books,the photographs drivethe story here,while the wordsexplain their larger significance.Here’sanother challenge:Brady,Riis and Hines created their groundbreaking photo-essays 100 to 150 years ago,when photog-raphywas still pretty exotic.Only a few trained technicians couldoperate the machinery,and photographs were still consideredtechnological wonders.But over the last 150 years,making pictures has becomeprogressively easier and increasingly common.With the recent pro-liferation of digital point-and-shoots and cell-phone cameras,asignificant proportion of young people in wealthier nations carrysome sortof camera with them at all times.And to a greater or lesser degree,almost everyone can operate the equipment.Add to that thedistributive power of the Internet,and you get a world awash inimagery—most of it pretty vacuous.These days imagery permeatesour lives.It’s practically wallpaper.And in our image-saturated
hotojournalismworks best whenit is personal andspecific but stillconveys a universalconcept.
Photograph byEddie Adams,1968
In an undertaking this ambitious,it is important to understandwhat the medium does best,and what it doesn’t do very well atall.For some very important issues,photojournalism is not the bestway to tell the story.Despite our best efforts,and excellent guid-ance from a dozen top photo editors from major publications,wecould not find a great photo-essay about the institutionalizedcorruption of America’s campaign finance system.It is a crucialmeta-issue that affects many other issues,but it doesn’t lend itself to pictorial exposition.Then there are other big stories—such asthe so-called digital divide between information “haves”and“have-nots”—about which we felt sure we’d find great pictures.But we couldn’t identify ten or twelve strong images to convey thestory.The point is,we believe that all of the stories in this bookare essential,but we also realize there are other stories,just asimportant,that arebest told in other media.Basically,photojournalism works best when it is personal andspecific but still conveys a universal concept.The world’s premier conflict photographer and
contributor,JamesNachtwey,puts it this way,“I do not want to show war in general,nor history with a capital H,but rather the tragedy of a singleperson.”Not surprisingly,Nachtwey demonstrates a deep under-standing of the natureof photojournalism.The best photojournal-ism is always personal and specific.That’s why Gene Smith did notphotograph pollution worldwide,but rather the devastating effectsof one particular type of pollution—methyl mercury—on one verysmall Japanese fishing village.Nevertheless,people who saw Smith’sstory in
magazine and in his subsequent book,
,easilyuniversalized the lesson.In the same way,
presentsveryspecific pictures of,say,the ecological,cultural and economicdevastation of West Africa’s Niger Delta in order to make muchlarger points about the pernicious effects of petroleum productionand consumption worldwide.
also puts great photo-essays in context by pairingphotographs with insightful commentary by some of the best writ-ers,thinkers and experts in their fields.These essays provide a muchricher understanding of their topics than could ever be gained fromthe photos alone.But unlike most magazines,newspapers and