At its best, photojournalism is a compassionate act of witness. Photojournalists have brought us close to great world events and allowed us to share the joys and tragedies of ordinary people. In the United States the art's golden age seemed to die with the closing of Look in 1971 and the weekly LIFE in 1972. Television was bringing visual news, with greater speed, to more homes than any magazine. Yet as the markets for serious photojournalism shrank, the number of young people involved in it showed no signs of diminishing. In fact, an altogether new breed has emerged, producing different work in a different way. Instead of waiting for magazine assignments, they choose projects they care deeply about, funding them with grants from charitable organizations or squeezing them between commercial jobs such as corporate annual reports. Their narrative style is different too. Instead of telling a tale with a beginning, middle and end, they offer a collection of facets, weaving a complex tapestry of visual information that demands a high level of participation from the viewer. The work presented here is an incomplete sampling of some of the best of today's photojournalists. They--and many others--are important because they keep us on our toes. They remind us of injustices we would rather forget and of achievements we might have overlooked. We are more complete because of their passionate watch on the world.
"My work has no theme," says Josef Koudelka, a Czech who won world attention--and the Robert Capa prize for courage--for his coverage of the 1968 Soviet invasion. "I don't care if my photographs get published, and I have no interest in 'the news.’But the invasion of Prague was not news, it was my life." Koudelka, 50, now lives in Paris and considers himself stateless. Trained as an engineer, he is known for his series on Gypsies and for scenes of everyday life, like this 1968 picture of a student in an angel costume on his way to a festival in the Czech town of Olomouc. "I don't like captions," he says. "I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories."
"There's something very touching to me about the innocence of those girls, the freshly pressed holiday dresses, brightly colored like butterflies," says James Nachtwey of this photograph, made in El Salvador in 1984 as he traveled with an army unit. "It's a lyrical moment in a brutal situation. The helicopter is carrying out wounded soldiers, and the girls had to hide behind a tree and shield their eyes from the dust." Nachtwey, 40, became a news photographer after teaching himself to use a camera in 1972. He joined the Albuquerque Journal and then free-lanced. "I've tried to deal with the nature of war in its broader aspects, not just violence, but what war does to people."
On assignment for a book, A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, Mary Ellen Mark visited the Kiev Special School for Blind Children #5 in 1987 and photographed students making daisy chains in the yard. "It was an incredibly beautiful place," she says. "Very spiritual, very poetic. I didn't think of it as tragic at all." Graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in art history and painting, Mark, 48, went on to get a masters degree in photojournalism. She has specialized in stories about people on the margins of society--prostitutes, the homeless, the mentally ill. “When they allow you into the secret corners of their lives, they give you something you can never repay.
"There is something about the rawness of the so-called third world that excites me and intrigues and disturbs me," says Alex Webb, 36, explaining the allure that Haiti holds for him. Webb shot this street scene--he calls it an "epiphanic moment"--in the remote village of Bombardopolis in 1986. A photographer since prep school days, he began his professional career in 1974, fresh out of Harvard. "Traditional photojournalists arrive with an idea of what they are going to produce or what the editor wants. I approach a subject very much as a street photographer and a wanderer, without preconceptions. I try to leave it extremely intuitive and exploratory."
For 13 years Franco Zecchini, 35, and Letizia Battaglia, 53, have photographed the Mafia and its bitter toll. An example: the grief of the victim's son after a murder outside a Sicilian village in 1980. The photographers live in an apartment in Palermo that also serves as the office of their picture agency. "I would like to cancel out the Mafia," Battaglia says, explaining the team's zeal. "I wasn't fascinated by it--I always detested the violence." Their mission has brought threats, insults, anonymous letters, broken cameras. But, Battaglia insists, "a camera can be a kind of heart. All of my energy is born from the great anger I built up with this camera in my hand."
It took three weeks of shooting before Sebastião Salgado, 44, felt he had covered this open-pit gold mine in Brazil in 1986. "And it's not a big place," says Salgado, a Brazilian himself. He was at the mine working on a self-assigned, ongoing story about what he feels is a vanishing species: the men and women who perform the world's manual labor. "If you are a photojournalist," he says, "you do a story. You are alone. You have time to understand what is happening. I'm there from morning to night. I have a good relationship with the people; if they don't want to be photographed, I don't. Television has to push. They come with a prepared scenario. When you go with lights, cameras, four or five other people, you change the environment you're working in--things don't happen as they normally do." As well as changing the situation that is being covered, television also has altered the ways society looks at the world, Salgado believes. His brand of commitment can shake up those perceptions, he hopes, and make audiences pause for a closer look because of his "brutally different point of view." Salgado says, "This project is an affair of the heart. I come from a poor country, where you have to fight for everything. Perhaps that's why my photos are almost militant. What interests me is something basic and human--the struggle for dignity."
"Television," says Gilles Peress, "makes me feel sick of the world--and forces me to go find what's really happening." One place Peress, 41, has gone is Roden Street, an axis of misery in West Belfast where in 1974 the families along one end were Catholic while their neighbors at the other were Protestant. Inside one of the Protestant homes, Peress photographed a mother striking her daughter. Peress resists discussing why he shot the photo, insisting his images speak for themselves--as this one indeed does, suggesting the tensions outside have seeped indoors. Born and educated in France, Peress says, "I'm fascinated by borders, conflicts, cultures that rub against each other."
A woman who dropped to the floor during a faith healing service in a municipal auditorium in Worcester, Mass., is comforted by a child in this 1987 photo by Jeff Jacobson. The New Yorker, 42, is a former civil liberties lawyer who now makes political statements by photographing events that represent "the unconscious attitudes of Americans, as opposed to the official, conscious attitudes." He observes, "Supposedly this woman was swooning with bliss, but there's a lot of fear in the photo. I'm interested in picking up on the undercurrents. Photographic objectivity is nonsense. Every photographer makes a decision each time he decides where to point his camera."
During the summer of l967 Raghubir Singh photographed these women drenched by the first drops of the monsoon as they readied their wheat fields for planting near the town of Monghyr in eastern India. Singh, 45, has been documenting life along the sacred Ganges river for more than two decades. "In India, there's more to monsoons than rains and floods," he says. "It's a whole way of life. A good monsoon means a good harvest; no monsoon means famine. But I wasn't thinking about any of this when I took the picture. You shouldn't have to think. Photography is a form of communion that lasts for just a split second. Something grabs you, then you grab it."