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The Day My Photojournalism Career Ended

Posted By Rohn Engh On March 31, 2014 @ 9:00 am In Photojournalism | No Comments

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Yes, I am indebted to photojournalists around the world who dare to donate their skills, sometimes their lives, to bring me non-fiction reports on how it’s going out there.

I am no longer one of them.

In my early days as a wandering photographer, I fashioned myself to be a freelance news reporter with a camera (sometimes called a photojournalist). I had a loose tie with a stock agency called Photo Researchers back in New York City. I would send them finished 8×10’s and look for future checks to continue my first love: stock photography.

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Curiosity Took Me to Paris

My curiosity about how others reacted to the world we live in found me in Paris in 1955. I spoke the language reasonably well, at least well enough to explain to gatekeepers and policemen that my press credentials should allow me into gala events, caves, and the circus.

I was aware of the “Ugly American” syndrome that most rich tourists from Texas were labeled with at the time. I did my best to adhere to common etiquette when it came to disrupting private moments of people or documenting justified eruptions by the local French gendarmes.

At that time, back in the late 50’s, France had an embarrassingly high rate of alcoholism. Then-Prime Minister Mendes-France was on a campaign to do something about it. He advised substituting milk for wine at family meals and in taverns. It wasn’t going well. Drunks were littering the metro with wine bottles and lying on sidewalks. Pedestrians were stepping over them as if they were blown-over garbage cans.

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A Split-Second Decision Causes Uproar

One day, I came across a good example. A middle-aged drunken man had fallen to the sidewalk and his equally drunk wife was trying, with no success to pull him upright. She fell over too. The pity of it all, no one wished to help. The pedestrians seemed to ignore the scene. I photographed it.

That was my mistake. I had already had a couple other experiences that came close to shattering the fragile Franco-American truce in the face of mutual distrust. In rightful indignation, a passing pedestrian hollered at my indiscretion of photographing the sorrowful scene of husband and wife on the city pavement. Another joined in shouting an anti-American slur. And then a crowd gathered.

When the woman fell backwards to the pavement in her attempt to pull her husband to his feet, I recklessly snapped another picture. Someone poked me on my back. I was bent over using my Rolliecord. I nearly toppled on top of the couple. Another person shoved me again.

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I knew it was time to get out of there. As I started running, the crowd roared at my cowardice. Some of them had apparently been grocery shopping because a potato and a tomato whizzed past me as I made my escape. Another tomato scored a hit on the back of my head.

I cowered in a nearby bar, reflecting on what I had just done. “Was this photojournalism?” Was I serving as a mirror to the Parisian public, or was I just mocking a national social problem?

I wasn’t too concerned that I could’ve lost an arm or leg, or my life in the scuffle. I was concerned with the question, “Do I really want to be a photojournalist?” Did the reward of capturing a significant moment on film outweigh the outrage I, as an American, had caused passersby in their own country? I felt as if the entire Parisian community had taken offense. French eyes were staring at me. You know the feeling.

The Difference Between Photographers and Photojournalists

It was then that I realized that the process of capturing a photojournalist photo has no halfway points where you can change your mind and escape. You must choose either fright or fight beforehand. You must choose between the “the picture and the consequences be damned,” or no picture.

Of course, the end result of a photojournalist’s daring is the reward, and, as an outsider, I can’t help but admire the photojournalist’s willingness to tempt disaster, both artistically and physically. It’s much the same as when I stand back and admire a cliff climber or trapeze artist. The rush of adrenaline and the quickness of decision is not something we normal photographers often face.

Let’s not forget another trade-off photojournalists have to consider, which is consideration itself.  Sometimes inconsiderate, the photojournalist will cross barriers, trespass, and muscle through a situation where diplomacy might have been a better choice. Consideration usually is not a major rule in the photojournalist’s handbook. Etiquette, again, is not given much emphasis in the photojournalist’s handbook.

“For the Better Good” might be the mantra of the true photojournalist. That might mean that truces are broken as well as hearts.  Periodic glory comes only now and then. So does luck. Focus on attention to detail, anticipation, timing, and the right composition are the simple secrets of the trade.  And let’s not leave out a good camera, knowledge of how to use it and how to deliver promptly.

In Paris, I could have been considerate and asked first. If I had, the only wealth of this blog about street drunkenness in 1950s France would be words, the text that I’m passing on to you. The photos would be missing.

But now you know why I passed on the enticements to take up photojournalism as a profession.

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