there’s this visceral
thing about photography. There’s an electric excitement to photography
that you don’t get in many other things.
you think it’s because it’s difficult to recognize those kinds of
vignettes, that otherwise seem like everyday moments? When you’re
photographing violence the importance of the story in many ways seems
Buell: Do you know John White
in Chicago? John White is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He won the Pulitzer
Prize for his collection of vignettes. And he just has an eye for that
kind of thing. Some photographers have that, and some don’t. Many
don’t. It’s a much more difficult kind of journalism to practice on a
day to day basis, a lot of times you just stumble into it. Talk about
serendipity, that’s where serendipity becomes the governing factor as
just one of several factors. But John has a great feel for that, he’s a
marvelous photographer and a very sensitive fellow
and just a beautiful human being. And it shows in his
personality comes through in his photography. There’s no way you can
tell people how to do that, that’s something that’s in their heart and
soul. It’s something that comes out in their pictures. Those are things
that, you can’t define them, you can’t write them down. If you could,
we’d all be doing them.
noted that Eddie Adams wasn’t particularly happy about the fact, maybe
this is exaggerating his sentiment, but he didn’t like the fact that he
was known mostly for that one photo of the execution in Vietnam.
Dorothea Lange likewise complained that she hated the fact that she was
known solely, or largely, for "Migrant Mother." Why do you think it is,
maybe the answer is too obvious, but why is it that we often remember
just one single image from even a lot of the great photographers?
it’s because they are icons, because they have captured attention.
Eddie is most proud of his pictures that he calls “Boat of No Smiles,”
in which he did a photo story on Vietnamese who were at sea. They
couldn’t land their boat anywhere and become citizens of another
country; they were trying to escape Vietnam some time after the war.
And actually those pictures changed the immigration laws. The
Vietnamese were allowed to come into the U.S. in larger numbers.
was a great photographer. But the
pictures had all the talent that Eddie brought to the scene, plus he
felt that they did good. He
did stories on a little boy who lived in a bubble, he did stories on
kids who suffered from different diseases that were very compelling and
made very compelling pictures, and he felt, he would rather have been
known for that than for the execution photo, simply because he felt the
execution photo didn’t tell the whole story.
morning the deputy of Nguyen Ngoc Loan—the police chief who did the
executing—was killed along with his wife and children by the Viet Cong,
and the police chief was just not in the mood to think of the niceties.
He caught the Viet Cong, and he executed him on the spot. As he walked
away, he looked at Eddie and said, “these
people killed many of my people and your people too,” and he just kept
walking, with the guy dead on the street. Loan was highly respected, by
both the Americans and the Vietnamese, he was a man of some
intellectual abilities, and a reasonably fair guy, and Eddie felt that
he had been unduly persecuted, because he took that picture. One of the
problems with photography is that you can’t get all of that into a
picture. I don’t know that if you had written a story that day that you
would have gotten all that into a story either. Anyway, that’s why
Eddie felt the way he did about that photograph.