Sputnik has discussed developments in photojournalism with South African-based Independent Media Photo Editor Ian Landsberg.
Sputnik: In what way do you interpret the term “photo”? What does it mean for you, personally?
Ian Landsberg: Okay, a photograph for me is something we use light, to write a story or to tell something. So, for me pictures as visual words. It uses skills of photography, which means a camera, a lens, and then compose, look forward: is this what you want to include in the picture? And then you capture that image in a way that when somebody looks at your picture they can see what is it you are trying to tell them in such a way that it evokes, brings a reaction; a moment of either “wow” or you are shocked or you are touched by the photograph. That to me is a good photograph.
Sputnik: You’ve made a significant contribution to the development of photojournalism, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world. You frequently give lectures on photojournalism at various colleges and universities and regularly judge competitions at a number of photographic clubs and societies. In your view, in which countries is the art of photography most developed?
Ian Landsberg: Okay, I think just given the fact that history is actually on this side, I mean Europe and the United States. I mean, Canada and some those places [have done]…I mean photography has done a great deal in showing the world or telling stories about wars. I mean the Vietnam War and even some of the recent upheavals. So those countries really have done a great job in covering stories of and making photography become a useful tool in photojournalism.
But when I foresee what is happening in Africa and in South Africa, where I come from, pictures there also telling stories, maybe not on a wide scale like internationally but in a content [of the] capture what is happening and to capture history locally. I think our photographers there have also done a tremendous job in capturing and doing something towards photojournalism. But the short answer would be your first world countries just because of the infrastructure.
They would use big news agencies, photo agencies. They have budgets to send photographers. Photographers would cover the unrest areas, drought or earthquakes and wars all over the world. So in that sense they are a step ahead just because of their opportunity to go and cover these stories.
Sputnik: And my following question is - How do you rate the development of photojournalism in South Africa? You have already mentioned some things but maybe you want to underline some details?
Ian Landsberg: South Africa, because of the history of segregation based on colour, photography or photojournalism did not develop for your non-white people because it was mostly jobs like that were reserved for white people. You know, white people as in who is not African, black African, but people with face, skin, you know in that context.
But despite all of that, there were those pioneers, guys that I know of the early years, especially in the 70s, 80s – I don’t know much about the 60s because I was born in the 60s; I was a little bit too young for that – but I know from the 70s when I was like a teenager and then the 80s when I myself got involved in photography that we actually follow some of the people or actually admire some of the guys. And there were like 2 or 3 that I know.
And these guys were then also taken as photographers but they would do these unrest areas where it will be too dangerous for the white photographer to go in there. If the white photographer with them, they just kind of like assist and help them and all that. But photojournalism developed from even those guys and the black photographers as well.
And these guys with limited equipment and resources because they would have like, they would not get the latest and the best cameras like the others, but they would with their own little cameras, they would manage to be there and capture.
So for me, this started from these trailblazers that would work for newspapers, shoot pictures and give it to newspapers, but the newspapers didn’t really employ them. But photojournalism developed there, then up to the point, when we started to open more and more opportunities to black people. When I refer to black people I mean anybody other than white people.
For example, team of photographers that I’ve been managing for a past 20 years now, the majority of them is black. But at the moment what is very interesting is that our photographers also start looking at photojournalism in a different way, they are reinventing themselves, because it is no longer just covering every breaking story that everybody is raving about. This is about telling a story. Photojournalism is taking a really giant stride into changing the scene of photojournalism.
They now are covering a story in the fullest context; where the picture is no longer just that one picture, but a series of pictures that tell you a story. I would say that photojournalism in South Africa and for that matter, Africa is really changing itself in a wonderful way. Not like the European model, where it is the so-called war photographers. I mean everybody wanted to be like James Nachtwey or Robert Capa. They were out there in war situations, capturing when bombs were exploding and bullets were fired.
I would say there’s nothing wrong about that; that is still the big inspiration for photojournalists. But I can do a war story by just doing a story in my backyard about maybe stray cats. There’s just too many, and no one is looking after them; they are all over and I can document it in such a way that it is the same effect of somebody looking and saying “Oh, but this is not right”. In that way, that to me is photojournalism.
Not just the single great picture as the action is happening, but the story as it is unfolding as well as what goes on after the story or sometimes even before the story. Because you cannot do it before there is something happening but sometimes it’s going back to the scene where something bad was happening and people look at it and say “No wonder this is happening” or “How is it possible that something like this could happen?” If it is a ghetto area you can understand, danger is lurking there, but what if the picture shows a beautiful suburb and you say, “but it cannot be so”.
Sputnik: In your opinion, what do people expect from a photo nowadays and what are photojournalists trying to capture mostly?
Ian Landsberg: That is the kind of thing in photojournalism these days that I am very excited about because of your new reader or viewer, or the new audience they are not just interested in a great picture. They see it all the time, every day, every moment, on your phone, this stuff pops up. Normal people walk by buildings that collapse and then they pick up their cell phones and they do a picture. And it is a “wow” picture.
But your photographer is not always there. But when they go out to tell that story that people have heard about, that to me is where photojournalism is really taking that step even more. That is also to me is how photographers reinvent themselves and not just snappers who were lucky that they got that moment.
