The pivot of this column is to reconcile free speech with accountability. My focus is to see that the crucial line that binds free speech with credible, accountable narrative is not breached voluntarily or involuntarily. Within this fairly exhaustive rubric, I look at multiple elements that make up a newspaper — rules of reporting, copy-editing, writing flair, design components, diversity of opinions, and visual aesthetics.
In the last decade, much was written about the ethical use of images, the dangers of digitally manipulating pictures, and mindless cropping that alters the context of the image. My column, “ >Lens of truth, lens of empathy ” (April 4, 2016), stressed the importance of avoiding both gratuitous imagery and exposing someone to humiliation, and respecting a person’s privacy as important guidelines for photojournalists and editors. My apprehension is that in this preoccupation with accountability, we sometimes tend to forget the wholesome experience provided by good photojournalists. In a split second, these artists who wield their lens capture a slice of life that has the potential to defy that degenerative natural process called forgetting.
Role of photojournalists Two recent publications triggered this column. First were some poignant photographs from a current series in this newspaper: “ >The changing face of the Indian slum ”. The second was the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) that focussed on the Pulitzer Prize.
The editors of CJR chose the subject of 100 years of Pulitzer Prize because it offered “a rich means to observe the craft of journalism — its powers and its shortcomings.” The section ‘Frame of history’ documents some of the stunning photographs since 1942 that have given journalism its power to be a collective witness and stir conscience. The CJR editors say: “There are few more emotional ways to view history than through the lens of a camera. Whether the brutality of war, the innocence of victory, or the horror of racial conflict, chances are a photographer was there to capture it. Those who shoot such images often work out of frantic newsrooms. They have little time to get the shot and their finished work gets framed in newsprint.”
I realised the full import of these statements as well as of the innumerable photographs that adorn the corridors of The Hindu through which I walk by every working day. Some of the photographs are: a blow-up of Jawaharlal Nehru reading The Hindu ; Rajendra Prasad taking oath as India’s first President with C. Rajagopalachari watching; Subhas Chandra Bose walking to an AICC session; young Bismillah Khan, Palghat Mani Iyer, and M.S. Subbulakshmi receiving the earliest Sangeet Natak Akademi awards; Manmohan Singh presenting his first budget, one that changed the face of the Indian economy; the assassination of Indira Gandhi; and the images of the first Cabinet of independent India.
These frames of history have a profound impact on the way we do journalism. They are subtle reminders that whatever we are today is a product of collective effort, that we are just a point in that continuum. They have both a humbling and an enabling presence that spurs us to walk the extra mile, to retain the idea of public interest in whatever we write, shoot, or illustrate, and to be a site for informed dialogue. They inevitably tell us the ultimate journalistic credo: to be present at the site of action at the right time, and be alive to capture the fleeting moments that transform our lives. They are not about dialling for quotes or quick sound bites. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality”.
Patrick Eagar, then chief photographer of Wisden , in an evaluation of cricket photography of the twentieth century, identified one outstanding image for every decade starting with Victor Trumper leaping out to drive, to the fielding of Jonty Rhodes. Eagar had two possibles on the shortlist for the final decade: “One, taken during the 1992 World Cup by Indian photographer V.V. Krishnan, is simply stunning: Jonty running out Inzamam in South Africa’s match against Pakistan at Brisbane. Unfortunately, The Hindu , the newspaper which owns the copyright, has exceptionally strict rules regarding the publication of its work elsewhere; so I can only commend this photo to anyone who is lucky enough to have the relevant back issue of The Hindu .”
Looking at some of the striking photographs taken by The Hindu photographers over the last century, I think it would be worthwhile idea to have a photographic exhibition during the next Lit for Life festival.