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The wise guys say, “yeah, f16 at 200 and be there.” You know, that’s a smartass, meaningless remark.


Hal Buell

Hal 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 worse?

Hal Buell: Digital is just another tool. 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.

Even in Vietnam, pictures were lagging 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.

Yang: You 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.

Buell: No, 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 making…

Buell: Yes, 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 timeframe.

Yang: In 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?

Buell: Well, 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.

Yang: Have 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?

Buell: I 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 the closeup. 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.

Yang: I 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.

Yang: Along 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.

Buell: The 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 different things.

Now, that does not rule 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?

Buell: I 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.

Yang: One 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.

Buell: The 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.

Yang: What 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.

Buell: That’s 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 about.

Yang: To 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?

Buell: Well, 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?

Buell: Well, 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.

Yang: So 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 say, whereas…

Buell: Well, 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, that’s all.

Yang: You 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.

Yang: Was there something about the fact that they were such excellent photojournalists that enabled them to be so good on the writing front as well?

Buell: No, 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.

Yang: Dirk 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…?

Buell: First 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.

Yang: Along 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 value.

Buell: I 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?

Yang: There’s 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?

Buell: No, 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.

Yang: You’ve 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 Jima, 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?

Buell: The 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.

Historically speaking, the still photo 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.

I have a 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.

The 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 and “the 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.

That picture put it on 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. It was a reinforcement 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, but 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 the viewer.

Yang: Your 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?

Buell: Of 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 another picture, and a lot of icons have that kind of  power, they relate back.

Or in 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 Hindenburg was the most 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 stupendous.   
 
Yang: You 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 eyes?

Buell: Well, I think the essence of it is simplicity. Most of the iconic pictures are extremely simple photographs. They’re not complicated, 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.

Yang: Yet 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.

Yang: Right. 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 violence?

Buell: Well, because violence is very dramatic. I like to tell the story, people say, well, why does news 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.

It 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 kind of 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.

Sometimes something will happen in 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.  

Yang: Do 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 obvious.

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 photography, 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.

Yang: You 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?

Buell: Well, 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.

The pictures are marvelous. Eddie 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.

That 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. 

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