They actually go and say now that everybody knows about the bomb blast, everybody knows about it, why do I now have to go and try and find the blast because it is now no longer there; but I can go and I can find a small doll or some toy lying there and shoot it in such a way that people say: "this is a kid’s toy…! I hope this child is not involved in this fire, explosion etc.", if you understand me.
Now clearly a good photograph is a picture or an image that is technically sound. So it is nice and sharp, the focus is sharp, exposure is correct; everything there gives the viewer a clear sense about what is happening there: you can see it is a building or you can see that it is a fire that destroyed it and so on. Those things must be there. Because you cannot guess and wonder what is going on, if the picture is so artistic that you don’t know it is a fire then the picture misses what it is supposed to be.
So a good picture must always be something that will immediately give the viewer a clear sense of what is happening there. One. Two, and to do that it must be technically correct in many ways. Yes, if the focus is a little bit out and it is soft or blurry that is okay. It is not the worst thing that can happen, because it sometimes adds to the feel of what is happening there.
But if the thing is so completely out of focus that you cannot even make out what is happening and it looks like it was shot through a white cloth then the picture cannot even be considered as a good picture. If a picture has got a reaction from the viewer or the person looking at then it will be a good picture.
Sputnik: In your personal view, how much significance can a photo have in terms of interpretation? Can one well-taken photo be abused politically? What do you make of that phenomenon?
Ian Landsberg: Any picture is open to interpretation. I can take a picture of somebody laughing but the story could be about a person who has just lost his son, wife, or daughter. The picture should be interpreted in what you see there. But sometimes a picture can be interpreted completely the wrong way. And that is sometimes not necessarily the fault of the photographer. This simply can be because the picture is placed in the wrong context.
The story may be about illegal transportation of schools kids. And you need a picture to show this is about school children being transported to schools. You go on a website and see the picture that clearly says that school children. There is a nice little bus and a friendly guy sitting there and school children are sitting with their bags. But the story is about illegality. So you need not just a generic picture of school bus travelling, you need a picture with a cop standing next to it.
So sometimes politically pictures have been used that weren’t taken for that exact story. A picture cannot just be randomly used especially in a political context. Now they use pictures of President Putin at some place where he was showing us that those days we would run. Now they use that picture anywhere and now it creates that he is this heavy-handed man, dictator and all that. So that is the fine line between a picture that people just use, and I want to use that term generically, just anywhere. So that is where politics or propaganda or people with an agenda come in.
Sputnik: What photo work are you most proud of? Where was the photo taken? What did you capture?
Ian Landsberg: That is the trickiest question because there are so many over a period of pictures. And again it was also way back in the 80s and 90s and all that. The pictures that I’m mostly proud of is action pictures. But I’ve found out that there is nothing in that picture that is actually so great because you just need to be prepared and shoot, shoot, shoot. But the picture I really like and that was very special for me is the picture that I took of Nelson Mandela with my two children. It is special in a specific sense.
I took my children, my son and my daughter, and I said Nelson Mandela is going to open a new gym that Richard Branson, from Virgin, was opening up these gyms. I just wanted them to see him, and I said look when he will be coming, but then the security moved them away and they put them right at the back. So they could not see him when they were sitting there, they were small. But I was there to take the pictures and all that. I took a lot of pictures him walking and greeting and all of that. That was Nelson Mandela.
As he was sitting he saw these two in the corner and called them. So both of them came. And here I was standing and Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela were sitting there and these two were walking up to him. He picked up my daughter and she sat on his lap; she was 3 or 4 years old. And Richard Branson was leaning over and looking at her and he was shaking my son’s hand. There was just this great statesman and this great entrepreneur.
And these two people were there and here’s my two kids. For me what’s special about that picture isn’t that it is Nelson Mandela or Richard Branson, but because for those two they meant nothing. They didn’t know who they were, nothing. But for me, because I knew who they are that was something, but more than that is when I look at that picture I look right into the future and I thought to myself what is the impact that my two children’s connection with these two great men have and how that might impact them.
I don’t believe in things like the aura that they have or their energy and all that. I just think that my children when they see these will say these people have done so much for humanity and that is the great picture for me. And it’s very personal. When you look at it, it is not the greatest picture because I know for Nelson Mandela you cannot use flash because of his incarceration on Robben Island. There was some substance there that affected his eyes a lot and in those years, I think it was 1993 or 1994 the cameras were not that high-speed. But it is a great picture for me.
Sputnik: You were a member of the 2017 jury of the Stenin photo contest, which was founded in 2014 by the international information agency “Rossiya Segodnya” under the auspices of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO. How do you assess the Stenin photo contest’s success worldwide?
Ian Landsberg: I believe with all my heart that this is the right thing, the Andrei Stenin concept. Because it attracts the people the world is really evolving around, and it is young people. And Andrei is a young person. So that is perfect it is targeted at the right group of people for change in the world.
Secondly, it really offers something to a photographer that can assist him or her to be the truthful storyteller that they are supposed to be. The story is always about people. Stories mean an experience that you relate. This contest provides an opportunity to tell the story to a big crowd. Stenin contest is doing excellent in that regard. More that I think any other competition. I look at world press and South African contests.
All of them miss this point – they are not getting stories from the people that are closest to these stories. In addition, Stenin contest made a great thing about a photographer. The organizers of the Stenin contest start with a person. They are targeting the right people that allow to do right stories.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ian Landsberg and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sputnik.