The frame still matters
With millions of images passing by our eyes, what makes us linger on one? It is the patterns formed by shapes and ideas
Standing in waist-deep water, a man clutched a small Turkish boat as he guided it towards the shores of Lesbos, a Greek island. The boat was crammed with dozens of migrants preparing to set foot on yet another different land. There were boys and girls, and men and women, the old and hopeful, and the young and eager. They had shawls, jackets and the occasional bag. The boat swayed under the pull of two men in the water and the weight of everyone on board. Gripping the rail, a bare-bodied boy stretched his hand out to either throw or catch a jacket.
The hills, sea and sky were painted in hues of grey in this photograph by Sergey Ponomarev that appeared in The New York Times on 16 November. In the centre of the frame, one man crouched near the bow and raised his eyes to look up. His forehead was wrinkled; his lips, parted.
“Why look at any particular image when they are literally everywhere?” asked the artist, Trevor Paglen, in a blog post that was part of a 2014 series curated by the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland.
A fair question. There are thousands of images in the photojournalism space. Images being everywhere also mean that the eye has to work harder to find something to linger on. As Susan Sontag said, “It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph—only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones.”
Photo-reporting became widespread about a hundred years ago with the first portable 35mm cameras. Since then, the business of visual testimony has witnessed waves of change in technique, technology and intent. But the fundamentals don’t change much. Whether the selection is done by the eye, in the darkroom or on Lightroom, images play with composition: what the story is about and how it’s told. And often, the ones that we find arresting tend to unveil patterns, both in the arrangement of objects as well as in the broader issues the images focus on.
Ponomarev’s image is one in the larger story around migration. “#Migrants arrive by Turkish smuggler boat to #Lesbos island #Greece,” reads the caption on Ponomarev’s Instagram feed. It’s not the only image that he took of migrants arriving by boat there. His Instagram feed shows many others, some that were published in media outlets and some that are only on his personal site. Each is a powerful testimony to the crisis.
But there is something about the interplay of patterns exposed in the 16 November image that ensures it lingers. This is not just about the geometry of an image, but also about the pattern of stories within the image. There is the stuff we see—the tilt of the boat against the horizontal landscape, the arcs traced by the postures of the migrants on the boat, the central focus on the man who stares back at the camera. And then there is the stuff that we don’t see but sense. The migrants all come from separate pasts and will continue towards uncertain and separate futures. Each of them carries individual stories of disorder. But here, they share the same moment in history. In the photograph, they appear to speak in unison of the pattern of dispossession that brought them together.
Even as we scroll past numerous #migrants images on Instagram, the interplay on the 16 November image lingers. What we ruminate over is the arc of dozens of stories of people uprooted by the patterns of politics and unified by circumstance. The photograph starts to speak not just for the migrants on the boat, but also for others from a different era who have suffered a similar plight.
There is another reason why pattern-pointing through this ensemble of grains or pixels is key. Photojournalism’s truth-telling is a murky business to be in. Almost every aspect of an image can be changed. Cameras and software can tweak the contrast, brightness, colour and edges of the frame. Excessive post-processing has become such a big problem that the organizers of the 2015 World Press Photo contest disqualified about 20% of the images that reached the second-last round of judging.
But despite all the manipulations possible, the one thing that still remains untouched most of the time is the arrangement of content. What’s in the frame and where it is situated in the frame are decisions made before actually taking the photo. In that sense, there is a certain fatalism to it. Once the click happens, there’s a lot you can do with the photograph, but you can’t really mess around with its arrangement. Of course, photographs can be directed or staged, and yes, such staging can speak as much of truths. But that’s not the space where photojournalism operates.
Photography itself is expressed differently by different cultures. In English, French, Spanish and a host of other languages, we usually take photos. But in German, Romanian and Polish, we tend to make photos. Pull or extract is the dominant verb for photography in Hindi and Marathi. But in no language do we say what is perhaps closest to the conceit of documentary—that the world is a collection of objects waiting to be found by the photographer. Photojournalism is often about finding and pointing. And one of the elements that makes the found story a keeper is the patterns in the composition.
Take another famous scene. On 5 June 1989, a long line of Chinese military tanks snaked past Tiananmen Square, the day after the military’s massive crackdown on student protesters. Then, an anonymous man in a white shirt and dark trousers walked out and blocked the tanks. He held two plastic bags. The most common memory of this scene is a photograph with a background of diagonal lines marking lane divisions on the road. The eye follows tank after tank along these parallel lines. Then, the tiny “Tank man” comes into the vision, juxtaposed against military might to break the pattern, both in a literal and metaphoric sense. This was the frame captured by at least four photographers, including Jeff Widener for Associated Press; he was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for the image.
The image’s composition has a Zen-like quality to it, forcing us to contemplate the stories we see, and to imagine other stories around the frame. It’s the feeling we get in Ponomarev’s migrant boat image; in Helen Levitt’s remarkable window into the minds of people gathered on a New York street in the 1940s; in Vivian Maier’s photograph of shoe-shining and race relations in 1950s’ New York; in Steve McCurry’s 1991 Gulf War frame of camels searching for a way out against the backdrop of Kuwait’s burning oil fields; in Todd Heisler’s unforgettable image of a soldier’s coffin being unloaded off a plane’s undercarriage as passengers look out at the family waiting on the tarmac; and in John Stanmeyer’s silhouettes of African migrants along the shore of Djibouti City, holding up their illuminated cellphones as they tried to latch on to a wireless signal.
The images start with the patterns we see in their composition. These patterns draw us in to the unfolding of life. And once they draw us in, we sense the story concealed by them. These frames take us from the seen to the unseen. Each is an example of an image “whose content so radiates outward from it”, to use the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Over time, they become timeless symbols of an idea—dissent, dispossession, street dynamics, race relations, collateral damage, desire for human connection.
Ultimately, what the meditative image achieves is a mastery of stillness. It confronts our cramped minds and carves a space for itself. Staring at stillness, we have no choice but to pause and look inward.
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