Four photographers talk about picture making and social strife‑from Australia to the West Bank.
October 1988
Carol Squiers
Art Director: Mark Gartland

Contemporary photojournalism is caught in a paradoxical bind, enjoying both great vitality and profound constriction. In the last few years the field has been enlarged by new photographers and new picture agencies, with an increasing number of magazines demanding photographic material. But despite its growth, photojournalism is being wrenched between the unhappy extremes of sensationalism and editorial illustration.

Because of magazine space limitations, only one or two pictures are usually used to tell a story, and only the most predictable pictures win out -skewing any notion of pictorial subtlety or comprehensiveness. Because editorial concept is privileged over photographic vision, many pictures end up merely supporting a text.

For a number of photographers, the solution to this predicament is to pursue their own notion of photojournalism with a single‑minded resolve. For some, such as Gilles Peress, that means concentrating on one story ‑Northern Ireland‑ over a long period of time. Others, such as Mary Ellen Mark, develop an overarching vision that shapes whatever subject they look at ‑be it prostitutes in India or ethnic groups in Australia. In J.B. Diederich's case, his intimate knowledge of Latin America gives his pictures from that part of the world an unusual depth. Conversely, James Nachtwey brings a unique personal depth and gravity to a wide‑ranging variety of subjects.

American Photographer asked these four photographers to discuss their recent photographic journeys‑how they get their photos, why they make them, and what the world looks like to them today.




Portrait by Martin Bell

In light of Mary Ellen Mark's preference for harrowing subjects, a National Geographic assignment to photograph Australia's ethnic groups seems tame and out of character. Not so, she says: "I found fascinating situations there. Australia has a kind of innocence to it that is really touching. But I also encountered people who were in extreme situations, people who were on the edge."


Mark shot this assignment in black and white in both 35mm and 2 1/4 formats. "For me the 2 1/4 is a portrait medium ‑and I love portraits. The 35mm is the camera you catch things with as they happen." In a 35mm, documentary vein, Mark took a casual group shot of a woman with children (above) in Redfern, an aboriginal district in Sydney. "It was not easy getting access," Mark remembers. "It can be a very tough area." In contrast are the children in fancy dress (below) at an Italian debutante ball. A more formal picture (right) shows a Turkish woman and her two nieces posing with great dignity‑despite their fuzzy headgear‑with the Sydney Opera House in the background. "I'm not looking for anything specific," asserts Mark. "I'll see something and then it just becomes something that works for me."