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Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1933 image of children playing amid ruins in Seville, Spain. Photo: AFP
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1933 image of children playing amid ruins in Seville, Spain. Photo: AFP

The end of the art

In Afghanistan with the first digital SLR camera, and finding the 'decisive moment'

My experience with photography goes back to the time when it was both art and craft.

More about the art bit later but the craft bit was turning the composition into a print. Newsrooms that journalists worked in were incomplete without a “darkroom" where the newspaper’s photographers (and, unusually, because reporters tend to be secretive, photographers from rival newspapers) gathered.

Here, these alchemists would fuss over their trays and fumes and smells and mysterious chemicals like silver nitrate, turning their day’s work into gold.

Around 16 years ago, the newspaper I was then editing got its first digital camera. This was the Nikon D1, the first digital SLR camera. “SLR" was a fancy term explaining the fact that one could view through the lens (and not a viewfinder), and so get an exact idea of what the composition was.

The D1 was large, made enormous by a battery case at its bottom, and it looked the business. Each cost more than 4 lakh and we bought four of them. This was a serious investment for the time, but it would mean that the recurring expenses of the “darkroom" would end.

It was one of these cameras that I carried on assignment to Afghanistan in October 2001. The one camera I had handled before that was a Minolta Pocket Autopak, bought by my father around 1979 or so. This was an unusual pencil box shaped unit with a small integrated flash that snapped out from the side.

In having our own camera, we were not rare but certainly we were unusual.

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that “photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing". Which meant, she explained, that “like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art". So how was it practised? She thought it was as “mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power".

In our house it wasn’t really practised at all. The Minolta used cartridge film, which was far too expensive for us to purchase with any regularity. And so it was essentially kept locked up and in its box (to be smugly shown to relatives who would gasp when the empty thing was fired up and the flash deployed).

With the much grander D1, I made my way to Afghanistan, going through Uzbekistan (the unending, gently undulating steppe makes it easy to imagine 300,000 horses thundering across it), staying at Tashkent and then flying over to Tajikistan, staying at Dushanbe.

I photographed as I travelled and filed pieces that reflected my interests in history and culture rather than the story at hand, which was of course the post-9/11 war. This was fine and reporters call this “colour copy", which they are allowed to indulge in when travelling on assignment.

To make a long story short-ish, I totalled the camera in due course. Once in Afghanistan, we were crossing a fast-flowing river on horseback. On the other side, a Taliban position was being bombed by American jets visible only by the streaks they were leaving in the thin air above.

Enormous, six-storey walls of powdered rock were being raised by the explosions a few hundred metres away and I knew immediately that they would make terrific photos. I hurried on.

I was with a little boy of about 10 who owned (or at least managed) the beast. We entered the water at an angle that was not perpendicular, because of the swiftness of the flow.

This, the eyes looking at water flowing right to left, and the body moving at an angle, produced a strange sensation that is difficult to describe but dizzied me. In slow motion, I toppled off the saddle, unable to correct my orientation. The boy came down screaming with me and I held on to him, letting the camera go. There ended my war photography, but I was at that time often in the presence of some exceptional men.

These were freelance photographers from the UK, rough and scruffy but very good at their work. Their equipment was battered and bits were held together by tape. They always seemed most eager to go where it was most dangerous and they thought nothing of throwing themselves in the middle of it with their cameras on their faces.

This fearless style has often claimed lives, most famously of Robert Capa in Vietnam.

The in-your-face style was the opposite of what the world’s most famous photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Capa’s partner and fellow founder of the agency Magnum, might do. He was so discreet that he stuck bits of masking tape on the metallic bits of his Leica so that he would not be noticed. He waited to shoot what he called the “decisive moment". For him photography was “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression."

That is very well put. Does it still apply today? Probably not. In a time when there are a billion cameras in the world (on mobile phones), hundreds on every street and all of them ready to shoot, I do not think the idea of the “decisive moment" applies.

It is far more likely to be captured by luck as by expertise, given the millions of shots by untrained photographers every hour (I suspect that some, if not most, of the magical images shot by ordinary users that Apple publishes to show the iPhone camera’s extraordinary qualities were captured by luck).

The entry of the camera transformed the art of the painter. He could no longer merely reproduce exact representations of landscapes and portraits, but had to interpret. The entry of the mobile phone has, I think, also effectively ended the art of the photographer. We have all become accidental artists and I do not think this century will produce a photographer as famous as Cartier-Bresson.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @aakar_amnesty.

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