Here’s a book that lists the world’s top photojournalists. What better way to introduce lay people to contemporary photojournalism, than to produce a coffee table book focusing on its leading exponents?
Well… although its reach is potentially quite wide, this approach is problematic in its selectivity and in the way that it commodifies its subject. The issues depicted on its pages are alluded to in a perfunctory way and this can only give a superficial impression of what the photography is about.
The selection of photographers by editor Andy Steel is necessarily subjective. Among the pantheon of war photographers in the book, which includes Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and W Eugene Smith, there is no room for Robert Capa, Werner Bischoff, Susan Meiselas, James Natchwey and others. This is not just a consequence of the editor’s own taste but perhaps of the format imposed upon him and its trade-off between the politics of photojournalistic practice and its marketing in a consumer’s world. The book is one in a series of “world’s top photographers” that also includes volumes devoted to wildlife, nudes, landscape and portraits. It begs the question, is photojournalism just another genre of what many still consider to be a minor art form? Or is it, as many appear to believe, still one of the more truthful means of reporting on the world we live in?
The upside of any well-produced book like this is that it gives images greater longevity than newsprint and magazine publishing allow, while its tactile benefits score very highly in relation to images published on the Web. This allows the reader more time to reflect on the issues and the relationship between a photographer’s aspirations and his/her attempts to communicate them. As well as leading name photographers the book introduces its readers to contemporary photographers with whom they may be unfamiliar.
While some photographic images appear to transcend the limitations of the written word, few facts are communicated accurately by photography alone. It’s the words in relation to the image that tell us stories of the world we live in.
If you can accept the inevitable limitations of a photographic anthology then the range of images and photographers’ words in this volume provide a good primer to recent photojournalism. Though interesting, this barely hints at the wider problem of documentary photography’s attempts to communicate contemporary issues. Added to this is the book’s misleading title. It obscures from view the fine work and bravery of many other equally good photographers.