“If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough.” – Robert Capa (1913-1954)
Getting closer is a useful skill, and as we “get closer” to the 2013 Spring National High School Journalism Convention, I have been contemplating Capa’s quote and the meaning of “getting closer.” On the first day of the convention, I will teach an all-day photography workshop where we will practice getting closer literally, technically and metaphorically.
Sometimes getting closer is simple and we wait for the subject (or convention) to get closer. Other times we must adjust. We can change equipment or change our personal perspective. We can research a subject and become closer to the people we photograph. We can invest ourselves. We can also become more vulnerable and admit to our community that we have a disability. (I have had epilepsy since high school, but I did not talk about it until the last few years.)
During the workshop, we will also investigate Robert Capa and his advice. Photography educators repeat Capa’s quote as a mantra, however, Capa’s life may teach us more by what it conceals than what it reveals. Capa remains a mystery, even among our JEA membership, despite being the most significant photojournalist in history. Capa sought fame, even though Capa was not his real name. He sought individual attention, while building the greatest photographic cooperative. Diane Arbus could have explained Capa when she described a picture. “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Sometimes, we know less the closer we get.
If you feel uncomfortable getting closer, it is normal… probably healthy. Getting closer can also be risky. As an educator, my mantra of “safety first” often collides with my desire to “get closer.” (Other times it is necessary to do both.) Capa knew the risks. The love of Capa’s life, Gerda Taro, died while in her twenties photographing The Spanish Civil War. Capa would also die getting too close to the front, but not before creating the Magnum photo agency. Magnum is Capa’s legacy. Without Capa, Magnum and their archive would not exist. Without Magnum, VII photo agency and others like it would not exist. Capa has helped generations capture history.
Photography is also about capturing light. I tend to run towards the heart of the sunrise knowing that I might get burned. I wish I could fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but I am a moth with photo-sensitivity. I am easily blinded by light. Not only is that were the fun is, but also where the people need saving. I needed saving once. I will need it again.
Journalists at Blossom Hill Pedestrian Overcrossing Bridge in San Jose, California (I am the person handing the camera to a family member of a boy killed by a train under the bridge.
Photographers build bridges to people who are lonely. We might feel lonely when we stand next to each other documenting a family’s grief. We might feel helpless, because we are unable to save the child who died under the bridge. Our pictures capture pain, but seem to do little else. If we do not build a bridge to each other, we might mistake the anger for impotence. We might believe that it is a good day to burn a bridge. Bridges are like friends. Make them before you need them.
So, how do we build community and take better photos? We participate at our own comfort level and respect each other. Somehow, everything works.
We have First World Problems. I try to put my photography (and pretty much all First World art) in the context of Robert Capa. I know that people are starving to death in third world countries and I choose to take pictures of statues. In the First World, some artists choose to make movies about talking teddy bears while other people protest movies about talking teddy bears. (I watch the movies and photograph the protesters. ) Some people create statues and build bridges. These are First World Problems.
We are not going to burn bridges or photograph wars, at least not on Thursday. I hope.
NOTE: Updated on May 18, 2015. The photo at Xander’s Crossing was no longer linked to the image.